“Game over, man. Game over!”
Leave it to über action champion James Cameron to turn a darkly serious sci-fi thriller into a brutally fun romp successful enough to spawn two more sequels and a separate spin-off series that has kept H.R. Giger‘s grotesque xenomorph relevant today. Fresh off the success of Terminator 2, Cameron joined original Alien producers David Giler and Walter Hill to flesh out a new concept that would take the saga into another genre and wider audience appeal. Proving a strong female lead could carry a film with Sarah Connor, his script for Aliens makes Sigourney Weaver‘s iconic Ellen Ripley a full-fledged badass heroine. Lost in space for fifty-seven years, a desire to stop the nightmares upon recovery sends her to planet LB-426 on behalf of Weyland Industries again. A loss of communication with colonists sent for ecological purposes, the far-fetched tales she brought home may be proven true after all.
Overlong at 137-minutes despite much quicker pacing than its predecessor, Cameron needs the extra space to reacquaint us with Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett‘s universe after a seven year hiatus. Shifting through an unknown length of time between Ripley’s rescue, rehabilitation, and debriefing, we are given a recap of previous events as she explains them to Weyland’s law team and corporate cronies. It’s the compassionate to her plight Burke (Paul Reiser) who finally cajoles her into joining a military outfit he is overseeing so they can lock the planet down, recover the company’s property, and corroborate her story. Remembering the nest of eggs on her first visit, Ripley is the only one refusing to take the mission lightly as her ‘protectors’ are revealed to be hot-tempered, trigger-happy grunts.
The title change is appropriate since the studio is no longer interested in a cat and mouse chase with one killer beast. This go-round brings the full scope of the aliens’ capabilities. Dormant for so long, the colonization was exactly what they needed to spawn and build numbers; the rescue party’s size a perfect opponent to wield their strength. Slimier and sleeker versions of Giger’s monstrosity are countered by an improved human contingent with combat experience. The Nostromo’s scientific team devoid of military training is gone, replaced instead by loose cannon marines itching for a fight. Their rapport is humorous with a crassly vicious bite, letting the audience laugh as Ripley builds an even greater distrust. But with stone cold killer Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), goofy head case Hudson (Bill Paxton), and ‘Captain America’ Hicks (Michael Biehn), there’s some brawn to make up for the idiocy.
Act Two features the clashing of Type-A personalities as everyone’s motives are revealed after Ripley’s story is proven true. Cigar-chomping Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews) does his best to rally the men while Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) attempts to disseminate orders. Handpicked by Weyland, Gorman’s authority is thrown into question upon learning about his lack of field experience and Ripley begins to assert her own clout as a result. Even Burke speaks out about what’s best for the company just as any hope for quick extraction is erased via their first contact on the surface. A breeding ground for the creatures, leadership becomes a revolving door as numbers dwindle fast. It’s action-packed violence through acid blood and electric charges—a level of carnage we hadn’t seen in Ridley Scott‘s subtler tale.
Left with a leaner corps of protagonists, Act There is where the fun starts. Paxton begins his descent into the best type of caricature; Lance Henriksen‘s Bishop shows how far artificial persons have come in the five decades Ripley had been asleep; and Biehn voluntarily takes up the responsibility inherent to leading a group of men through war. And if the number of faces wasn’t high enough already, Cameron adds a youngster to the fray with colony survivor Newt (Carrie Henn). Giving Ripley added incentive to leave without simply blowing the planet sky high, her newfound maternal instincts also help unleash her take-no-prisoners attitude. This is the genesis of the character we intrinsically associate with the franchise—a confident, self-sufficient woman with the Earth’s salvation atop her shoulders. It’s a role deservedly honored by an Oscar nomination and an identity she’ll never lose.
Louder, messier, and full of explosions, Aliens gets a dose of steroids to satisfy both a public’s yearning for destructive heroics and a fan base’s hope for a worthwhile sequel. The weaponry and futuristic technology has improved with forklift suits and Steadicam-esque rifles; the sets are transformed into grimy, biological/mechanical hybrids mirroring the aliens themselves; and a layer of mucous turns the once metallic sterility into a living, breathing organism. More menacing working in tandem with their brethren, these extraterrestrials are quicker and of greater intelligence than before. And while creating some heavy-handed parallels to Ripley’s newfound relationship with Newt, the idea for a hive-like existence still injects a bit of intrigue. If nothing else, the decision lets the film’s insanity level off to reach a climactic man-to-man battle like in Alien.
Double-crossing power grabs still exist within the human dynamic, but Cameron lets such side plots fade away as all out war takes their place to make the film about the aliens versus people aspect used to mask the original’s true motivations. Neither good nor bad, the change allows Aliens to exist on its own as a virtual reboot of the material. A wonderful sibling to its older, wiser half, no one can deny the effectiveness of youthful exuberance acting without consequence. We enjoy ourselves inside the violence without needing to keep conspiracies or grand plans in the back of our heads. And I don’t say that to dismiss this installment as a watered down version of the first—the differences are a welcome change showing the unique interpretations of a mythology by two autuers. The horror remains intact and the sci-fi stays true to the source. What more could we have asked for?