Aliens (1986, James Cameron)
Arguably one of the most notable, quotable lines lines from James Cameron's high-octance sequel to Ridley Scott's quiet, brooding and claustrophobic horror film is not even a line spoken by a character in the film itself. Rather, it is Aliens' tag line which has since been remembered fondly by fans of the film and the franchise. 'This time it's war.' Not one phrase could possibly describe the nature of this incredibly popular sequel more accurately nor more succinctly. Whereas Cameron's predecessor preferred to construct and augment tension slowly and carefully, rarely, if ever, resorting to flamboyant outbursts, the Canadian-born director opted for something a little different. Who are we kidding, he blew the roof off of the Nostromo and the Sulaco is what he did.
Aliens commences in the exact same location Alien closed: the small transport space module Ripley used to escape the doomed Nostromo and send herself into hibernation. The locale is covered in dust and ice however, hinting that Ripley has probably been drifting through space for some time already when the film opens. By happenstance, a private corporate shuttle, the Sulaco, picks up the signal emitted from Ripley's craft, and thus she is awoken by the Weyland Yutani company to discover that 57 years have passed. Everyone she knows is dead, save her cat Jonesy who was in hibernation with her. When it comes to her knowledge that Weyland Yutani has not only put up settlements on the alien planet (now known as LV-426) from whence the creature from her nightmarish past came , but also a colony of a few hundred people, the alarms go off in her head. Murphy's law kicks into to high gear shortly after, as the company loses mysteriously loses contact with the migrated citizens. The marines are called in to investigate, among them colourful characters such as Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), privates Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and the rambunctious Hudson (Bill Paxton). Weyland representative Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) tags along, as does Ripley herself. What they find is a desolate, broken down place, with not a living soul around except for one little, terrified girl, Newt( Carrie Henn). That won't be the only thing the marines discover, for the creatures responsible for wiping out the colony eventual make their presence known...and in greater numbers than ever before!
To sum things up in a nutshell, Aliens is a completely different ball game from the original film. Tension abounds, as do gory scenes, as do antagonistic creatures hell bent on destroying every human in sight, all things that appeared in one way or another in Ridley Scott's picture, but handled very differently here and, some would argue, handled batter, although that is another debate altogether. Aliens is louder, meaner, more action packed and, in the best possible way, a more breathtaking affair. In all honesty, if one has a propensity for this sort of ride, one may literally be left without air for a moment by the film end. James Cameron, who by at this point in his career had already made a name for himself with the first Terminator film, took the reigns running and never let go. His attitude on set is semi-legendary at this point: demanding, often impatient, perfectionist to the point of being irritant, yet who can argue when the results are up on the screen, especially in the case of Aliens?
What is curious to note about this sequel is how, so far as the 1991 director's cut is concerned, the titular beasts are absent for the better part of the first hour. Yes, approximately 60 minutes go by without a peep from the slimy extra-terrestrial hunters. Remarkably enough, this in no way hurts the story's pacing because, and here is where many big budget action films unfortunately commit their errors, there is a story, a real story. The movie's title may refer to the special effects laden monsters, but the film is really about the last survivor of the Nostromo. What's more, the protagonist is a woman. Such a comment is not meant to refer to any notions of woman typically being incapable of filling the shoes of the hero (heroine, in this case), only that, first, such a thing is a rarity, and second, Ripley's emotional arc is particularly well handled. Cameron, who wrote the script, keeps what little we knew of Ripley from the first film and expands the character in such a way that she is naturally compelling and very much a woman all at the same time, something precious few movies attempt or succeed at. Waking from her fifty-seven year slumber in space, she must come to terms with the fact that her only daughter has already passed away even though physically Ripley has not aged a minute. As the saying goes, no parent should ever have to bury their children and this case she did not even get the chance to perform that gesture for her deceased progeny. Smartly, the film inserts a new character about a quarter of the way into the plot, that being the orphaned Newt. Suddenly, Ripley, all the while giving the aliens hell for how they warped her life, she earns the privilege, in a small way, of motherhood for the second time in her life . The character of Ripley, as depicted in Aliens, is probably one of the most compelling action heroes ever put to screen for her genuine three dimensionality. She has the guts to go head to head with her foes, she shows emotion (when played by an actress as accomplished as Sigourney Weaver, that will give any character a lift) and is given a compelling emotional arc. Aliens is a prime example of an action film which can boast a strong leading character for more reasons than just gadgets and muscles, even though those are fun as well.
While the remainder of the characters are not nearly as developed as Ripley, the cast at the very least brings some gravitas to their respective roles, thus avoiding Aliens from becoming a one woman show. While no romance ever blossoms between the protagonist and the male lead, Corporal Hicks played by Michael Biehn, the latter is comfortable in the role as the gutsy marine soldier who possesses a slightly softer edge than his more 'shoot first, ask questions later' driven colleagues. It is a similar role that of The Terminator, wherein his character is both strong in the traditional action-man sense of the term all the while willing to give into emotion when the moment is appropriate. He may not be the best actor, but Biehn is often quite dependable and obviously rather good at playing variations of this character. The two loudest individuals of the bunch are Jenette Goldstein, who plays a very macho woman, and Bill Paxton, who is overconfident when preparing for battle, but psychologically weak when the tide turns against them ('Game over, man!'). Both are constricted by limited characterizations, yet both are endlessly amusing to watch behave among each other and in the face of danger. Paul Reiser does not do very much and is quickly dispatched when the script deems his importance in the story has evaporated. Known mostly as a comedic actor, he brings a certain sliminess masked by innocent looking smiles to the corporate representative Carter should exude anyhow.
The aliens, ah yes, the aliens. The movie builds the anticipation has long as it can before revealing even just one. Cameron, a bit like Scott, is in no rush. Launching headstrong into the thick of things is not a requirement after all. That being said, when the first alien pops out of a wall to snatch an unsuspecting marine, Cameron tosses the viewer into a blender of suspense and action. A horror film Aliens is not, but replete with tension it most definitely is. Our review for the previous film praised that movie for not revealing much of the creature design. At this stage, Cameron opts for a different strategy, one that involves showing much more of the animals, by leaps and bounds in fact. Yet does not, however, fall into the trap of giving away everything about them. Their is a very interesting cinematography and editing style at work in Aliens, by which plenty of aliens are scene time and time again, but the lighting and the cutting is just right to give the audience a good enough idea of what they are without them even once looking like an incredibly cheap man in a costume. Quite a brilliant little coup, when one thinks about it.
Alien and Aliens form a formidable duo. They represent one of the most unique 'original-sequel' combinations ever. They are clearly from the same franchise yet simultaneously represent the very clear visions, the results of vastly different directorial styles. There is no shame in loving both, which I do. Picking one over the other, now that's a touchy subject...
Come back soon for an 'appreciation of Aliens' article.