Alien Week: Aliens (1986)
Aliens is the defnitive science-fiction action movie - It does everything right, and effortlessly blends together high-octane action, character drama, comic relief, and breathless suspense. It's also the film that cemented James Cameron as one of Hollywood’s most measured and inventive filmmakers, taking his brilliant work in The Terminator and building on it. On top of all of that, this 1986 masterpiece is the rare sequel that completely shifts tone from its horror predecessor. While it may have started as a cash grab from the successful, impactful Alien (1979), Aliens is its own beast entirely. The sequel is of the same world, but stands alone as a separate film.
The connective tissue between Alien and Aliens is Sigourney Weaver, the radiant star, grounding the film against its fantastical elements. She scored a historic Oscar nomination for the film, one of the rare times a genre picture has received attention from the Academy in a major category. Weaver would eventually lose to Marlee Martin for Children of a Lesser God, but the nomination really solidified her as an esteemed actress and the role as legendary. It's a commanding and textured performance, continuing the astounding work she did in Alien (her first major role).
It’s hard to know why it’s so difficult for modern blockbusters to get their heroines right. After Aliens, we had Dr. Sattler in Jurassic Park and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road but these wonderful women are the exceptions that prove the rule. Here, Ripley is a woman who faces challenges and sexism, and we are continually shown the narrative through her perspective. The character has her flaws and impulses, and she is a heroine with whom it is easy to identify. Whenever her male counterparts talk down to her and ignore her, she’s always in the right. Her convictions and courage are admirable, but the film doesn’t place her on a pedestal.
What is so fascinating to me about Ripley being a female protagonist in a sci-fi action movie is that her arc is tied to her womanhood but it isn’t defined by it. Take for instance Ripley’s relationship with Newt, the young lost girl who helps the crew - Ripley doesn’t take Newt under her care only because she’s a woman and that’s her place. You could easily take the same character arc and give it to a male protagonist and not much would change. They both have other characteristics and purposes in the plot beyond their mother/daughter type relationship.
While Ripley is the center of the film, the characters around her are compelling and engaging as well. James Cameron assembled a terrific cast that includes Paul Reiser, Jeanette Goldstein, the late Bill Paxton, and Michael Biehn. The cast is large, but the actors don’t get lost because they all have unique voices and attributes. I especially love Bill Paxton as the hysterical and frightened Hudson, and Michael Biehn as the very calm and cool Hicks. These characters have since become instantly recognizable.
James Cameron is a brilliant director, and what he did with this film is remarkable. Most sequels, past and present, suffer from some kind of sophomore slump, with either too much of the same or too little. But Aliens completely changed direction, allowing this film to stand on its own. Cameron’s knack for building suspense is stellar; one of my favorite sequences is where Ripley and her team watch via remote, the Colonial Marines getting attacked inside the hive. By keeping the audience with Ripley most of the time, Cameron makes the scene scarier and more intense. He uses the distance of watching on screen to amplify isolation and helplessness. That’s the sophistication and elegance of Cameron’s hand behind the camera. He finds these innovative and invisible ways of creating tension, and it is the kind of cinematic moment that the director does with aplomb with every film he's made.
There’s an unending debate between film fans (one that usually stays friendly and interesting) about which is the better film: Alien or Aliens. I don’t have direct answer for you, because both films pushed their genres forward and broke the path for future films. Aliens is a cathartic and beautiful piece of filmmaking with very few peers in its genre. Cameron has made many great films in his career including The Terminator, T2: Judgment Day, Titanic, and yes, even Avatar. Aliens finds the director operating on a large scale, with many characters and carefully executed set pieces and yet remaining personal all the while. The film has left an indelible mark on genre film, and holds up as a timeless piece of pop art.