James Cameron, 1986
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn
Almost sixty years after the events of Alien, Ellen Ripley is rescued from the Nostromo and awakened from stasis. She gives testimony to the Weyland-Yutani Corporation about the alien invasion on her ship, but they don’t believe her because of lack of evidence. She is horrified to learn that the planet whose distress signal the Nostromo responded to many years ago is now the location of a human colony. When Weyland-Yutani loses contact with the colony, Ripley and a group of Marines are sent in on a rescue mission. They are also accompanied by Carter Burke, a slimy Weyland-Yutani representative, and Bishop, an android.
The colony seems to be abandoned, though they find a young girl, Newt, hiding, as well as a medical lab with evidence of aliens. Soon the Marines find the missing colonists in a huge alien nest and the aliens attack and capture or kill a number of them. Ripley rescues some of the Marines, intending to leave on the ship and destroy the colony.
Aliens is one of the best sci-fi/horror/action films of the ‘80s and remains a great sequel. It was one of the first sci-fi films that garnered a Best Actress Academy Award nomination and even landed the cover of Time Magazine. While I've heard plenty of people declare that it’s better than Alien, I think they have to be taken on different terms. Alien is a horror film that essentially follows the pattern of a haunted house movie, but Aliens abandons the horror for terror and action. Like Predator, it is essentially a war film with horror elements. The references to Vietnam are barely concealed and director James Cameron even had his principle group of actors train together in a real boot camp. They were also asked to read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. While Alien held the constant threat of perverse, terrifying biology, Aliens is all about weapon fetishism.
Certainly one of the positives of this film is that it further develops Ripley’s character while also maintaining her status as a heroine. Cameron had his fair share of strong female characters (Sarah Conner from Terminator is another key example), despite the fact that many of his films are unabashedly masculine. He also seems to be obsessed with the family unit and brings that to Aliens with the addition of the child Newt (Carrie Henn) and Ripley’s maternal instincts towards her. They must face off against the alien queen and her brood, compounding the family symbolism. I found this to be the most tedious and sentimental aspect of a film largely concerned with violence and explosions, but I suppose it also makes the film more accessible.
I have to say that Aliens has a cast nearly equal to Alien and Cameron himself was responsible for Sigourney Weaver’s return. After she agreed to star and Cameron wrote the script, the studio refused to sign her contract due to payment issues. Cameron refused to make the film without her and eventually Fox relented. A number of the other actors became regular Cameron collaborators, such as Lance Henriksen (The Terminator), Bill Paxton (Titanic), Michael Biehn (Terminator), and Jenette Goldstein (Near Dark, Terminator 2). They were also joined by William Hope (Hellbound: Hellraiser II), marine Al Matthews, and Mark Rolston (Lethal Weapon 2). One of my few major issues with the film is Paul Reiser’s character. He plays the token heartless, amoral capitalist, who promises Ripley that the aliens will be destroyed, but intends to bring them back to Earth. While the Marines are all essentially cookie cutter characters, Reiser’s Weyland-Yutani rep is just a bad cliche.
Aliens is certainly a busy film. The editing is rapid fire, and once the second act hits, it careens nonstop towards the ending. The title doesn't lie: the film is absolutely full of aliens. Unfortunately H.R. Giger, the artist who designed much of Alien, wasn't consulted on this film. Cameron’s aliens are more active and athletic, less resigned to the shadows than the titular creature in Alien. Cameron got his start working with Roger Corman and used two of Corman’s effect artists, Robert and Dennis Skotak, to supervise effects for Aliens. The alien queen was designed by Cameron and effects wizard Stan Winston. Though it is an impressive beast, it isn’t nearly as elegant or menacing as Giger’s original, threateningly sexual designs.
There aren't a lot of things I can complain about with Aliens. It’s an excellent action film with horror and sci-fi trappings and fortunately didn't simply try to rehash the original. The score is decent, but sub-par, mostly due to issues during post-production. The set was overrun with problems, including clashes between Cameron and the British crew, trouble with Cameron and famed cinematographer Dick Bush, who was eventually fired, and issues with composer Adrian Biddle, who was given mere days to complete the score. Sounds like a very unprofessional affair to me, though Cameron was a young, inexperienced director at that point.
Aliens comes highly recommended, though I can’t imagine that there are many horror fans who haven’t seen it by now. It’s available on Blu-ray, but I highly recommend the Alien Quadrilogy set, which includes all four films -- Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien Resurrection -- and an impressive amount of special features.