Aliens ★★★★★

The greatest sequel of all time? That's debatable but James Cameron's masterful follow-up to one of the greatest films ever made was the reason I feel in love with cinema. Unfortunately I was only 15 months old when Aliens was released into cinemas in Ireland but I do remember the first time watching it at seven years old when my father recorded a terrible VHS copy off the television (I hadn't even seen Ridley Scott's masterpiece yet) - and it was horribly cut for TV audiences, all the best bits were edited down to fill a two hour space of late night Saturday television. My parents forbid me watching it, claiming it to be too bloody (even though the film contains less blood than it predecessor), so I had to sneak into the sitting room one morning at 6am with the volume way down to watch it and it blew my fucking mind! Yes, it scared the crap outta me even though I had to squint through the grainy VHS quality (in which my Normende TV set didn't help) but I never saw anything like it, frightening, butt-clenching exciting and, which I even appreciated at that age, Ellen Ripley (the irreplaceable Sigourney Weaver) becoming a childhood hero. Even though my parents thought my mind was warped after they discovered I watched it, I couldn't stop talking about it and even watched it again that evening - there was no way of my parents stopping me, I was hooked. That Christmas, I asked in my letter to the North Pole for the soundtrack and, oh yes, I got it (thanks Mom & Dad). Now tell me what kind of messed up seven-year-old kid asks for a James Horner soundtrack from Santa Claus? But, that is how much Aliens had an influence on me and I haven't looked back since - a geek was born.

Aliens is constructed beautifully, were eased in slowly by watching the Narcissus (Ripley's escape pod from the Nostromo) floating into the shadow of a salvage ship aided by Horner's soft score, unashamedly derivative of 2001: A Space Odyssey's Gayane adagio by Aram Khachaturian. Suddenly, we're tricked - Ripley isn't saved after all, while in a Space Station hospital bed and after been told that she has been lost in space for 57 years, she rages into convulsions, pulls up her gown and that pesky little, phallic shaped xemomorph stretches her skin ready to burst out in a Grand Guignol style fountain of blood. Fortunately, it was a only one of Ripley's nightmares but it was certainly a convincing and excellently played opener to dampen the underwear(horror sequel norm usually has the last surviving protagonist from the previous installment being killed). It's the typical, pull-the-rug-from-underneath trick but it works so well.

Cameron takes his time building up the tension which is smart filmmaking, we know what the alien looks like and we know how it is born so the reveal of the beast must be perfectly timed to scare the shit out of the viewer. Cameron's screenplay is not without it's emotional punch (remember if you haven't seen this, you must be sure to get the superior Special Edition) as it is revealed that Ripley had a daughter who has since passed away after 57 years of hyper-sleep. It's an impassioned move for a sci-fi/horror film that allows us to give an emotional investment to Ripley and her relationship with the orphaned Newt (Carrie Henn). Even more now, there is much more at stake here than there was in Alien. As Aliens takes it time, we're introduced to a great set of characters, most noticably the space marines or "the grunts". There's Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks who oozes rugged handsomeness and portraying blockbuster hero gravitas (as The Terminator proved, Biehn deserved to be rewarded with a bigger film career that sadly never developed), the fan favourite Bill Paxton as the weedy but brash Hudson and my personal favourite, Pvt. Vasquez played by the awesome Jenette Goldstein (who I thought was almost cooler than Ripley). Every horror must also have it's human villain, the detestable coward and 'Company'-man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) but it is Lance Henriksen who adds a hefty emotional resonance and thoughtful sensitivity at the "anti-Ash" cyborg, Bishop. These are wonderfully thought-out characters who you want to survive and are a lot more than just alien fodder.

Creating a follow-up to something as monumental as Alien is no easy venture and must have been daunting for Cameron (who was still a relatively new face in Hollywood) but instead of immediately trying to out-do the original, Cameron (for the first half at least) honours Ridley Scott's vision. As soon as Ripley and co. arrive back on a human colonized LV-426, we're subjected to the deep dank dread of Alien as the crew mobilizes around the colony living quarters and it acid scarred long hallways and claustrophobic interiors. all reminiscent of Ridley's "haunted house in space" set-up. Cameron also teases with some brilliant jump scares, especially the alive face hugger in the glass tube is a neat example. But, as soon we discover what has happened to the poor colonists, the action begins. As the marines enter the alien nest, aided again by Horner's bravura score, you can actually tastes their sweat as the tension is wound up so tight. A chest buster later, and all hell breaks lose - and it's all exquisitely orchestrated mayhem and bombastic action as more than half the cast are wiped out in a matter of minutes. The POV shots of the marines shoulder-based cameras is genius, adding to a terrifying "the-less-you-see-that-scares" scenario. In fact, it's a style of horror than is often copied from Aliens but is never equaled. What is pivotal about this scene is two things. Firstly, Cameron establishes his own film, this is the point that Aliens is its own breed and huge step away to what Alien was - you can't predict what will come next which is pretty much an audience orgasm, this is what you come to the cinema for. Second, Ripley transforms from victim to action heroine and becomes a part of film history. The scene of her taking command of the APC to rescue the marines is heartrendingly exciting, I remember the adrenaline pumping through my system as I gripped the horrible blue carpet in my sitting room as I watched it. Ripley was now a force to be reckoned with and that became the nexus of the entire franchise. Sigourney Weaver earned an unprecedented Oscar-nomination for Aliens which was not only a landmark for the sci-fi and horror genres but established Weaver as one of the greatest actresses of all time.

Thankfully and smartly, Cameron doesn't over do it but he does raise the stakes - instead of one alien, there's hundreds. The survivors are now stranded as the ships pilot gets her face punched through and the now atmosphere -processing station is about to go nuclear. All skillfully maintained by Cameron and the pace never drops for one second. In the second third of Aliens, Cameron reverts back to the tension and scares which are sublime moments of filmmaking. Remember, its the Special Edition that must be watched - the survivors must barricade themselves in to the command centre and in order to fight off the alien hordes, we see very little of the aliens but the impeccable sound design does all the work. Cameron's script is also full of surprises too, the scene which involves the devious Burke locking Ripley and Newt in a room with facehuggers is one of the scariest scenes I have ever experienced and is a moment to appreciate for the exemplary puppetry work on display but more of that later. What I find so great about Aliens is that even though it feels like a natural sequel to Alien that certainly shares its DNA, it also feels like it own entity and can be perfectly enjoyed as a stand-alone film. I also love how Cameron has carried the threat on from the previous film - it's not just the alien species that's threatening but it is also the the insidious 'Company' that will stop at nothing to have the alien as part of their bio-weapons division (this aspect is explored more in Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection).

So naturally, for the final third of this masterpiece, Cameron excels in masterminding the most intense and radically electrifying 40 minutes in celluloid history. After the second attack wave of aliens and the sad demises of Vasquez (she doesn't go out like some punk) and Hudson - "die, muthafuckers!" - Ripley is on her own. Bishop is busy bringing down the second drop-ship from the Sulaco, Hicks has been severely injured and her surrogate child, Newt, has been taken by a zenomorph to be cocooned back at the nest. Here, we see Ripley transform again into a woman who has nothing left to loose, it is here where she must face her worst fears and believe me, does she face them. Armed with the franchise trademark, the flamethrower, a M41A Pulse assault rifle and a lot of grenades she descends into the depths of the alien nest to find Newt with only a matter of minutes before the whole area goes thermal. The pace never lacks and labyrinth set design marvels (if anybody has their hands on the esstential blu-ray anthology box set, be sure to watch the deleted scene that reveals the fate of Burke) but the greatest reveal is yet to come and it's the alien queen - a magnificent feat of creature design and puppetry. The queen is the stuff of nightmares, almost impossible to describe in words (and I don't want to spoil the surprise for anybody who hasn't seen it) but I had never seen anything like it, at such a young age, it traumatised me. Ripley, after rescuing Newt from a facehugger attack, assuredly pisses the queen off by burning the nest of eggs and blasting a bunch of rounds into her offspring and the chase begins as the queen rips from her own ovipositor sack to munch on a bit of Ripley. Again, another pivotal scene of the franchise, Ripley cements her heroine status and her trust in Bishop is welded as he arrives just in time to lift her and Newt of the planet before it goes boom. Yet, with Cameron being Cameron - the best is yet to come. The lines, "Get away from her you bitch", is now immortal and the fight between Ripley in the body cargo-loader and the alien queen (who has stowed away in the drop-ships landing gear) is my favourite movie set-piece of all time, no CGI amalgamation can ever top it. It was all done for real and it is breathtaking, never a has a film climax thrilled me like this.

At 27 years-old this summer, Aliens is timeless and will never be equaled in its greatness - almost flawless (there really was no need to change H.R. Gigers original alien design, and I do always have the urge for more of his amazing bio-mechanical erotica but the Special Edition does re-introduce the derelict from Alien), influential, scary, riveting, brilliantly realised and it raised the bar for sequels. For me, it's unforgettable, an example of pure cinema and for a 28 year-old man I still gleefully walk down the street with James Horner's 'Bishop's Countdown' blasting on my iPod.

Mark liked these reviews