CINEMA CLASSICS: Aliens (1986)

With Alien: Covenant on the way, Oscar revisits James Cameron’s guns-blazing sequel.

Who made it?: James Cameron (Director/Writer), Gale Ann Hurd (Producer), 20th Century Fox.

Who’s in it?: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton.

Tagline: “This Time It’s War!”

IMDb rating: 8.4/10 (Top 250 #65).

As fitting from James Cameron’s film library, Aliens is to Alien what Terminator 2: Judgment Day is to The Terminator, even down to transitioning from sci-fi horror to sci-fi action. Despite this genre shift, I find the emphasis on terror and suspense over gore and shock value more preferable, because the emotional range isn’t just fear but also excitement and humour. It might be a bit more accessible, but the suspenseful heart of the first film isn’t compromised. For this review, I will look at the longer “Special Edition”, as it is Cameron’s preferred version.

For fifty-seven years, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) drifted through deep space in the USCSS Nostromo’s escape shuttle before being retrieved by a salvage team. She is debriefed by her employers at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation over the destruction of the Nostromo, and are dismissive of her claims that an alien killed the ship’s crew and forced her to destroy the vessel, revoking her flight license. Suffering constant nightmares with her career in ruins, and grieved by the loss of her daughter, Ripley’s life is all but over.

On LV-426, now home to the terraforming colony Hadleys Hope, a travelling family come across the alien ship discovered by the crew of the Nostromo. When contact is lost, Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and Colonial Marine Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) ask Ripley to join Burke and a Colonial Marine unit to investigate the disturbance as a consultant. Ripley initially refuses, but she relents and makes Burke promise to exterminate, and not study, the aliens. Aboard the spaceship USS Sulaco, she is introduced to the aforementioned Marines, including Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews), Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), Private Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), and Private Hudson (Bill Paxton). Among them is the android Bishop (Lance Henrikssen), toward whom Ripley is initially hostile following her experience with the treacherous android Ash aboard the Nostromo. They arrive at LV-426, but the Marines finds themselves overwhelmed by the horror of the “Xenomorphs” and Ripley has to come to terms with being a leader before they’re all hunted down and killed.

The acting is solid all around. Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Ripley, and it’s fully deserved in how she handles the softer, motherly moments and various badass scenes. Biehn is believably earnest as Hicks. Paxton’s Hudson is easily one of his best roles, a swaggering, sarcastic dick with more bravado than guts. Reiser does a really convincing job as the seemingly considerate and harmless Burke, effectively giving off the impression of being too nice for his own good. Having a stand-up comedian play a character nobody would suspect as a bad egg was inspired casting. Henriksen is wry and sarcastic but believably characterised as a self-aware synthetic lifeform. Matthews and Goldstein are both enjoyable badasses with comedic chemistry with the other Marines, and Hope is more of the straight man to the more eccentric Marines as the weak, inexperienced officer. Carrie Henn, despite her lack of acting experience, is remarkably well-cast as sole colony survivor Newt, nailing the look and behaviour of a traumatised child and making the intergenerational friendship with Ripley play.

The cinematography by Adrian Biddle is sublime, with sharp contrasts between darkness and intense but sparse light, ranging from fiery oranges to cold pale shafts. The added on-set lighting blends amazingly well with the background plates. Despite the film’s reputation of being frontloaded with action, Aliens is still just as rich with atmosphere as its predecessor, with a cold, steely blue palette and hard-edged surfaces. It might be an overused clichè to describe a setting as “gritty”, but here it is is a vital component to why the film works. Even the visible celluloid grain adds to the tangibility of the picture. The action is shot at fairly close quarters, holding to the claustrophobic nature of the setting and making things way more tense for the audience. Time has been kind to the miniatures and rear-projection work; they look amazing even to this day.

Another outstanding aspect of this film is the practical visual effects, because they hold up splendidly! The Powerloader exoskeleton was created by John Richardson, while the fully-articulated face-huggers and alien Queen were brought to life by Stan Winston. The epic finale between the Powerloader and the Queen was augmented by cranes, control rods and cables, with a stuntman behind the Powerloader moving the arms and legs, as well as two puppeteers operating the multiple arms of the Queen. Some scenes had miniatures of the loader and the Queen, such as when they fall into the airlock. The matte paintings are highly-detailed and still hold up well today. The miniatures maintain a consistent sense of scale, seeming large and powerful. Better still, it’s all filmed in-camera; nothing in that fight was generated in post like so much VFX in 2017.

The score by James Horner is an aggressive, angry and brutal one, being full of sharp dissonances and nerve-shredding suspense. It makes effective use of ominous horns and threatening military drums. Horner’s score is perhaps more versatile in its approach than Jerry Goldsmith’s work on the original, nailing both the horror aspects by creating a more threatening orchestral setting and being more uplifting for the rousing action cues in the finale. While I wouldn’t necessarily call this one of Horner’s most sophisticated or emotional soundtracks, it is still a feat of composition considering the limited time he had to work with. 

Aliens succeeds as a faithful follow-up to Alien, successfully expanding on the lore of Ridley Scott’s classic, never rehashing the formula. This is an example of sequel escalation done brilliantly, there are more humans, aliens, sets, weapons, vehicles, deaths, effects, and set-pieces, and yet none of it feels like gratuitous excess for its own sake. It is all a logical extension of what we saw in the first film. The behaviour of the Xenos is just as creepy and as hard to read as in the first film, making them unpredictable and intimidating enemies. 

Despite the underlying context in their characterisations, I really love the supporting cast as each of the Marines has a lot of personality and some hidden depths, making for a more entertaining dynamic than the previous crew of “truckers in space.” The tone and look of the film borrows from Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers, with the references to terms such as “bug hunt” and “the drop”, as well as the cargo-loader exoskeleton taking cues from the mech-suits featured in that story. In a way, this is a more faithful and overall better adaptation of Starship Troopers than the more satirical Paul Verhoeven film! The subtext of the Vietnam War is also present in the attitudes of the soldiers towards a technologically less-advanced faction, and is represented in the look of the ships and ground vehicles; the drop ship in particular looks like the F4 Phantom 2 and the AH1 Cobra, which were frequently deployed at the time. As such, the hubristic approach to the Marines’ expedition is in full-force, leaving them ignorant to Ripley’s advice and experience. This is something that we have sadly seen in modern military history.

Ripley’s arc has multiple layers, including coping with the loss of her daughter and colleagues, adjusting to a new time period and accepting her role as a fighter with a maternal streak. While absent in the theatrical cut, the inclusion of Ripley’s deceased child is vital to her arc, particularly with regards to her treatment of Newt. The additional scenes at Hadleys Hope give some character to the colony, as well as introducing Newt earlier on. Both of these serve a purpose in setting up the attack and getting to know Newt before the shit hits the fan. Ripley is ultimately a badass, but she’s not some thinly-written macho woman; she’s just as fragile and emotional as the rest of us. Her motherly tendencies are depicted as a strength, tempered by a headstrong attitude and determination to fight on, allowing Ripley to convincingly hold the team together. Over the course of the film, Ripley and Newt become a surrogate mother and daughter unit after being directly and indirectly affected by the aliens. Indeed, the Queen is the mirror opposite of Ripley as the mother figure of her own brood and is just as determined to ensure the survival of her own species.

There’s so much to chew on with this film. A particularly unhinging aspect of Burke is how he isn’t outwardly insane in his plans to weaponise the aliens, and could pass for a perfectly average, well-meaning guy on the street. But that also makes you think that men like him could be anyone, anywhere. This not only enhances the underlying corruption and moral horror of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, but it puts the human side of the conflict under serious scrutiny. While these ideas were introduced in Alien, the sequel furthers this to a more satisfying degree. At least the aliens do what they are born to do for the survival of their race, something that cannot be said for Burke.

Throughout this review, I have probably made it no secret that I hold this film in very high regard, perhaps marginally above Alien even. But I fully acknowledge that its iconic and influential predecessor is the reason why the sequel exists. As a guy who normally prefers Ridley Scott as a director to James Cameron, I have to hand it to him for crafting what I would readily call a superior sequel and a masterpiece of science fiction and action films.

Best Scene

Ripley: Action Hero.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Sigourney Weaver’s Best Actress Academy Award nomination for this movie was the first ever for an actress in a role in an action movie.
  • The alien nest set was kept intact after filming. It was later used as the Axis Chemicals set for Batman (1989). When the crew first entered the set, they found most of the alien nest still intact.
  • The knife trick scene was not in the original shooting script. According to Lance Henriksen, the adding of Hudson’s hand to the knife trick was discussed with almost everyone, except Bill Paxton.
  • Like most films, the movie wasn’t shot in sequence. But for added realism, James Cameron filmed the scene where we first meet the Colonial Marines (one of the earliest scenes) last. This was so that the camaraderie of the Marines was realistic because the actors had spent months filming together.
  • When filming the scene with Newt in the duct, Carrie Henn kept deliberately blowing her scene so she could slide down the vent, which she later called a slide three stories tall. Cameron finally dissuaded her by saying that if she completed the shot, she could play on it as much as she wanted. She did, and he kept his promise.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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