Aliens is an elite class follow-up
Aliens is on the short list of sequels that not only matched the quality of its predecessor, but arguably surpassed it to become one of the greatest films of its genre.
The safe move would have been to retain Alien director Ridley Scott’s traditional 1970s-style horror movie set in space, but James Cameron opts for the far riskier decision of shifting the film to a sci-fi action piece and in the process, cemented his status as an A-list director/screenwriter. This was a bold switch, but in hindsight, it was the logical next step that tremendously expanded the franchise’s appeal.
Decades after her near-fatal encounter with an alien, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is discovered in a state of suspended animation. Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) helps Ripley acclimate to her new surroundings, but can’t help with her recurring nightmares. To her horror, Ripley learns that during her slumber, the Company sent out settlers to establish a colony on the same planet her crew found the alien and now the group has gone missing.
Burke and the stiff Lt. Gorman (William Hope) want Ripley’s assistance in consulting a highly-trained marine squad called in to handle the possible alien menace.
Cameron’s screenplay is a how-to guide in pitting an elite group against a vastly superior foe. You can see Cameron’s fingerprints on scores of sci-f/action films to this day, but his is still the best thanks to the distinct personalities he gives each marine. They’re brash, overconfident and so tight-knit you’d think Cameron already made a Colonial Marines film. It also helps to give them all highly quotable, memorable lines.
Among the most notable are Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews, Superman III), the tough-talking, nail-chewing leader; Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston) as the bad a$$es with attitudes to match their massive guns, the cocky Hudson (a scene stealing Bill Paxton) and laid back Cpl. Hicks’ (Michael Biehn in all his prototypical 1980s cool glory). Lance Henriksen is perfectly creepy as the android Bishop, who seems every bit as suspect as the last one Ripley met.
Cameron makes the film seem not too far off in the future — the soldiers wear body armor and helmets — but installs enough hi-tech elements like the marine’s ship, armored personnel carrier and helmet video cameras to give it enough of a sci-fi feel.
Upon landing, the marines find no trace of the colonists save Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who may have a better chance of surviving without her would-be rescuers, especially after an alien ambush decimates their numbers.
The action scenes are exhilarating, but it’s in the moments between the frenzied battles that make Aliens a benchmark in the genre with tremendous character interplay such as Hudson’s slow-burning meltdown and Burke’s shady agenda.
Weaver was rightfully nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her incredible performance and decades later, Ripley remains one of the most enduring cinematic action protagonists.
We watch Ripley barely able to handle her psychological trauma to becoming the determined leader unafraid of how many aliens she encounters — especially if they threaten her surrogate daughter (leading to one of the film’s trademark lines).
The special effects were cutting edge in 1986 and Cameron wisely used shadows and low-light to hide any technical deficiencies resulting in a film that holds up remarkably well even without a heavy CGI-coating.
I could gush on and on about the film, but chances are if you’ve watched a sci-fi action movie in the last nearly three decades, it’s been influenced by Aliens, an unequaled sci-fi masterpiece that will leave you thinking they truly don’t make them like this anymore.
Rating: 10 out of 10