FILM REVIEW: Aliens (1986)

Aliens (USA, 1986)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henrikson

Making a good sequel is not an exact science, and every rule that governs such activity has a number of notable exceptions. Don’t change the director? The Empire Strikes Back. Don’t remake the first film with more money? Evil Dead 2. Don’t add an irritating sidekick? Lethal Weapon 2, and so on.

Aliens rebels against another of these rules, namely: don’t crank up the action in a bid for mainstream appeal. Having demonstrated in The Terminator that he could combine compelling science fiction with nail-biting special effects, James Cameron was perfectly poised to carry Ridley Scott’s story forward and retune it to the 1980s blockbuster crowd. Whilst neither as frightening nor as rewarding as the original, it remains an intriguing and intelligent action movie, which still looks great nearly 25 years on.Cameron’s decision to shift the Alien series from horror to action might seem disconcerting without prior knowledge of the finished product. Action movies have become so associated with moronic dialogue and pointless violence that it is easy to forget the intelligence and innovation the likes of Cameron and John McTiernan brought to the genre. As Dan O’Bannon later confessed, turning the story into an action movie was probably the only way to go. Without this shift, Alien could have become little more than the next Hallowe’en, spawning a series of derivative and increasingly un-scary horror sequels.It would be equally wrong to presume that the emphasis on spectacle and mainstream appeal means that the world of Ripley et al is any less cohesive or structured. Like the first film, Aliens takes its time in the first 45 minutes; it doesn’t just canter through the back-story so we can get Ripley back on the alien planet. This section contains some of the most emotional scenes in the film, as Ripley is stripped of her command and discovers that her daughter on Earth has died. Sigourney Weaver’s performance is every bit as good as in the original, bringing a quiet strength to a world of macho posturing and zingers.Purely on a design level, Aliens is distinctive and eye-catching, creating an atmosphere of terror similar in places to that of John Carpenter. Much of the film was shot in a derelict power station, giving the colony a cold, eerie feel, somewhere between a Egyptian tomb and the Antarctic base in The Thing. The scenes in the alien nest are very scary, with the carpet of alien eggs, the minimal score and the endless corridors of alien matter which separate Newt and Ripley. Much of the nest set was later reused as the site of Axis Chemicals in Tim Burton’s Batman, and one could argue that the marines’ ground vehicle foreshadows certain elements of the Batmobile.

Although Aliens earns brownie points for its strong continuity with Alien, several focus points have changed. From a structural point of view, Cameron’s film is much more interested in the hardwire involved. By having the alien planet terrorformed to give it a breathable atmosphere, we don’t have the threat of bullets (or face-huggers) puncturing people’s helmets and suffocating them. Cameron lingers on the shuttles, missiles, guns and ground vehicles which surround the crew of the Sulaco. It doesn’t fetish-ise warfare per se, but you get the distinct impression that someone went to a lot of bother designing this futuristic military (whose grunts, incidentally, talk exactly the same as modern marines).From a character development angle, Ripley’s role follows roughly the same path as the original, in that she starts as an outsider with little respect from the crew, and grows stronger to emerge as the surviving victor. But her inferiority among the team is rooted less in gender politics than in her social status as a former officer. Brett and Parker resented her for being a goody-two-shoes, and were unhappy that a woman was getting more pay than them. The marines hate her because she is complex and stubborn, a big obstacle to their animalistic desire to go in hard and raise hell.

The shift comes in the change of balance between Ripley’s masculine and feminine qualities. For most of the film, Ripley is the most traditionally feminine of the characters. Although she may be less vulnerable than either Lieutenant Gorman or the sleazy Carter J. Burke, she is more passive than the other crew members and only starts to become aggressive as the body count begins to rise. Her relationship with Newt rekindles her maternal side, and in the scene where they are sealed in the medical bay fighting off the face-huggers, she demonstrates that she can be strong-willed and resourceful while retaining her qualities as a woman (and surrogate mother).But all of this becomes more problematic in the final showdown between Ripley and the alien queen. One could argue that Ripley’s fight is textbook maternal instinct, defending her young from predators. But in defeating the queen, Ripley is actually behaving much more like the marines, resorting to brute force before intelligence kicks in. The famous still of Ripley holding the pulse rifle is a classic gung-ho military pose, something which isn’t mitigated by the fact that she is also holding Newt. Her development is more akin to Sarah Connor in the Terminator series: she starts off resourceful yet womanly (remember the sex scene in the first film?), but by the end of the sequel she is a more masculine figure, still harbouring maternal instinct but ultimately driven by adrenaline.There are other little problems with Aliens too. Whether in its original version or the special edition released in the 1990s, the film is too long and feels baggy when it really shouldn’t. Cameron started his career as an apprentice of trash maestro Roger Corman, who believed in making films quickly with short running times. But having gone through a baptism of fire directing Piranha II, Cameron slowly forgot all Corman’s advice. The film is generally well-disciplined, and the editing does sustain tension, but you do find yourself wondering how much time has passed, both in our world and in that on screen.

Aside from its sexual politics, the ending is also quite silly from an angle of pure physics. When the alien was sucked into space in the first film, Ripley was wearing a spacesuit and was therefore safe from suffering the same fate. In this, she manages to survive being exploded simply by clinging on hard until she can reach the button to close the airlock. Normally such James Bond feats of survival are fine if they are in keeping with the tone of the whole film; it makes sense for Bond to survive the fight on the Golden Gate Bridge in A View to A Kill, because he has been so outrageously lucky throughout. But having confounded our expectations and been so realistic up to this point, the ending of Aliens feels like a small slap in the face.Aliens is an exciting and entertaining action film and the best of the Alien sequels. Despite David Fincher’s best efforts in the underappreciated Alien 3, it simply hangs together better and has a more cohesive vision, both visually and thematically. Despite its length and small moments in which it gives in too easily to convention, it manages to sustain tension and terror throughout, and invest us in a number of well-rounded, entertaining characters. Terminator 2 remains his masterpiece, but there is enough of Cameron’s skill and swagger here to give the likes of Die Hard a run for their money.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: 1980s action at its most intelligent


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