From Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1979 horror classic spawned one of the most interesting and popular sequels of all time, helmed by a pre-king-of-the-world James Cameron. His 1985 follow-up to ‘Alien’ would take moviegoers out of the horrific confinement of the Nastromo spaceship and into the futuristic mining colony set up on LV-426, the original site of the previous attack from the first film.
Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley, 57 years following her escape from a ravenous acid-for-blood monster that wiped out her crew. She awakens in a hospital where she is informed of the life she lost floating in space over a span of six decades. Her daughter died only a few years before Ripley’s lifeboat was discovered. What to do now? The government wants to suspend her pilot’s license and label her a crazy person for blowing up her crew’s starship from the first “Alien” film as no evidence of the creature could be found on Planet LV-426. Ripley is then made aware that a human colony of over 60 families have been living on the planet with no report of any ‘hostile organism.’ Soon, however, the agency loses contact with LV-426, and through an odd contrivance in the plot, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) is enlisted to request Ripley’s presence as an advisor to an elite group of hardcore colonial marines. Ripley decides to face her greatest nightmare and join the band of soldiers sent to investigate the planet.
James Cameron, coming off his moderate success of “The Terminator,” took a great leap in converting the heralded and respected 1979 horror film “Alien,” and spinning the continuing story of Ellen Ripley into a beefed-up grunt of an action picture. The results are beyond impressive, even for its time roughly 25 years ago. While Fox Studios and other filmmakers may have simply wanted to immitate what Ridley Scott’s film did, Cameron wanted to expand the horizon of Ripley’s chararacter. Of course he’s always been fascinated with the strength of female heroines (see Sarah Connor in ‘Terminator 2’ or Neytiri in ‘Avatar’). This makes an ideal match for the Ellen Ripley character, played incredibly by Sigourney Weaver (in an Oscar-nominated performance), and the action-heroine she becomes. In some ways, “Aliens” represents the pinnacle of scale and intensity of all of Cameron’s resume. Sure, he has ‘T2’, ‘True Lies’, ‘Titanic’ and now ‘Avatar’ to his credit. Those films each had at least $100 million thrown at them. But with ‘Aliens,’ budgeted at $15 million dollars, the particular way the film is shot, to the believablilty of the animatronics used (still the best looking of any ‘Alien’ film to date), and to the film’s epic score by James Horner, you would predict the film (despite its grungy aesthetic) cost three times that amount.
While the man has seen enough praise in his life to become so self-impressed, the credit has to go to Cameron and his abilities to craft a film, at least in terms of scale. Sure, his screenplays have raised eyebrows here and there for their simplicity, but critics seem to forget that he likes to make mainstream action pictures. In many ways, while each of the man’s films go for broke every time and he continually tries to top every film he makes in terms of scale, he’s never out of his element. There’s something to be said about a filmmaker who is passionate about ‘what can be done’ in movies as opposed to ‘what can be written.’ While Cameron may be simplistic in nature in terms of character and theme, his movies have mass appeal, and ‘Aliens’ is no exception.
The film is filled with a fully-designed and realized world of Planet LV-426. From the marines’ attire and weapons, to the looming darkness and staleness of the mining colony, this movie definitely has grand set pieces and an unsettling atmosphere. The creatures are barely seen until the final battle between Ripley and the Queen alien. That’s the way it should be. Every shot of these creatures impresses and scares. There’s a great scene where the aliens first make their appearance. The marines are searching for missing colonists and enter a piece of the infrastructure where the creatures have ‘redecorated.’ Soon enough the aliens start to come out of the walls and pick off each of the marines. Why is this scene and others like it so effective? Because we see just enough to keep us enthralled and in a state of wonder. We are also enthralled by Stan Winston’s animatronic designs, puttetry and creature costumes. With an actual physical entity in camera, the creatures have never looked better, and probably never will. Future ‘Alien’ films would suffer from trashy CGI creations, especially the 1992 sequel ‘Alien3.’
As mentioned earlier, despite entertaining characters from Cameron regulars Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein, it is Sigourney Weaver’s powerful performance as a tougher Ripley than seen in 1979 that carries the movie. While most 80s films would feature a Schwarzenegger or Stallone taking on these monsters, a female character manages to oust her fellow male marine counterparts and take on several beasts, including a macho mano-a-mano dual with the Queen monster. Luckily, Cameron lets Weaver be more than just a female Rambo. His story gives her a drive to face these monsters and also protect a young colonist girl, Newt (Carrie Henn), reminiscent of her own deceased daughter. Weaver manages to make a believable transition from distressed space pilot in ‘Alien’ to machine-gun-toting large-scale exterminator here. Cameron would later use this kind of transition for his Sarah Connor character in ‘Terminator 2,’ and again with Jamie Lee Curtis in ‘True Lies.’
At the end of the day, ‘Aliens’ is quite simply one of the best sequels ever made. It’s an impressive-looking movie featuring a powerful dramatic musical score, great visuals, hardcore action, intense thrills, a dash of humor, memorable characters, and genuine emotion. Sequel or not, this one of my personal favorites.