by Steve Habrat
After seeing the slow burner that was Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, you would never in a million years expect the follow up would be a breakneck action-thriller that refuses to let up. James Cameron’s Aliens is just that breakneck action-thriller, one that flaunts grand industrial style, chest-bursting thrills, and enough explosions that would make Michael Bay envious. Taking the world that was briefly seen in Alien, Cameron cleverly elaborates on Scott’s vision and delivers a world full of corrupt corporations, billowing doom, sleeveless masculinity, and hair-raising maternal protection (Both Ripley and the Queen!), all while strapping us in and sending us on a stomach dropping roller-coaster ride. Watch out, because you may get splashed with acidic alien blood! The true beauty of Aliens lies in the fact that, while most sequels resort to over-explaining everything, Cameron doesn’t explain, he just expertly expands the scope to give us a bit more breathing room.
Aliens begins with the rescue of Ellen Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), who is the only survivor of a horrific alien attack that left the rest of the crew of the space freighter Nostromo dead. Ripley goes before the board of her employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and explains what attacked the Nostromo crew. Her story is dismissed and as a result, she looses her space-flight license. To her horror, she learns that the planetoid that housed the strange ship and alien eggs is now home to a terraforming colony. After contact is lost with the colony, Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke (Played by Paul Reiser) and Lieutenant Gorman (Played by William Hope) approach Ripley about accompanying a unit of marines to investigate what has happened to the colonists. They tell her that if she agrees to accompany the marines and act as a consultant, they will allow her to have her flight license back. After finding the colony abandoned, the marines begin to search a nuclear-powered atmosphere processing station, where they believe the colonists are taking refuge. As their investigation continues, the marines begin making horrific discoveries within the station and soon find themselves getting attacked by seemingly endless hordes of bloodthirsty aliens.
Unlike Scott’s 1979 film, Cameron’s film isn’t as sly with its intellectual undertones and it quickly calls attention to aspects that should have been left to us to figure out. Aliens makes it very clear that the film is interested in ideas about motherhood and protection of a mother’s young. Ripley has to assume the role of mother and protector to a young girl who calls herself Newt (Played by Carrie Henn). I wish Cameron wouldn’t have thrown this aspect of Aliens in our face but sadly, he does. Early on, Newt begins calling Ripley mother and the two share an emotional scene where Ripley talks about a daughter she lost and then instantly claims Newt as her new daughter. Cameron also calls quite a bit of attention to the gender roles within the film, mostly playing with the idea of the tough guy marine who is all talk when nothing is happening but is revealed to be a coward when things get nice and violent. It is especially apparent in Hudson (Played by Bill Paxton), a mouthy marine who likes to talk big but is revealed to be a coward when attacked by the aliens. His character does begin to come around near the end, but he remains far from the hard ass he portrayed when we first meet him.
Cameron’s Aliens benefits from strong acting, mostly from Weaver, who ended up with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in this film. While Ripley doesn’t really reveal too much new about herself, her descent into protector is undeniably compelling. She is the toughest of all the flexing bad-asses around her. Her end confrontation with the Queen alien has to rank as one of the best movie showdowns of all time. She also gets one of the best one liners that science fiction has to offer: “Get away from her, you BITCH!” She is still the teeth-gritting feminist hero that she became in Scott’s Alien and here, she comes equipped with a bigger gun and flamethrower. While Ripley is all business 90% of the time, her quieter moments really resonated with me, especially when her eyes show a brief flash of a broken heart, one that I have to assume has made her the tough gal that she is.
As far as everyone else is concerned, Reiser is perfectly slimy as the corrupt Weyland-Yutani representative who has little regard for the human life around him. Michael Biehn punches in a perfectly measured macho role as Corporal Dwayne Hicks, who growls all of his dialogue but does reveal moments of vulnerability. I have to say that next to Ripley, Hicks has to be my other favorite character in Aliens. The young Henn wins us over as the adorable Newt, who salutes Hicks when he gives orders and quickly clings to Ripley. Lance Henrikson shows up as the android executive officer Bishop who has a hard time earning Ripley’s trust. Jenette Goldstein is another tough cookie as “smart gun” operator Private Jenette Vasquez, who shows just as much strength as Ripley. Paxton’s Hudson is the only character that I find slightly irritating and the one who gets the some of the worst dialogue in the film.
Aliens turns out to posses a large amount of the tension that made Alien such an prickly experience but it happens to be woven into white-knuckle action scenes. However, I wouldn’t be quick to call Aliens a horror movie, as there is more of an emphasis on action rather than scares. For all its palpable moments, Cameron still serves up a lean storyline that locks us in its icy grip for all two and a half hours. Cameron also offers up some heart-stopping sequences that are classic cinema moments as far as I’m concerned. I absolutely love the final fifteen minutes of the beastly thrill ride. I also have to say I am a fan of the marine’s first encounter with the aliens (shown through grainy camera footage shot by one of the marines) and a scene in which Ripley, Hudson, Hicks, Burke, Vasquez, and Newt await a slew of chomping aliens to attack will have your stomach doing somersaults. The downside to all of this is the fact that Aliens just isn’t as bright as Scott’s Alien, but you will be willing to forgive because Cameron does try his best to make this an intellectually rewarding experience in its own way. Practicing some remarkable discipline in the action department while also giving us exactly what we want, Cameron’s Aliens smartly builds upon Scott’s classic while leaving its own fingerprint on the Alien franchise.
Aliens is available on Blu-ray and DVD.