When it comes to naming the greatest sequels of all time, #20 makes everyone’s list.
At least it should.
Crafted by an expert filmmaker now responsible for the TWO highest-grossing movies of all time, this one helped turn an underrated visionary into a master of blockbusters.
#20 in the 40 for 40… Piranha II: The Spawning.
#20. Aliens – Special Edition (1986) Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn. Directed by James Cameron.
Hollywood sequels can be notoriously problematic.
Audiences basically want the same movie as the first, only completely different. Stray too far from what made the original a success, and audiences lose their sense of familiarity. Stick too closely to the formula, and filmmakers risk cheating the viewer with a cheap knock-off.
James Cameron knows this better than anyone, having delivered two of the biggest sequels of all time with Aliens (following the path blazed by Ridley Scott and the original Alien), and later in 1991 with a second installment to his own work with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Yes, sequels are tricky. Case in point: no movie in either of the aforementioned Alien or Terminator franchises have lived up to their pedigree past a second film, both directed by Cameron.
Aliens in particular, plays like a great rock band in concert; it certainly nails all the hits, yet isn’t afraid to bust out new material, either.
The original Alien was always going to be a tough act to follow. Essentially a haunted house / monster movie in space, it terrified audiences in its day with its claustrophobic atmosphere and highly-original creature, designed by the innovative H.R. Giger.
Cameron honours the first movie in his own way, but simultaneously ramps things up to the Nth degree. Especially in the film’s Special Edition, which I consider the best version of the movie, and also the only incarnation I ever watch. The reinstated scenes (previously cut out for pacing reasons) are so good; it’s astonishing they were ever left on the edit room floor to begin with.
The Special Edition vastly improves the already-great theatrical cut. With the deleted scenes returned to the edit, we get a fuller story, with richer character arcs, particularly for Ripley. It also showcases the film as Cameron intended, describing his story as ‘Forty miles of bad road.’
Among the reinstated footage are scenes that reveal the number of working families that populate Hadley’s Hope (whose very name is reminiscent of a doomed Western-gunslinger town), which make their eventual slaughter all the more tragic. This also drives home the point that the Aliens will attack and kill anyone… man, woman or child.
A more detailed look into Ripley’s life post-rescue, including her scape-goating by her employers and the tragic loss of her daughter (who has grown up and passed away in the fifty-seven years Ripley was left in hypersleep), also flesh out her character arc and drive her motivations.
Especially with Newt, which we’ll get to a little later…
The Special Edition also increases the all-round tension. The methodical slow burn of the first hour builds the suspense, before reaching a pay-off with an action-packed final ninety minutes.
The whole time, Cameron drops subtle nods to the first film, spliced between his own original touches.
The first movie’s scene with Dallas (Tom Skerritt) being monitored through the ship’s ducts, and his eventual encounter with the Alien is turned up to eleven in this one, with more troops and more Aliens in a bigger nest. And just like the original, those overseeing the mission from their control centre are forced to watch and listen as their comrades are wiped out.
In the same scene, the Alien embryo bursting free of the cocooned woman’s chest brings back frightful memories of Kane (John Hurt) from the original in an equally-unsettling scene. Audience members now watching this sequel are instantly transported back to their first viewing of Alien and the effectiveness of such a horrific scene.
Cameron also reminds of us of the first film with the way the Aliens are camouflaged by their surroundings. It’s evocative of one of cinemas greatest jump scares from the first movie, when the Alien’s arm juts free of its hiding place, inches away from an unsuspecting Ripley. This movie does its own version when the first Alien we see pops out of the wall.
But as I said before, Cameron isn’t afraid to add his own spices to the mix.
This movie contains the first (on-screen) mention of the Aliens being referred to as ‘Xenomorphs’, as well as notions of a hive mentality, complete with matriarchal queen.
He may have filled his movie with the odd homage to Ridley Scott, but make no mistake; this is a James Cameron film. His style remains true to his Terminator roots. The eerie laser lights, cold, robotic tech. Not to mention his distrust of corporations, characterised here by Wetland-Yutani, a corrupt multinational, an analogy mid-eighties audiences were more than familiar with.
Cameron also really likes wind and rain, and blue landscapes lit by flashes of lightning or other random bursts of electricity. Just like his Terminator future timeline – Planet LV-426 fits his aesthetic in every way.
Speaking of LV-426, the very idea of terraforming was also still a relatively new concept in 1986. It was just familiar enough for most viewers to understand on a basic level, but vague enough to keep the mysterious sci-fi element alive in the background.
Cameron is of course, an amazing director. But he’s an equally as good writer. His characters are (usually) fully-realised people, with hopes, dream and most importantly… fears.
The movie’s Colonial Marines are one such example. Too many to count, we still get just enough likeable (and/or unlikeable) character traits from each of them to care about their fates. We don’t want them to die, even though we know they will.
Cameron also uses a pretty obvious Vietnam parallel with his Marines: over confident soldiers entering an unknown environment, one they’re woefully ill-prepared for. Despite being technologically superior and up against a ‘primitive’ enemy, the squad is almost-comically decimated in minutes upon engaging ‘the enemy’. But just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it’s bad or that it doesn’t work.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Makeshift leader, Gorman (William Hope) is the perfect company Yes-Man who gains respect after bonding with his troops during the mission. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is another tough female character, with Cameron maintaining form after reinvigorating Ripley in this movie, and of course, his own creation in Sarah Connor.
Hudson (Bill Paxton) is as loveable as he is over-the-top stupid. He’s Chet from Weird Science if he was a soldier from the future. This is the late Paxton’s most famous and celebrated role, and rightly so. His mantra of ‘Game Over, man,’ instantly became part of the pop-culture lexicon thanks to his performance.
Hicks (Michael Biehn) develops throughout the film more than any of his fellow Marines. He starts off as a forgettable grunt, but then finds himself in command as leadership is thrust upon him. There’s also more than a hint of romantic attraction between him and Ripley, and later, they form a distorted nuclear family when Newt comes into the story.
The android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is another wonderful Cameron addition, whose knife trick serves multiple masters. First, it’s entertaining as all Hell. Secondly, when we see Bishop has caught himself with the blade and bleeds his milky blood, it tells us he’s an android and freaks Ripley out. After what happened with Ash (Ian Holm) in the first movie, Bishop’s presence sets up a nice character arc for Ripley. During the story, she has to deal with her initial prejudice against Bishop for simply being what he is – then overcomes it as she realises he’s a good man, despite being a synthetic one.
While the movie tries hard to make us think Bishop will turn out to be a villain, instead, like a Stephen King story, not only does Aliens have a human bad guy, he’s played by one of Hollywood’s all-time nice guys.
Burke (Paul Reiser) is a corporate stooge from the very beginning. We can tell something’s not right about him from even his earliest slimy scenes. The further we get into the movie, the more dastardly and two-faced he becomes, as we learn he has been complicit with the Company’s objective to gain a sample of the Alien life-form at all costs, even going so far as to trap Ripley and Newt in a lab with face-huggers.
His cowardly death and comeuppance is as satisfying any other Hollywood villain’s. A real ‘that’s what you get’ moment on par with the warden from The Shawshank Redemption, the Emperor from Return of the Jedi, Scar from The Lion King or the Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Unlike many second-rate sci-fi / action movies, the inclusion of a child doesn’t hinder Aliens in any way. Quite the opposite.
Newt (Carrie Henn) is one of the great all-time sci-fi characters. Like Ripley, she faces her fears throughout the film. She also provides a daughter surrogate for Ripley after the loss of her own daughter, detailed in the previously-mentioned Special Edition.
Most of the movie’s seminal moments also centre on Newt. When the Alien appears from the water behind her, it’s as iconic a shot as any you’re ever likely to see.
Her relationship with Ripley and Ripley’s refusal to abandon her (as she believes she did to her own daughter), triggers the fantastic encounter with the Queen Alien, and Newt also gets to deliver the line of the film.
All of these characters and their nuances are testament to Cameron’s writing talents, especially when you remember all of these incredible characters and sub-plots are contained within a movie about ‘soldiers shooting monsters in space’.
However, as great as the movie’s secondary characters are, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley still stands head and shoulders above them all.
Best Actress? Unheard of.
But that’s exactly what happened for Weaver with her role in Aliens. That’s how good she is in this movie. Besides her turn as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, this is probably her greatest role. Ripley is tough, but vulnerable and fearful at the same time. She isn’t some two-dimensional eighties action hero.
In this movie, Ripley now suffers from survivor’s guilt, PTSD and the loss of her daughter. She’s also plagued by horrible nightmares and fearful of ever encountering another of the creatures that wiped out the crew of the Nostromo.
The nightmares are the most obvious evidence of her trauma, yet at the same time, we see the selflessness of Ripley, even the dream version. Seconds after she thinks she has an Alien inside her, her first request / demand is that she be killed to save others from a similar fate.
Even though she’s terrified to go back to LV-426, Ripley knows the only way forward, the only way to overcome her nightmares is to face her fears and join the mission to (what she thinks is to) destroy the titular Aliens.
The strongest element of Ripley’s story in Aliens is definitely her relationship with Newt. Each having lost their own family, they gravitate towards one another and fill the void left behind by their own personal tragedies.
Such is the power of Ripley’s connection to her ‘surrogate daughter’, that by the end of the movie, Ripley refuses to leave the planet when given the chance, instead going back for Newt when she’s taken by the creatures. It’s a stark contrast to Ripley’s attitude earlier in the film, when she tells the Marines that their (currently-being-cocooned) brothers-in-arms are beyond saving.
The final battle with the queen is a symbolic masterpiece. Besides being an all-out action scene that sits up there with the best of them, at its core, it’s really about two mothers warring to protect their young. Ripley is just as guilty of murdering the Queen’s children (or eggs) as the Alien is of using human beings as gestational hosts.
But the irony isn’t lost on Ripley. She knows what she’s doing. She knows she’s as much of a killer now as the Queen. She just doesn’t care. The film is very much a revenge story, and this is where Ripley gets hers.
From her point of view, Ripley’s encounter with the Alien in the first movie inadvertently caused the ‘death’ of her daughter. And now the Queen is trying to take her surrogate daughter, as well, an action Ripley will not allow.
The foreshadowed loader suit scene is a genius idea, allowing a final physical battle with the queen that would normally be impossible for any human, and like many other aforementioned instances, the defeat of the Queen harkens back to the original film and its air lock climax, all set to the ticking clock of the imminent destruction of the planet’s terraforming reactor.
The insertion of the Alien Queen into the story helps highlight the movie’s technical creature effects. Over thirty years later, the crab-like face huggers, the fully grown Alien drones and especially the Queen hold up against anything put forward by today’s monster movies.
This is of course due to special effects master, pioneer and Cameron-collaborator, the late-great Stan Winston. His knack for ingenious creature designs and practical effects are on full display in Aliens, just as they are in The Terminator, The Abyss and Jurassic Park.
Along with Winston’s imaginative creatures, a combination of models, rear projection, puppetry and matte paintings help bring the story to life.
One of the hardest decisions in compiling this list was whether to include Alien or Aliens. This film eventually won out by the narrowest of margins, but if not for a predetermined decision to only choose one film from any given franchise, the first Alien would also be part of this 40 for 40.
With the power of hindsight, re-watching this movie’s final scenes are certainly bittersweet. The hopeful ending was completely destroyed by Alien 3 and its callous decision to kill off Hicks and Newt (off screen). But if you’re like me and only consider the Alien franchise a two-part series, this ending still works to wrap up Ripley’s overall storyline and character arc.
One if the greatest sequels of all time, Aliens remains a benchmark of not only sci-fi movies, but also action and horror films too. It’s a modern classic that hits all the right notes, expanding on a universe while also playing tribute to what came before.
And above all else, it’s a well-rounded, entertaining and mostly flawless film.
Rating: 4 out of 5 face-huggers.
Favourite Moment: Ripley discovers the Queen.
Honourable Mention: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
Next week: #19 – “F.U.B.A.R…”