Written & Directed by James Cameron
It had been a good decade or more since I last watched Aliens and since then I’ve gotten two viewings of Alien under my belt. It is astonishing how different these movies are in almost every regard. It’s a true case of the aesthetics and tone changing to accommodate a different type of story and it doesn’t diminish from staying true to the one character that is a constant in this series. Alien is a claustrophobic, horror story that emphasizes a sense of being alone. Aliens is a more bombastic aggressive film, yet still fills its future with plenty of details. I think I found myself appreciating Aliens more while also understanding why Alien is still my favorite of the two pictures.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is discovered 57 years after the end of Alien, floating in her cryogenic tube on the fringes of explored space. She’s handed over to the Weyland-Yutani corporation who take her story of an alien creature with a grain of salt and seem more upset over the loss of so much property. With her daughter dying of old age in the interim, Ellen is left alone in the world and resigns herself to working menial labor jobs. Meanwhile, a company colony on LV-426 comes across the alien ship from Ripley’s testimony and one person emerges with a face hugger attached. By the time Ripley and the Colonial Marines arrive the entire colony is desolate and only one person, a child named Newt, remains alive. Ripley must fight for her, Newt, and everyone else’s survival when they awaken a massive nest of xenomorphs ready to serve their queen.
It’s interesting to view Aliens in the context of there only having been Alien before. Now so much of the xenomorph lore is embedded in other media but in 1986 there was very little to work with. One of the elements that makes Alien so effective is that the details of the xenomorph are kept shrouded in mystery. I would assume Cameron saw this an opportunity to build on thus he gives us the Alien Queen. A deleted scene from the first film seemed to imply that new eggs could be manufactured out of human hosts, the xenomorph secreting chemicals that recomposed bodies. In Aliens, we get something more akin to hive-based insects and explanations that fit a type of biology we can understand. By giving us an explanation to the xenomorph life cycle part of that mystery was lost. With Ridley Scott’s subsequent entries into the series (Prometheus and Alien: Covenant) he has muddied the waters even further introducing variations on reproduction. I get that his intent is to show what a perfect adaptable species the xenomorph is but it definitely stretches the bounds of credulity at a certain point.
I think the best part of Aliens is Ripley. I think focusing the story around her sense of loss in the time she was away gives the film the emotional weight it needs. Not only is she traumatized with dreams of what she saw on the Nostromo, Ripley also had her life taken from her from drifting of course in the escape ship. The xenomorph in a metaphorical way took her daughter from her. This is what makes Newt so important to Ripley, it’s a chance to save a daughter from the creature and this time she is going to succeed. I definitely understand why some fans were upset about the killing off of Hicks and Newt in Alien 3 because Newt especially was so central to the story. But in other ways, Ripley’s encounter with the xenomorphs is this curse laid upon her for seemingly random circumstances. I think the first three Alien films make such a perfect trilogy when looked at through this lens of an individual martyr. Ripley is a witness to the horrors of the universe and in her final act sacrifices herself to stop them from propagating.
I do think the Colonial Marines are not interesting characters. There are so many of them and film doesn’t develop them enough for me to really care about what happens to them. I compare that to Alien where with a smaller group of characters we come to understand their interpersonal dynamics much better. The Marines all feel so one-note for the most part. Even Hicks is just a blank slate of a character and I don’t get why I’m supposed to feel there’s some connection between him and Ripley. More time spent developing Ripley and Bishop’s relationship would have better served the picture. If the film is about Ripley facing her traumas and defeating them then some more time devoted to her past experience with a homicidal android would have been appropriate. We get that to an extent but for the most part Bishop disappears for most of the movie due to the overcrowded cast.
Aliens is a very fun watch and has some great moments. I would argue that it is not as scary as its predecessor though. I think the Alien Queen is an awkward looking animatronic and has not aged well. Conceptually she’s interesting but the execution leaves much to be desired. I certainly applaud Cameron’s ambition to go for something so large in scale. I think the film does an excellent job fleshing out Ripley’s character and giving us some real pathos. It’s shame that so little of what is good here in that regard has been used in subsequent Alien films.