Aliens (1986)

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope

Sequels are burdened with the seemingly impossible task of living up to their predecessor(s). Most fail because they don’t offer the audience anything new, choosing simply to redo everything the previous film(s) did. This has the effect of boring the audience, who can set their watches by each of the main plot points. The best kind of sequel also maintains a certain continuity, while at the same time establishing itself as a different beast entirely. These stories take what worked before, introduce interesting new characters, raise the stakes, and keep you guessing right up until the end. Most importantly, they make sure the audience is entertained throughout. Among the greatest of sequels stand “The Godfather Part II,” The Empire Strikes Back,” “Bride of Frankenstein” …and “Aliens.”

Fifty-seven years have passed since the events of “Alien,” where Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the only survivor of the commercial freighter Nostromo. That her six crew members died is of no concern to her employers, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. They’re much more concerned about the money lost by Ripley’s decision to set the Nostromo to auto-destruct. They don’t even bat an eyelash when she brings up the planet where the Alien was originally found, LV-426, because there’s been a terraforming colony established there for sometime that houses seventy families. Yeah, that’s not gonna end well. Sure enough, contact with the colony is lost. Company official Burke (Paul Reiser) and a team of Marines are going to the planet and they need Ripley’s help, given her unique experience with the creatures responsible. The only survivor they find there is a seven year old girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), whose parents investigated the same derelict ship the Nostromo’s crew found, and the results were a hundred times more deadly.  The Marines are in over their heads. Being loaded with firepower the Nostromo crew could only dream about doesn’t seem to make much difference. With their own numbers rapidly decreasing, the only recourse left is to get off the planet ASAP.

Sigourney Weaver’s work here surprisingly earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. I don’t mean to suggest that she didn’t do a great job, or that Ellen Ripley (whose first name we didn’t know until this sequel) doesn’t grow as a character. It’s just rare for a film like “Aliens” to get any form of praise other than for technical achievements. Although this is clearly Ripley’s story, I find that the best characters in “Aliens” are found among the Marines. Lance Henriksen (who plays the android Bishop), as several of my friends are fond of saying, pretty much automatically makes any movie better all by himself. But, most specifically, I am thinking of Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein.

As Hudson, Bill Paxton is the movie’s comic relief character. He’s the one Marine who is quickest to lose his cool, the one who would be most likely to choose flight before fight in order to save his own hide (except when it matters most), and the one who provides most of the movie’s highly quotable dialogue. Jenette Goldstein made her film debut with “Aliens.” She disappears so completely into the role of tough girl Vasquez that, if you were unaware of the actor’s subsequent filmography (or her family background), you might not guess that she isn’t of Latin descent. Even if you are her superior officer, Vasquez is someone who you do not want to piss off.

“Aliens” also features my favorite composer, James Horner. Still in the early years of his career, Horner’s score for “Aliens” is perhaps his most iconic. For the next ten to fifteen years, movie trailers were still using the track “Bishop’s Countdown.” The one I remember best is the trailer for “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Certain bits of the soundtrack can also be heard during the climax of “Die Hard.”

The legacy of “Aliens” reaches far beyond its status as one of the greatest sequels ever filmed. As a movie that includes elements of the horror, science fiction and action genres, it defies classification. Hudson could be said to be the template for Jayne Cobb, a character from writer/director Joss Whedon’s TV series “Firefly.” “Aliens” may also be responsible for the action shoot-’em-up videogame genre, games which feature an increasing amount of danger and difficulty as the player progresses from level to level. Director James Cameron, famous for shamelessly using the basics of an existing story to spin his own yarn, would do it to himself in five years time. “Aliens” is very much a trial run for “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (itself a fantastic sequel which many find superior). The two share in common the themes of family (Ripley becoming a surrogate mother after finding out she’s missed her own daughter’s entire adult life), and of the female lead’s need for closure, to put the monster to bed at last. We share in both the terror and the catharsis, making “Aliens” both an exciting and satisfying experience. It also works as a great closing chapter, but it would not be the last time that the Aliens graced the cinema with their presence. The almighty dollar makes studio heads do crazy things…

  1. CinemaClown says:

    Brilliant review, Sir. Reading it was a pleasure.

    And agree that this would’ve been a perfect closing chapter, just like The Godfather Part II was for the Corleone saga. Money-minded studio heads have destroyed so many franchises like this.

    • Thank you! It was a pleasure doing the write-up for this one.

      I often find when I go back and read my reviews that there are things I could have mentioned which I left out. For example, I pointed out the similarity between Hudson and Jayne, when I could have gone further by comparing the Corporation and the Alliance from “Firefly”/”Serenity” (both of which are evil organizations that use a variation on “Building better worlds” as their campaign slogans). Or I could have mentioned that Vasquez was a direct inspiration for Tasha Yar from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” who was initially conceived of as a Latin character.

      • CinemaClown says:

        That’s quite an insight… as well as the beauty of these great films. They often reveal more & more on repeated viewings. As for Alien & Aliens, I like going back to this world at least once every year. Next sequels be damned.

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