Aliens

Aliens ★★★★½

Part of Hoop-Tober

“I can handle myself.” “Yeah, I noticed.”

Fifty-seven years. That is how long she had been in stasis. Her crew, her friends killed by that...that thing. The Nostromo detonated, the stowaway alien blasted into hyperspace. And then hypersleep. For fifty-seven long years, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her tabby cat, Jonesy, had been floating through space in suspended animation. They might have floated forever had a salvage crew not stumbled across them. Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) says the odds of finding her escape pod were one in one thousand, but surely they were lower than that. Pure luck. Pure luck that she got out alive, pure luck that she was found. And what have the intervening fifty-seven years wrought? As the French—always equipped with bone-dry pronouncements for such times—would say, plus ça change.

Not everything is the same. For one thing, colonists have inhabited LV-426, the planet where she and her ill-fated teammates encountered the xenomorphs. They’ve been there for twenty years terra-forming. A “shake-and-bake” colony, they call it. And they’ve never seen anything amiss. It’s desolate, to be sure, but the hostility is environmental, not zoological.

There have been technological advancements too. Weaponry and spaceships are cleaner, brighter. They are recognizable from her time on the Nostromo, but with the anticipated up-to-date modifications. A brighter future represented by white-surfaced sterility. Dust seems to be a thing of the past.

But despite these superficial alterations, the vital statistics remain the same. Weyland-Yutani Corporation remains as heartless and avaricious as ever—the compassionate company has yet to evolve. And on LV-426 there still broods a vicious life form, a being obsessed only with the base urges to devour and to reproduce—to feed and to fuck. If the colonists haven’t yet seen them, well...it’s only a matter of time.

James Cameron’s Aliens, the first follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, is a fascinating object lesson in how to successfully approach a sequel. Rather than simply rehash Scott’s haunted-house-in-space story (perhaps with the “bigger” aesthetic adopted by so many sequels), Cameron veers off in a different tonal direction while still studying many of the original film's themes. Once again, the viewer is treated to a dissection of corporate greed and callousness, of the deepest prehistoric fears embedded in our psyches, of the cold comfort offered by technological advancement. But rather than follow Scott’s austere sci-fi/horror template, Cameron chooses a more action-packed approach, a Vietnam-inflected war story. The sci-fi and horror remain, but with a healthy dose of Rambo added to the mix.

It is an inspired decision. Whether Aliens fully lives up to its predecessor is a matter of opinion, but by retaining the thematic signifiers of Alien’s world while exploring different generic ground, Cameron largely avoids unflattering comparisons to one of horror’s all-time great accomplishments. And he provides the audience with a nerve-wracking, relentlessly intense action film to boot.

It is remarkable how much time Cameron takes to set up his world and his plot. Aliens is not glacially paced in the way Alien is, but Cameron is in no rush to arrive at the full-throttle action, knowing how unremitting and draining it will be once we get there. He carefully sets up Ripley’s PTSD following her dire experience on the Nostromo, the company’s skepticism of Ripley’s story and her subsequent demotion, the loss of contact with the inhabitants on LV-426, Ripley’s agreement to join the colonial marines’ expedition as a way of exorcising her demons, and the various personalities comprising the squadron. Dialogue has never been Cameron’s strength, and there are some clunkers to be found, but Aliens is both economical and unhurried in establishing its (sometimes one-dimensional) characters and its story.

While Cameron’s screenplay fleshes out many of his characters only to the bare minimum, his brilliant casting compensates for any shallowness in the script. Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton) is a cocky loud-mouthed goofball whose mouth is bigger than his brain—naturally, since Paxton always has a bit of the broad dimwit to him (one’s mileage on his scenery-chewing performance may vary). Cpl. Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn) is stoic and laconic and thoughtful and tough—of course, because Biehn specializes in throwback heroic types. Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the token android, seems competent and collected and assuring, but as an artificial intelligence bears traces of the malevolence seen in Alien's Ash (Ian Holm)—obviously, because Henriksen is incapable of seeming unintelligent but equally incapable of nullifying his innate creepiness, his sense of malevolence lurking just beneath the surface. And Burke is the oily businessman, always chasing the biggest payday, willing to do or say whatever seems most expeditious in the moment so long as it gets him his way, regardless of the truth or the consequences—for which there could be no better casting than Reiser, a man who would go on to spend years forcing audiences to sympathize with the insufferably arrogant and condescending Helen Hunt (a monumental feat of, if not acting, at least existing). Typecasting is often spoken of in derogatory terms, but Cameron makes perfect use of it, automatically imbuing his cast with his actors’ inherent traits as a method of streamlined character development.

But two things really make Aliens shine: the unbearably tense action setpieces, and Weaver’s astonishing performance as Ripley. Once the crew makes its way into the colony’s station (and after Cameron carefully gives us our bearings), chaos erupts almost immediately. As the marines check out the inhabitants’ signals (from Weyland-Yutani chips embedded mandatorily in their skin—no invasion too great in pursuit of the corporate overlord’s bidding), they come across a grotesque melding of organic and mechanical, a sort of hive secreted by the xenomorphs. The sight of the aliens unfurling from the walls to attack is incredibly unnerving—their combination of insectoid and reptilian characteristics; their embodiment of both vaginal and phallic features; their single-minded, utter heartlessness all seem the embodiment of some primordial nightmare. And once begun, it’s a nightmare from which awakening is nearly impossible.

Sequence after sequence of warlike, action-packed terror proceed, with Cameron cleverly using motion trackers to give the aliens physical presence without showing them. Whether in the form of xenomorphs descending from the ceiling or facehuggers attacking Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn), the colony’s sole survivor, in the laboratory as part of a devious bit of corporate sabotage, Cameron sustains a level of tension that is physically exhilarating and draining. All of the squad's disastrous paths lead to a memorable final showdown between Ripley and the alien queen—two females protecting their children no matter the cost.

While Weaver has jokingly called the Ripley of Aliens “Rambolina”—with no small degree of accuracy—the actress ensures that Ripley is never less than a fully-formed, complicated human being. Weaver’s performance is astonishing, with nary a wrong line-reading nor misplaced facial expression. Transitioning from the ensemble of Alien to the female-driven story of Aliens, Weaver presents Ripley as a rare combination of vulnerability and strength, a woman haunted by her traumatic experiences, full of warmth and maternal empathy toward the young Newt but without sacrificing an ounce of her resolve or steeliness, simultaneously calm and urgent. (That the film focuses on her relationship with Newt rather than with Hicks, despite some obvious fondness between the two, is much to its credit.) She is paradoxical and contradictory in the way a real person would be, despite being in an entirely unreal situation. In a Hollywood that too often ignores women (particularly in traditionally male genres), Ripley would inevitably be a unique character, but thanks to Weaver she is an enduring and memorable one. For proof, look no further than her (thoroughly deserved) Academy Award nomination—an extreme rarity for a sci-fi, action, or horror film, much less one combining all three genres and one in which the nominated performance includes the character climbing into an exosuit cargo loader and yelling, “Get away from her, you bitch!” at a made-up outer-space creature.

Ripley’s exclamation has all the thrills one would expect, but with the underlying seriousness and gravitas of a woman fighting not just for her own redemption but for the safety of her surrogate child. Like Alien, Aliens cannot have a fully happy ending—there is too much carnage and terror for that—but like the first film, the second arrives at as happy a denouement as it has a right to, and one that feels fully earned. Fifty-seven years Ripley waited to avenge her crewmates’ deaths and rejoin the ranks of the living. Hopefully we won’t have to wait that long for a worthy successor to her legacy.

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