Aliens (United States, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Aliens Poster

Perhaps the best single word to describe James Cameron's Aliens is relentless. Tautly paced and expertly directed, this roller coaster ride of a motion picture offers a little bit of everything, all wrapped up in a tidy science fiction/action package. From the point when the opening half-hour of exposition ends and the real movie begins, Cameron barely gives viewers a chance to catch their breaths or ease their grips on their armrests as he plunges his characters from one dire situation to the next. This is one of those rare motion pictures that involves the audience so completely in the story that we're as worn out at the end as our on-screen counterparts.

From the moment it became apparent that Ridley Scott's 1979 science fiction/horror film, Alien, was going to be a success, Fox began discussing the possibility of a sequel. For many years, the proposed Alien 2 languished on the back burner, lacking both a viable script and a director. Then, in 1984, a little-known filmmaker named James Cameron thundered onto the scene with a no-frills, gripping movie called The Terminator. The film's box office success gave Cameron some clout in Hollywood, allowing him to get a hearing when he pitched his version of an Alien sequel. Fox liked what he proposed and the project was greenlighted. (Consider how things have changed in 15 years - now, sequels are routinely given the go-ahead before there's a script or even an underlying premise.) Seven years after Alien reached screens, its belated, much-anticipated follow-up exploded into movie theaters, leaving patrons breathless and coming back for seconds and re-affirming that it is possible for a sequel to top an original both creatively and financially.

Aliens takes place a half-century after the events in Alien. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role as the lone survivor from the first outing) has been in cryogenic sleep in outer space, accompanied only by her loyal cat, Jones, until a salvage ship discovers her and brings her back to Earth. There, she finds herself facing serious charges of official misconduct (she was responsible, after all, for the destruction of a space ship) and her claims about the alien are greeted with skepticism. She is stripped of her pilot's license and left to cope on her own with life in the future - a future without her daughter, who recently died of old age. Then, all contact is suddenly lost with the terraforming colony on LV-426 - the planet on which Ripley's crew discovered the alien. A corporation executive, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), approaches Ripley with a proposition: accompany a military team to LV-426 as an advisor and have her pilot's license restored. She concurs, but with a proviso: they are going there to destroy the aliens, not to harvest them or bring them back. Burke agrees.

Ripley's new companions are a tough-talking, hard-bitten bunch: Ground Troop Commander Apone (Al Williams), wisecracking Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), somber Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), unflappable Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), quiet android Bishop (Lance Henricksen), and several others (none of whom last long). Only Gorman (William Hope), the squadron commander, is cut from a different cloth - he's by-the-book and does not react well to unexpected developments, especially in combat. Of course, when faced with the plethora of aliens on LV-426, the others don't know what to do either, as the insect-like creatures decimate their ranks and trap them in an abandoned operations center. There, they encounter Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who is the only survivor of the aliens' attack on the colony. Ripley takes the child under her protection, but Newt is unconvinced that a small group of armed soldiers will be able to stop the ever-growing army of aliens. Soon, they are fighting the clock as well as the creatures, as the plant's nuclear reactor starts on a countdown to going critical.

If Aliens was no more than a series of suspenseful, effectively executed action sequences, it would still be a superior motion picture - Cameron's grasp of what gives an audience a jolt of adrenaline is that masterful. However, the element that elevates Aliens into the sparsely populated stratosphere of great science fiction movies is character identification. We care about what happens to the men and women populating this film. Even the supporting characters, such as Hudson and Vasquez, have personalities - they're not cookie-cutter fodder for the aliens to pick off one-by-one. I'm not talking about complex characterizations here, but the likability factor (or, in one case, the detestability factor) is way up. It doesn't take long for us to land on Ripley's side and to start cheering her on.

The most touching human relationship in Aliens is the one between Ripley and Newt, with the childless woman caring for the motherless girl. The emotional payoff comes at the very end, and has less to do with the aliens' defeat than with the bond that has developed between these two characters. Many action films lack a heart; the Ripley/Newt element makes Aliens more than just a tightly-paced shoot-'em-up. And, when Newt is kidnapped by the aliens as a potential host for one of the aliens' face-hugger offspring, it raises the stakes by a notch, adding an additional layer of urgency to an already intense climax. Furthermore, Cameron has some more fun by contrasting Ripley's maternal relationship with Newt to that of the Queen alien and her "children", all of which Ripley is trying to destroy. The final struggle becomes that of two mothers pitted against one other.

In Alien, we learned virtually nothing about the creatures beyond the essentials of their life cycle: they hatch from an egg, use a paralyzed human as a host for gestation, then emerge, exploding from the host's chest, to grow into a monstrous entity. Aliens gives us a clearer picture of the aliens' "society" - they function as an insect colony, with soldiers and an egg-laying queen. Indeed, Cameron is careful to pattern everything about the aliens on the kinds of behavior one might expect deep within a beehive or underneath an ant hill, except that the aliens have far more intelligence and cunning than the average insect. These creatures have brains as well as instincts. They learn and adapt, and understand rudimentary forms of communication (such as what Ripley means when she points the business end of a flame thrower in the direction of several dozen eggs). The queen can even work an elevator.

From the time the marines land on LV-426, Aliens features one standout action scene after another: the troops' failed first attack and Ripley's timely rescue; Ripley and Newt's struggle against the face-huggers in the sound-proofed laboratory; the fight to keep the aliens out of the barricaded structure (in which motion detectors are used to heighten the tension); the flight through the corridors and Newt's capture; Ripley's return to save Newt and do battle with the queen; and the unexpected "second ending." There are little breaks here and there to diffuse tension and allow for character development and relationship building, but these are not merely throw-away moments and they don't last long. In one such instance, Hicks teaches Ripley how to use weapons (in a scene that has obvious sexual overtones). In another, the marines discuss the most fitting punishment for the betrayer in their midst.

In addition to being a master of the precisely executed action sequence, Cameron develops a powerful, claustrophobic sense of atmosphere. Whether it's during the chaotic action sequences within the aliens' hive, on the inhospitable surface of LV-426, or behind the steel barricades within the colony, Cameron never fails to establish a mood and tone. For the marines, it's a dirty, sweaty business, and we're as aware of the heat as we are of the danger. The director chooses his camera shots carefully to elevate the level of excitement without completely disorienting the viewer. The film's editing requires a lot of quick cuts, but Aliens never adopts the MTV-style that has become the stock-and-trade of so many recent action/thriller directors. And, while Cameron throws plenty of aliens onto the screen, he never gives us the opportunity to closely scrutinize them (at least until the queen rears her ugly head). He keeps them moving and in the shadows so that they retain their menace. In Jaws, Steven Spielberg hid the shark away from the camera because of special effects limitations; here, Cameron's decision is based solely on the idea that seeing less is more frightening. The creepiest scenes in Aliens are not those of the creatures scuttling down corridors but of them slowly uncoiling from the walls in near-darkness when the marines first encounter them. We catch glimpses of their scaly flesh but see nothing clearly.

Ridley Scott developed Alien as a horror film - a "haunted house in space." Cameron's approach is different. Aliens is a fairly straightforward action/adventure picture. The horror elements are still there (most notably in an early dream sequence and during the scene when the marines encounter the cocooned colonists), but their impact is diminished. Nevertheless, even though he changes the tone, Cameron remains faithful to the original (something that cannot be said about the later two installments of the Alien quartet). From plot points to visual cues, it is apparent that Cameron made a careful study of the first film before embarking upon the sequel. The aliens, based on the design by H.R. Giger, possess virtually the same grotesque look (shiny black skin, prehensile tail, row upon row of sharp teeth). The space ships, rendered using "old fashioned" special effects (i.e., model work, not computer generated), have the same workmanlike appearance - starfaring behemoths built to be functional, not aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it should be noted that, although the fx work in Aliens may not be state-of-the-art by today's standards, it still holds up reasonably well.

Two versions of Aliens exist. The first is the theatrical cut, a 137 minute edition that Fox released in movie houses across North America during the summer of 1986. With a running time of 154 minutes, the second is James Cameron's official director's cut, which includes a number of intriguing scenes, including a lengthy sequence on LV-426 detailing events that lead to the colonists' obliteration. Although the additional material is spread throughout the film, the most telling moments occur early (including a key scene indicating how devastated Ripley is about the loss of her daughter), thus not damaging Aliens' overall momentum. Given a choice, the restored director's cut is the preferred version. (In fact, it may now be the only version available on home video, unless you frequent a video store stocking older tapes.)

The only returning member of the cast from the original Alien is Sigourney Weaver. Here, she's even tougher than in the first film - a psychologically distressed woman who goes to war against the creatures that would destroy her surrogate daughter. In the process, Weaver became one of the first buff female action heroines - a prototype for the few who have appeared on the scene in the 15 years since then (including Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, another Cameron film, and Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight). She's every bit as imposing as a Schwarzenegger or Stallone, and seems entirely comfortable in this sort of role. In fact, Weaver is far more effective in the action sequences than in the dramatic ones, where her approach is uncertain. During one early scene, when she confronts the Corporation board seeking to revoke her pilot's license, Weaver's performance is cringingly bad. (To be fair, her dramatic scenes with Carrie Henn, who plays Newt, are more natural.) Weaver has always been at her best in action and comedy situations, and most of Cameron's script plays to the former strength (certainly not the latter - comedic moments in Aliens are rare, and mostly relegated to Bill Paxton).

The supporting cast features several Cameron "regulars". These include Michael Biehn as the stolid, reliable grunt, Hicks. Biehn's other Cameron credits are The Terminator, T2 (where he had a cameo that was cut from the theatrical release but restored in the special edition), and The Abyss. Bill Paxton (The Terminator, True Lies, Titanic) gives the most entertaining performance as Hudson, who has all the best lines and provides nearly 100% of the film's slim comic relief. Lance Henriksen (Piranha II, The Terminator), a veteran of numerous science fiction and horror films, does a good job playing up the ambiguity of Bishop's android nature - is he trustworthy or not? The question isn't answered until late in the film, and, at least on the first viewing, represents one of Aliens' more intriguing subplots. Stand-up comedian Paul Reiser, making his first (and, at least to date, only) appearance for Cameron, is convincing as a total slimeball. Those who sympathized with his likable character in Mad About You will be surprised how easy it is to hate Reiser here.

For James Cameron, who would go on to direct two of the 1990s most memorable motion pictures (the action-packed Terminator 2 and the all-time box office champion, Titanic), The Terminator may have been the movie to put him on the map, but Aliens announced him as a force to be reckoned with. For fans of the Alien series, Aliens represented an unqualified triumph, exceeding the expectations of the most optimistic faithful. (Unfortunately, the lamentable Alien 3 stalled the series' momentum, effectively trashing the emotional core of its predecessor while sending the franchise into a creative free-fall.) When it comes to the logical marriage of action, adventure, and science fiction, few films are as effective or accomplished as Aliens, and there's nothing on the market (either in theaters or on video store shelves) that will leave you as thoroughly exhausted.

Aliens (United States, 1986)

Ranked #45 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:17
U.S. Release Date: 1986-07-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1