ALIENS (1986)

  • Director: James Cameron
  • Writers: Screenplay by James Cameron, Story by James Cameron, David Giler, and James Hill, based on characters by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
  • Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Mark Rolston, Ricco Ross, Al Matthews, and William Hope
  • Accolades: 2 Oscars (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects Editing), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actress – Sigourney Weaver, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

A limited number of sequels are considered at least as good as the original movies they were based on. However, most sequels, good or bad, deliver what the audience expects based on watching the original film, by doing things in a very similar way. That’s why they’ve taken over Hollywood over the past few decades, because people would rather spend their hard earned money (and spend their limited time) with a known quantity rather than taking a chance. The thing is, Aliens shares Sigourney Weaver and the basic design of its monsters with its parent movie, and that’s kind of it. The original is an ultra-tense and effective thriller with this operatic sense of dread. It’s in space, sure, but it’s 100% a horror movie. Aliens is a bombastic 80s action movie with space marines wildly shooting the monsters left and right. For Alien, the tagline was “in space, no one will hear you scream,” in Aliens I found myself wondering why they were wearing camouflage when there’s no one to see them in space. They are both very good movies, for completely different reasons.

The story goes that James Cameron didn’t have any ideas going into his pitch meeting for Aliens, so he just wrote “alien” on a white board, then added an “s,” then put a line through the “s” to make it a dollar sign. He was an unknown at the time, but Fox hired him to write the movie anyway, despite the fact that his only project up to that time was Pirahna II: The Spawning. But then The Terminator came out, and Fox acceded to his demands to both write and direct Aliens. For reasons that are unclear, there was never a question of involving Alien director Ridley Scott. It is easy to see in Aliens the genesis of numerous future Cameron tropes. In particular, its space marines and big mechanized exo-suits feel extremely similar to Cameron’s future megahit, Avatar.

Aliens seems to start exactly where the prior movie ended, with Ripley (Weaver) and her cat in cryosleep in an escape pod. Then salvagers find them and Ripley is brought to Earth, where it turns out she has been asleep for 57 years and no one believes her story about the unkillable alien with acid for blood. Then she’s asked to return to the planet where her crew found the Alien in the first place, where a colony sent to terraform the planet has stopped answering their interplanetary cell phone. Ripley is sent as a “consultant” to a very gung ho group of marines, accompanied by Paul Reiser as a seemingly-friendly representative of “the Company.” They arrive to find everyone dead and the place overrun with the aliens, and, um, things mostly get worse from there. The last hour or so of the movie is really just one long action sequence, and how you feel about that will probably determine your feelings about the movie. I found that a surprising number of critics (including, for example, Gene Siskel) felt that it was kind of too much. I doubt you’d see nearly the same numbers today.

I think the impact Aliens had at the time, including Sigourney Weaver in a very complex performance that eventually becomes a straight-up action heroine, is hard to replicate today, where the idea of an action movie led by a woman is hopefully at least a little less revolutionary. In fact, Weaver’s performance is basically the entire reason this movie works. Most of the marines are really far over the top, most memorably Bill Paxton’s very panicky marine who runs around yelling things like, “Game over, man!” but survives for a surprisingly long time. Paxton has had a long career, but just as memorable in this movie is Jenette Goldstein as the super-tough Vasquez. What I would never actually guess from watching this movie is that Goldstein actually had blond hair and blue eyes, responded to an ad requesting “real Americans” at a casting call in London, and played the whole movie in what is basically brown face. Apparently she had no idea what the movie was about and guessed from the title it was about immigration, so she showed up to the audition in a dress and heels. She’s actually great in this, though I did find a couple of weird jokes about Vasquez being an illegal immigrant kind of strange. Are we still worrying about the Mexican border hundreds of years in the future?

Besides Ripley, however, the movie’s most memorable character is Burke, played by Paul Reiser. At first, he seems nice enough, if a representative of a giant, faceless corporation. But gradually over the course of the movie he turns out to be entirely motivated by profit, without any moral compass, and seems a bit confused that other people get mad at him for it. The movies are full of cackling corporate malevolence, but relatively few seem to actually understand the relationships between actual humans and actual corporations. The aliens are like a bunch of angry bears, but Reiser’s character is a real monster.

If Aliens fails in any capacity, it’s that it depowers the aliens themselves to a degree that they are relatively unthreatening. There are enough of them to sustain a long series of action sequences, but a few shots from a machine gun seem to kill them well enough, a far cry from the unstoppable killing machine of the first film. It is spectacle over substance, though there is enough of a spectacle that the whole movie still world very, very well. Late in the movie, it introduces the Alien Queen (a design that would basically be ripped off for Independence Day, among other modern films), who Ripley has to fight to save the lone survivor little girl, Newt (Carrie Henn) (“Get away from her, you bitch!”). Before that, though, there’s a very weird bit where the Alien Queen rides an elevator to come and kill everyone. The movie seems to think the fact that aliens have figured out how to ride on elevators is scary or something, but it is mostly just deeply, deeply goofy.

I could write for days about all of the thought and artistry that went into Alien, but its sequel works best when not thought about particularly hard. I don’t really mean that as an insult, though. Sometimes you just want space marines to fight aliens with big machine guns and for Ripley to yell at the big alien while wearing an exosuit. I am mostly just astonished that they are both really good movies, without being remotely similar at all.

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