Last week, we covered the 1979 science fiction horror film Alien, a movie that really needed no sequel. Thankfully, Hollywood didn’t listen and released director James Cameron’s Aliens in 1986, a classic in its own right of the science fiction and action genres.
After floating in hypersleep for 57 years after the events of Alien, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is woken up to find that the planet where her crew originally encountered the Xenomorph, LV-426, has been colonized by humans. Facing her fears, she returns to the planet with a squad of Colonial Marines to wipe out the alien menace. But things quickly go from bad to worse as the heroes are outnumbered and picked off one by one.
Action, Adventure, and Terror in Outer Space
While the film has an early moment of terror, Aliens is not a horror film at all. There are still elements of horror at play, mostly in the design of the Xenomorphs; however, this movie is fun, fast, intense, and action-packed. Excitement gives way to terror, which turns into a breakneck thrill ride. Bill Paxton’s Colonial Marine Hudson puts it best as the characters are dropped down onto LV-426: “We are on an express elevator to Hell! Going down!”
Like the opening title sequence in Alien, the opening in Aliens helps to set the tone. It’s creepy and mysterious, but it feels more intense and in-your-face. While the film is a great piece of cinema on its own, Cameron also throws in allusions to the Vietnam War. A technologically superior force is undermined and overwhelmed by an unseen enemy. The Colonial Marines themselves are designed to be similar to U.S. troops in the ‘70s in both look and attitude.
A Positively Badass Heroine
In Aliens, Weaver makes Ripley into an even stronger character than she was in the first film. Rather than being a typical horror heroine, she is a strong and proactive character. She’s not waiting to be picked off by some unseen horror; instead she takes charge even when everyone else doubts her.
As anyone should be, Ripley is traumatized by what she experienced in Alien. However, rather than turning into a scared and weak character, she chooses to fight back against what once terrified her, even though the Xenomorphs have even greater odds now. Ripley is trying to save the colonists that have been put in jeopardy due to horrifying monsters and corporate greed. When she finds the lone survivor, a little girl nicknamed Newt, Ripley quickly takes on a motherly role and fights against all odds to save her life.
While every character has memorable moments, the film is never stolen away from Ripley. We care about her, we root for her, and we respect her at every turn. By the end of the film, she has changed from a resolute survivor into a powerful warrior woman!
Each character is colorful in his or her own unique way. While some play into stereotypes, they’re still fun and far different from the stars of Alien. The android Bishop plays on the fears of those who saw the first film. What are his motives? Should Ripley, the Marines, and the audience trust him, or is he waiting to betray everyone? Lance Henricksen gives a great portrayal of the android, making him hard to read yet still likeable all the way through.
The Marines themselves help give the movie a more unique feel. They’re cocky, funny, skilled, and have no idea that they are way in over their heads. Paxton’s Hudson is a cocky Marine who becomes overwhelmed and panicked once the tables have turned on his squad. He could have been annoying, but a wealth of great lines makes him enjoyable (“Game over, man! Game over!).
Michael Biehn’s Marine Hicks is a great supporting character, supporting Ripley and encouraging her growth and choices. Just as Ripley risks her life for Newt, he in turn puts his life on the line for both of them. Together with Newt, a smart and capable but believable young girl, the two help bring more emotional impact when the film could have just been about scares and action.
This Time, It’s War
The Xenomorphs are more easily killed this time, but it makes sense, seeing as no one was able to shoot them in the first film, and the creature relied on stealth and cunning to kill its prey. As if one of the monsters wasn’t bad enough, this time, there are dozens and dozens waiting to snatch up our unsuspecting heroes. Like last time, they hide in the dark and wait for the moment to strike, but with so many crammed into one lonely space colony, they can swarm and overcome a dozen heavily armed Marines.
Add on top of that the Xenomorph Queen — a towering monstrosity that dwarfs other aliens and humans alike. This is truly one of the best movie monsters in cinema history. It’s frightening, powerful, and nearly invincible. Best of all, it’s completely done with practical effects, making its slobbering, screeching, and slicing all the more terrifying. Ripley’s two-part showdown with the Queen is one of the iconic scenes in science fiction film. In both parts, Ripley must go one-on-one with the Queen, and her fight in the robotic power loader is especially thrilling and cheer-worthy.
The look and feel of Aliens has also made a major impact on pop culture in the decades afterward. The videogame series Halo takes so much of its look from the film that it’s practically plagiarism. Cameron’s latest film Avatar even cribs his own look for Aliens when it comes to the film’s military.
The way Cameron shoots film makes the action especially intense. Corridors are dank and dark, letting the Xenomorphs hide anywhere but not obscuring the action at any point. Unlike too many action films shot today, what’s happening on screen is always clear and easy to follow.
Like Ridley Scott’s Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens sent a ripple through the look and focus of science fiction and action films in the years following. At every step of the way, Aliens offers an exciting blend of action, scares, and heart, a feat that few films pull off. All these years later, it’s still as thrilling as it was when it first came out.