By Marc S. Sanders
James Cameron’s Aliens is deliberately morose in its storytelling and cinematic look. It’s ugly and nightmarish. It’s nerve-wracking at times. It’s dark and somber too. It’s also one of the best action films ever made. For me, this is Cameron’s best film and it’s not only because I’m a sci-fi blockbuster nerd of sorts.
Serving as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s monster movie, Alien from 1979, Aliens works on its own independence while still adhering to the storyline qualities of the original. Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley. The story begins 57 years later where Ripley’s lifeboat ship from the end of the first film is found in deep space. She reports back to the conglomerate company of the terrifying happenings she experienced with her crew mates who didn’t survive when an unrecognizable creature terrorized them aboard their vessel. The company is less than apt to believe her account though.
One of the company men, Burke (Paul Reiser), requests that Ripley accompany him and a squad of tough Marines on a mission to the planet, LV-426, where her crew discovered an immense crop of eggs and took back an alien aboard their ship. In Ripley’s absence, a colony of over a hundred families was set up on the planet to establish habitable real estate. However, the colony has lost contact, and the company is sending in the military to assess the situation to see what’s going on. Ripley is supposed to only serve as an advisor.
James Cameron’s script and direction takes its time to build up suspense and explore what’s unknown to these soldiers. Upon arrival on the planet, much of what they find is left in wreckage and no one is to be found anywhere. At best, Ripley can only see what was likely the remains of alien attacks with acid burns within the steel structures. Yet to Ripley and viewers familiar with the first film, it is still a mystery as to what truly occurred. Naturally, more will eventually be uncovered and then this arriving crew will have their hands full.
James Cameron has an imagination that bursts with colorful and amazing ideas. The Terminator films were astonishing in its own apocalyptic future that haunts a present time period. Titanic was a film mired in much expense and technical setbacks. Though, no one ever expected just how accomplished the award-winning blockbuster turned out to be. Avatar is wonderous on a planetary level. However, James Cameron is not necessarily a celebrated script writer. Often his dialogue is very cheesy and unnatural. Aliens is the exception though.
The script acknowledges that these gung-ho marines are “grunts.” Thankfully, they talk like grunts. I know that many fans adore Bill Paxton as the cut-up member of the troupe known as Hudson, who has brilliant one liners. It’s actually a well fleshed out character. Before Hudson knows what he’s up against, this new mission is just a lame “bug hunt” and he happily screams out as their spacecraft makes the quick drop into the planet’s atmosphere. When he eventually comes to face to face with the monsters, terrifying, cry baby like fear overtakes him. He’s giving his one liners like “Game over, Man,” and “We’re fucked!” Yet, the dread and anxiety are completely relatable. There’s something out there waiting to tear me apart and eat me, and there’s hardly anyone left to help and rescue me. I’m in the middle of nowhere. Cameron wrote a good under the radar kind of character, and we feel for this guy’s dilemma as if it’s our own. Paxton’s performance made it better and awarded it with adrenalized highs…and these aliens, with teeth and tails and acid for blood, are most definitely scary as hell.
I no longer watch the original theatrical cut of Aliens. I turn to the Director’s Cut that Cameron always envisioned. Particularly, it triumphs because the Ripley character is much more fleshed out with necessary dimension for the film. Early on, a cut scene, now restored, tells us that Ripley’s daughter died from cancer while she was lost in deep space. The daughter lived to the age of 66, even though Ripley didn’t age a bit. Awakening from her cryo sleep, only introduces heartache for Ripley. What I like about this information is that it serves a relationship later found in Aliens. A little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) is found by the marines and appears to be the sole survivor of the alien attacks. Ripley steps in as a surrogate mother towards Newt as all of the characters work tirelessly to survive and somehow get off the planet. The Director’s Cut gives some value to Ripley and purpose beyond just violently slaughtering aliens as a means of revenge or fulfillment. It allows Aliens to work on an effective emotional level and Sigourney Weaver earned her Oscar nomination because of it.
Cameron introduces traitors as well into the story, which are likely not so surprising but make the film all the more challenging for the heroes of the picture. Michael Biehn is the sex symbol, a cool and quiet tough guy. Jenette Goldstein is a Hispanic marine who gives off good imagery as one of the few female squad members who enters the areas first with the largest gun in the troupe. Lance Henrikson is memorable as an android that Ripley is apprehensive to trust – perhaps he’s the “Mr. Spock” of this sci-fi entry.
Technically speaking, Aliens is so unbelievably atmospheric in its bleak, futuristic setting. Barring a few moments where the spaceships clearly look like miniatures, the interiors look organically formed. I can’t compliment the set pieces enough in that respect. When the Marines enter a large cavern, it is enormously shell like that it looks like an animal’s nest. Cameron hides his various monsters perfectly. So that when they slowly unravel their tales and skeletal forms, it looks as if the darkness within the frames begin to move. The stillness of what surrounds our main characters awaken with life that maybe we don’t want to see.
Aliens works independent of Ridley Scott’s prior picture because it’s a war movie; one that is set on an outer space planet. We witness how the surviving squad troops strategize with what little they have left. Thereafter, we see how they face enemies who may have the upper hand in battles to come. I love how Cameron builds suspense with a sensor device the troops use. It begins to ring as a life form closes in on their proximity. The monitor fills with glowing blurs as more life forms nearby build up. A nervous and great moment occurs when they can not understand how the aliens could be so close and yet none of them can see what is so nearby. The surprise is unexpected and worthy of a scream.
Cameron’s script doesn’t give his heroes a break. Aliens thrives on the characters simply playing keep away, while one member of the party is working against what little they have left. I like that. While Aliens may be intentionally dreary the fact that there’s no easy out for these folks is what keeps the pulse of the film racing with nonstop suspense and action.
Aliens is an absolutely solid picture promising a future for this franchise. Sadly, it really never excelled above what was accomplished in these first two films from Ridley Scott, and now James Cameron. Years later, Scott returned to the franchise with some interesting prequel films that colored in some of the elements that were only talked about before, like the company that puts all these people within the peril of the aliens. Yet to date, that all still remains unfinished. James Cameron just set the bar so high with his movie that the few that followed never amounted to what he created.
You may not feel all warm and fuzzy after watching Aliens, but at least you’ll feel incredibly excited with its construction from a director in the early years of his profession. James Cameron brought about a solid script and unbelievable effects that say so much on a visual level. If Aliens makes you nervous, fearful and especially terrified, then James Cameron has done his job.