Aliens

Aliens ★★★½

68/100

Counterfactual thought exercises are tough. Tried very hard this time to imagine how I might respond to this were it not a sequel to a near-masterpiece (some of you will likely object to that qualifier), adhering to Hollywood's the-same-but-more dictum (actually codified in the title!). Trouble is, since no xenomorphs show up for a good long while, virtually all of the film's early power resides in Ripley's post-traumatic dread, which is entirely predicated on one's knowledge of what happened in Alien. Weaver richly deserved her Oscar nomination, not so much for becoming an iconic badass in the home stretch (though that's pretty awesome too) as for the roughly hour-long period during which she embodies barely controlled panic, watching incredulously as a bunch of overconfident dolts prepare an excursion into the bowels of hell. It's very much like what I wanted from David Gordon Green's Halloween, except that Cameron delivers when it's time for the present-tense horror.

All of which is to say that this first-rate sequel, which gets unfairly penalized in my mind just for not being Alien, also paradoxically works best for me as a direct extension of that film's no-escape fatalism. My marked preference for the original is largely a matter of taste: I'm more into an H.R. Giger slasher flick than a militaristic "bug hunt." (See also: my dwindling enthusiasm for Starship Troopers at the point where it goes trigger-happy.) But there's also just some standard-issue let's-up-the-stakes cheesiness here, like overlaying a ticking-bomb countdown onto Ripley's already pretty damn time-sensitive attempt to rescue Newt before she gets facehuggered. Even when I was 18, the whole dueling-mothers aspect seemed a bit silly (I always wince when Newt actually calls Ripley "mommy" at the end—we get it!), as did the queen's surprise reappearance in the hangar bay (which allows for the immensely satisfying power loader showdown but also culminates in a much less satisfying case of Blown Outside The Airlock With The Memphis Blues Again). Alien's spare implacability and innovative design make it feel sui generis, even decades later; Cameron renders it expertly familiar. Which is by no means a bad thing. Sequels just face a steep uphill grade for me.

Other quick notes:

• Paul Reiser remains one of the great corporate weasels in cinema history. (Burke switching off the camera as Ripley and Newt scream for help still makes my hair stand on end.) Retroactive bonus: His giant '80s hair now makes him look appropriately futuristic.

• Hudson's freakouts (R.I.P. Bill Paxton—man, I keep forgetting) are played for comedy—my condolences to those of you too young to have seen this during its original theatrical run, which coincided with the video-arcade boom and made "Game over, man!" a catchphrase for years—but everything he says pretty much proves to be correct. He arguably has the most rational response to the situation, albeit far from the most helpful.

• Newt sounds as if she has an English accent at times, even though Carrie Henn is from California. [Okay I just did a bit more googling and she was living in England when she was cast, so mystery solved. Wikipedia fails to note that, for some reason.]

• I never fault older movies for effects work that was state-of-the-art at the time, but must say I'm surprised to see just how bad some of the compositing here now looks. (Also grateful that Cameron hasn't "fixed" it à la Lucas.)

• When exactly did closing-credits bloat start? Here we have a big-budget, F/X-heavy Hollywood blockbuster with tons of crew members to acknowledge, and the credits still occupy less than three minutes, rather than the 7-10 minutes one frequently sees nowadays. (Yes, I sit through the credits even at home.)

• Alien > Aliens > Prometheus > Cubed (I think; need to revisit this one) > Covenant > Resurrection. Haven't seen the Vs. Predators, don't plan to.