Those of you who know me well probably figured that it was only a matter of time before I reviewed this movie. Before summer 2012, I wasn’t even aware that there was a movie called “Aliens”. I just assumed that every single sci-fi sequel that wasn’t part of a pre-determined trilogy was just a cheap way to cash in on the success of a legendary movie, especially in the case of films with different writers and directors than the original. When I heard that Alien had a sequel, I assumed that it must have been no better than movies such as The Fly II or Die Hard 2. However, when I googled the movie, I found out that it received great critical acclaim upon its release, and that some fans even prefer it over the original. How could it be that this sequel, released seven years after the original film, could follow a movie that many consider to be the greatest sci-fi horror film ever made?
Aliens doesn’t quite pick up right where the first movie left off. After floating around in space for 57 years, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, is awakened from her cryo-sleep only to be harassed by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation executives about the destruction of the Nostromo, the ship that Ripley was stationed on in the first film. The higher-ups at the company, of course, don’t believe her story about a hostile alien known as a xenomorph killing off her entire crew before being blown out of the escape ship’s airlock by Ripley herself, and place Ripley under constant surveillance. However, when the company loses contact with a colony on LV-426, two men named Carter Burke (played by Paul Reiser) and Lieutenant Gorman (played by William Hope) approach Ripley about returning to the planet with a team of heavily armed space marines to investigate the situation. Ripley accepts the mission, and the adventure that ensues is a very exciting ride that leads up to one of the greatest showdowns in the history of cinema.
There isn’t much that I could say about this film that hasn’t already been said. IGN ranked this movie at #11 on their list of “Top 25 Sci-Fi Movies of All Time”, and #3 on their list of “Top 25 Action Films of All-Time”. Sigourney Weaver was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, a most impressive feat considering the Academy’s tendency to give little attention to the science fiction genre. This movie has definitely gotten all of the praise that it has deserved over the years, and it was a great second film from writer and director James Cameron. There truly isn’t much that I could contribute to this conversation without simply repeating all who have written about this movie before me, but I will try to include some information that you might have never heard before.
One thing that I appreciate about Aliens is that every character reacts to their first encounter with the xenomorphs differently. Private Hudson, played by Bill Paxton, is very cocky about the mission as the troops are landing on the surface of LV-426, only to become the most frightened member of the crew immediately following the his first run-in with the creatures. Gorman becomes completely locked up, while Corporal Hicks, played by Michael Biehn, is able to keep his cool. The team soon comes into contact with a little girl named Newt, played by Carrie Henn, a survivor from the colony who realized that the best way to deal with the aliens is to simply run. As team members are killed off, the nerves of some other crew members become even more undone, and the audience is treated to not only a compelling action movie, but also an accurate presentation of how different people react when they experience something that we previously thought was impossible. I have no doubt that murder witnesses, cancer patients, and war veterans have all gone through similar experiences as the group of space marines in Aliens.
The deeper aspects of this movie don’t end there, however. In an interview shortly after the movie’s release, Cameron stated that he drew a lot of inspiration for the conflicts between the space marines and the xenomorphs from watching footage of the Vietnam War. Cameron found the nineteen year conflict fascinating because it was a rare instance where the soldiers armed with advanced weaponry and technology were not able to defeat the opposing forces, and proved that high-tech gadgets don’t necessarily win wars. In Aliens, the space marines are sent to a far-off planet where they are short on men, supplies, and training, and they are completely ill-prepared to go up against the foes that they are facing. In addition to this, we also slowly learn that Burke has an agenda of his own, leading many fans of the movie to believe that his character may be symbolic of the politicians who were trying to push young men into the controversial Vietnam conflict. To solidify this analogy, Cameron even drew inspiration from the aircraft used by the American forces in Vietnam for the crew’s dropship, and the APC ground unit in the movie looks very similar to the Hunslet ATT 77 Aircraft Towing Tractor. Cameron’s re-imagining of this famous conflict takes what we see onscreen to a much deeper level, one that may, at times, hit very close to home.
One thing that I should point out is that whenever I speak highly of Aliens, I am not necessarily referring to the theatrical version. When Cameron was making this movie, he was fighting with the executives at Fox left and right to try to get in every scene that he had planned. Cameron’s films, as we now know, are typically longer affairs, but this being his second movie, he didn’t yet have the tenure to convince the studio that everything that he had filmed was necessary. The theatrical version ended up clocking at 137 minutes, a compromised running time that Fox was very reluctant to approve of. In 1992, however, a “Special Edition” of Aliens was released onto home video that included seventeen minutes of extra footage. The scenes included in this version make the narrative of the whole movie flow much more smoothly. There is a scene in the beginning where Ripley learns of the death of her daughter while she was in cryo sleep, a sad scene that I believe gives more depth to her character and makes the audience connect more with her when she takes young Newt under her wing later in the movie. Another scene included in this version is Hudson’s famous “ultimate badass” monologue, along with a later scene where he and private Vasquez, played by Jenette Goldstein, talk about the operation of ant hills, a conversation that foreshadows the final showdown between Ripley and the alien queen. Having seen both versions, I believe that the extended version is far superior because of its smoother narrative and greater character development.
As many a critic has said before me, this movie is absolutely fantastic. Ripley, who we previously knew only as an employee onboard the Nostromo, shows a more tender and motherly side of her character when she is with Newt. The marines in this movie have much more depth than the cardboard jarheads that we see in other military films, and whenever one of them bites the dust, it hurts. The acting in the film is also top-notch. My favorite performances in the movie are definitely those of Weaver and Paxton, whose characters are on two completely different planes mentally, but have to work together because of the situation that they are in. One of my favorite scenes with Weaver in this movie is when she first comes face-to-face with the alien queen. There is no dialogue, and we can only tell how the two are communicating through Ripley’s facial expressions and body language. This is one of the most tense scenes of the film, and I usually have to hold my breath the entire time.
I absolutely love Aliens, but I’m glad that my first experience with the movie was the extended version. Some critics, including Roger Ebert, stated that they would have liked to have seen more character development throughout the film, a complaint that I believe would be mute if Fox had allowed Cameron to release his original 154-minute cut in 1986. Still, this is both my favorite action and sci-fi movie of all time, and I’m sure that it will be for many years to come.