Aliens (1986)

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) prepares to make a big alien omelette. “Aliens.”

Directed by James Cameron. Screenplay by James Cameron; story by James Cameron, David Giler, Walter Hill; based upon characters created by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd.  Music by James Horner. Photographed by Adrian Biddle. Edited by Ray Lovejoy. Production designed by Peter Lamont. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, Al Matthews, Mark Rolston.

“A day in the marine corps is like a day on the farm. Every meal’s a banquet. Every paycheck a fortune. Every formation a parade. I love the corps!” – Apone

James Cameron’s Aliens is a skillful and effective sci-fi/horror thriller that has the boldness to declare itself a sequel to Alien, and delivers on that promise by repackaging the original’s premise of subdued, creepy body horror into an all-out combat film. Most sequels rehash the components of the original, but this one is creative enough to sidestep them, and chart new territory. It is lean, tense, well-acted, atmospheric, and hugely entertaining. Does it improve upon the original in any way? Well…certainly it outdoes the original in terms of volume—it’s louder, rougher, and overall much harder to imagine anyone walking away not feeling like they got their money’s worth. But is it better than the original? Is it even equal to the original? My two cents? No.

In terms of pacing, performances, characterizations, economical screenwriting and sheer shock surprises, Alien is a perfect horror film. Aliens, on the other hand, strives to be a war/horror film, and it falters a bit in those goals. As is symptomatic with much of James Cameron’s work, his characters are drawn vividly but with cartoonish strokes, and Cameron’s screenplay doesn’t have the poise and precision that colored the earlier film. And I honestly don’t think he delivers in the scares department, either. Aliens is a queer duck of a horror film: it consistently succeeds at being suspenseful and thrilling, and yet when the chips are down I don’t think it actually succeeds at being very scary.

Or perhaps what I’m really latching onto is that Alien, in its predilection for biology and its cool approach to all of its characters, is a deeply disturbing film. It walks the line between a terse sympathy for its heroes and a perverse fascination for the creature they bring aboard. It’s detached, so that it can step back and watch both sides of the ensuing conflict even-handedly. Aliens doesn’t have that ambition, instead lumping the aliens firmly into the “monster” category, and treating many of the secondary characters as props. The sole emotional relationship in the film comes between Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Newt (Carrie Henn), who survives unspeakable horrors and becomes, effectively, Ripley’s surrogate daughter. And while the aliens sound their own notes of motherhood (we meet the Alien Queen and see a bit of her lifecycle when we enter a mucus-filled nest), not that much is made of the requisite parallels. Alien treats its creature as an honest-to-god lifeform, but in Aliens they’re are multiplied by the hundreds and relegated to thinner, horror-villain roles.

The story picks up 57 years after the original, with Ellen Ripley, frozen in suspended animation, drifting in a lifepod through uncharted space, eventually grazing the flightpath of a salvage vessel. Her entrance back into society after half a century is glossed over in the film’s theatrical version, but is dealt with effectively in Cameron’s director’s cut, as she is given information on her daughter, now dead, and touches the photo with tangible heartbreak. Weaver is terrific here, and gives a great performance throughout the entire film – it’s no surprise she was nominated for an Oscar in 1986. (Well, actually, it is a surprise, given the academy’s demonstrably low opinion of genre films, but nevermind.)

Ripley is stripped of her license by “The Company,” in a scene that operates more on low-key nightmare logic (a melding of the original film’s dual themes of psychological horror and corporate corruption), but soon she is brought back into action when Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) informs her that they have lost contact with the planet the Nostromo found, LV-426, now a colony populated by hundreds. This coincidence, again, is remedied by Cameron’s director cut in a scene that shows a family of colonists venturing into the unknown on company orders (based on Ripley’s report), but although it makes more sense it dilutes the subjective horror of Ripley’s experience. Plus, the contrivance of that couple (who meet an unfortunate end) being Newt’s parents is way too neat.

Ripley is dispatched along with Burke and a handful of Colonial Marines in a rescue mission that, through the realities of space travel, takes weeks to reach its destination (the fatalism of which is nicely underplayed). The marines are your usual hodgepodge of war-film types: Apone (Al Matthews), the tough-talking, cigar-chomping sergeant; Vasquez (Jennette Goldstein), the ethnic badass; Hudson (Bill Paxton), the overconfident private who turns into a mewling baby when stripped of his technology; and then there’s Hicks (Michael Biehn), the gruff-but-fair corporal who is soon given a field promotion. More marines appear, but they are essentially cannon fodder. The marines are for the most part distinctly drawn, but I wouldn’t exactly call them well-written, although the former is not an easy thing to do, either. The marines, perhaps by definition, have very little in the way of internal monologue or private thoughts; after spending a minute with each of them, what you see is what you get.   The biggest offender of the thinner writing is Paxton’s Hudson, who after things go badly goes into full meltdown mode, becoming shrill and annoying.

Yes, things do go wrong on this rescue mission. The marines land in the trashed colony and find it deserted; Cameron effectively delays the payoff we’re waiting for until they venture into an energy plant teeming with cocooned humans hosting embryos while sleeping parent aliens stand guard. The team is soon half-decimated in an elaborate action scene that is suspenseful and tense, but, no, not scary. Maybe because it’s just a little contrived: a few pivotal moments hinge on the ineffectual Lt. Gorman (William Hope) and how Ripley must take command in the face of his idiocy. The movie is, after all, a vehicle for Weaver as Ripley, and so it finds itself needing to reverse-engineer all the characters into near-irrelevancy so that she can smoothly take center stage. As the marines try to figure out how to get off the planet, they mostly turn into fools so that Ripley can mastermind the whole operation. The sole marine who retains his smarts is Biehn’s Hicks, but that’s more so that he can be a viable love interest for Ripley. Note that he sits out for the climax, too. There are no alpha males in this movie.

The key theme that Cameron is working with here is burgeoning feminist strength, a thread that runs through all of his work: see Rose in Titanic, Netyri in Avatar, Sarah in Terminator 1 & 2 (the exception is Cameron’s bafflingly misogynistic True Lies, where Jamie Lee Curtis’ character is frequently humiliated for no other reason than because she is a woman and weak). Ripley, who was calm and cool when we met her in Alien, has been traumatized by her encounter, and only volunteers for the mission to purge her demons, at a safe distance. Gradually, as things go more pear-shaped, she becomes proactive and protective, and her empowerment is electrifying despite the hoops we have to go through to get there. This creates a different, more conventional balance than Alien, as all the other characters are designed to support Ripley rather than be part of an ensemble. As soon as they fulfill their purpose, they are discarded. Despite Ripley being a sympathetic and wonderful heroine, there’s a notable lack of humanity in the characters surrounding her, which is unnecessary.

Still, it is undeniably terrific to see Ripley find herself. The performance by Weaver, combined with Cameron’s direction, give lie to the notion that a woman must only acquit herself in an action picture by being an honorary boy. Ripley can certainly hold her own with the boys, of course, and there’s the common linkage on display here of empowerment through weaponry (perhaps inevitable, given the milieu). But Ripley remains feminine, in the end battling over possession of Newt with the Queen in a manner that is brutal, tough…but hardly masculine. This is a reimagination of the Ripley, character, of course (she’s practically asexual in the original movie), heavily informed by Cameron’s own desire to fetishize equipment, vehicles and weapons, but here he effectively finds a way to do that that feeds into characterization. Often he has not been so lucky.

The earlier movie also played with ideas of sexuality and corporate misconduct. This one plays a similar game, moving onto motherhood as Ripley is able to draw out the traumatized Newt, while the Alien Queen breeds thousands of soldiers. The corporate angle is not jettisoned, but it is modified to allow commentary on large entities that send smug soldiers into combat situations, where they are worn down by guerrilla tactics. The similarities to Vietnam are further underlined, in case we’re not getting it. Cameron is rarely subtle, but no matter. I like it when a genre director proves he has something more on his mind than silly entertainment, no matter how broad his message goes.

As far as humanoid villains go, the original gave us Ash (Ian Holm), who was so steely and businesslike as he carried out the company’s wishes. But he was also fascinated by the creature. “I admire it’s perfection,” he said, and he meant it, prepared to make sacrifices like a true believer devoted to science. Burke, once his true nature is revealed, doesn’t hold a candle to that meance. His plan is similarly diabolical, but he’s essentially just a big weasel who isn’t even allowed the opportunity to fully speak to his motivations before he’s quickly removed from play. It becomes a running joke in the series that “The Company” will continue to try to harvest the alien, even after numerous, bloody failures. (How many does it take to give up?) The other shadowy figure is Bishop (Lance Hennriksen), an android who gives Ripley flashbacks to poor Ash. Henriksen is one of those actors that directors love to hire; due to his good instincts and wonderful voice, he practically directs himself.

The key aspect that separates Aliens from Alien is–I’m sorry, and feel free to disagree–that it’s just not very frightening. Or if it is, it extracts scares in a safe, mass-consumption thrill ride fashion. Aliens feels like being on a roller coaster, while the original was like witnessing something that maybe you shouldn’t be seeing. It could be the way the aliens are treated, too. The original, perhaps due to budget limits, hired an acrobat as the alien and kept him shadowy and indistinct, twisted up in improbable knots and sometimes just offscreen, in the dark. The film teased you with the alien’s very existence. He was a monster of the imagination; his physicality was an afterthought. The aliens in Aliens appear often and are full-bodied, and despite their slime, scales, nasty teeth and quick reflexes, they empty out their bag of tricks a little sooner than they should. It’s not helped by occasional Mickey Mouse-style bursts of James Horner’s score (the music is fine, but the slams of trumpets and brake drum that occur every time an alien appear are overkill). Cameron also can’t resist one more crazy turn before his ride winds down, which agrees with the script’s nightmare logistics but still feels borne out of the late 80’s action film trend to end not with one climax but with two. (Nowadays we have what? Three? Four?)

Cameron’s direction is good; it simply pales in direction to Ridley Scott. Scott and his DPs are experts at manipulating light, color and shadow to create spectacular, lived-in underworlds, and Cameron doesn’t (or didn’t at the time) quite have that skill in marshaling his collaborators. The photography, by Adrian Biddle is a little grainy, sometimes a little bland, always serviceable but nothing really special. The effects work, too, lacks punch; the alien terrain and spaceship in the earlier film felt absolutely real despite the trickery. Here, we’re clearly looking at models, and when they are smashed there’s not quite enough weight. (The rear projection shots also don’t hold up very well, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker.) It’s interesting to see the differences, especially since both Scott and Cameron are noted perfectionists. Scott clearly values the look of his visuals over everything else, while Cameron is more interested in the content of said visuals.

Life would never be the same for either James Cameron or the Alien series. Cameron would go on, of course, to create some of the most financially successful films of all time (and some of them are fairly entertaining). The series, after Cameron’s departure, would find itself walking backwards ever since—while it’s nice that so much of the franchise’s tie-in material (comic books, video games, etc) stems from Aliens, it’s supreme box office success caused an unfortunate shadow. The latter films in the series (Alien³ [1992], Alien Resurrection [1997]) can both be seen as reactions to the grosses of Aliens; Alien³ is a conscious attempt to do the exact opposite of Aliens–cold, nasty, nihilistic, while Resurrection is a cynical stab at recycling the thrills and fx bonanza of Cameron’s film (at a largely reduced intelligence level). Neither of those films made a mark like Aliens did, and that’s perhaps completely understandable.

I’m not coming down too hard on Aliens, because there’s a lot of things to just plain love about it. The marines, though a little thinly characterized, are still a lot of fun. Bishop gets a lot of great moments, and Weaver is a steel-eyed, humanistic goddess. And the film, like some other 80’s action classics, is adept, especially in its last hour, of ratcheting up the action and suspense so that every moment is individually exciting, and it also saves the best stuff for last (nitpicks aside, Ripley’s final real-time descent into the alien nest is flawless action filmmaking). I like Aliens a lot. It just doesn’t quite equal the original for me. Perhaps nothing could. Good try, though, James. Very good try.

GRADE: B+

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