A sequel is an admission that you’ve been reduced to imitating yourself.Don Marquis
So, we have a strong foundation of what Alien is now, right? Fantastic lighting and sound design to create a truly scary atmosphere. Nuanced characterization to create people that seem very real. A monster that avoids sight until absolutely necessary to reveal itself to the audience. All these things are what I focused on in the last post because those were what I believed made a great Alien movie. Well today, we’re going to take some of those things, have them directed by somebody completely different, and turn up the schlock to the nth degree. Get ready folks, because here comes 1986’s Aliens. Let’s dig in:
The Prologue: Summarizing A Great Film
Aliens starts off 57 years after the original movie. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), in order to preserve herself in the escape pod, froze herself in a hibernation chamber. The world has changed around Ripley as she discovers that the planet containing the alien creatures has been colonized while she slept. Now that colony has dropped out of radio contact and the Colonial Marines have been dispatched to secure the now threatened people. Ripley, thuggish marines, an android and a company man are now all that stands between humanity and the Xenomorph threat.
This movie has an interesting way it transitions itself away from the former in the series. The first fifteen minutes is treated like it is a prologue to the movie. It offers just about all the information that was necessary from the original to catch people back up for the present story. Prior to the race for franchises to come out with movies as fast as humanly possible, movies like in the Alien series would have years between release dates (Alien came out in 1979 and Aliens in 1986). At the point when Ripley gets her hair cut, we know as an audience that the director is saying “Get the gist of the original? Cool. Now let’s do my movie.”
I really only caught this on my most recent viewing for preparation in writing this. It is interesting to see a clever way of naturally having what amounts to an exposition dumb leading up to the action. The prologue is slow and dark with Ripley being faced with her destruction of government property. In scene when she is facing the board of directors perfectly encapsulates the main plot of the original movie, the tone is similar to the original. When we have an explanation for why the marines and Ripley need to go back to the planet is useful too; it has characters exchanging dialogue about what happened in the previous film, but without blatantly dumping it on to the audience. The two characters in the conversation with Ripley are the audience’s surrogate in the scene, learning the original movie’s plot along with us.
From this semi prologue onward, the seat-belts are hopefully buckled, because this new movie is a crazy mix between new and old, and it can become slightly jarring.
James Cameron’s…Alien? (The Cameron Sequel Effect)
While he has a block of his movie dedicated to getting through the plot of the original, it seems like James Cameron liked the original enough to make his own version of it. There are many elements that have bleeding over effects. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he was trying to completely recreate the story written originally by Dan O’Bannon, but he does.
A similar scenario can be seen between the original two Terminator movies (ugh, this franchise again). These were both written by James Cameron and end up being rather similar when looking at the story beats. The original Terminator is about a normal person becoming involved in a plot to save the future. This normal person is being hunted by a killer from the future but is rescued and semi-trained by a warrior from the same future. In the end, this normal person has become hardened enough to brave the future that they will inevitably fight. The sequel is about the normal person’s SON, who is being hunted by a killer from the future. The son is rescued and protected by another warrior from the future, but this time it’s the KILLER from the first movie.
Now there is more to separate the movies in the Terminator franchise, but the pattern starts to emerge in series’ involving James Cameron. If I were a betting man, I would say he seeks out what is successful, but also put his own stamp on it, and raises the stakes with each installment he is a part of. Ripley is back on the same exact planet from the original, running through corridors that are identical, but this time there are more than just industrial flamethrowers at her disposal. There is the company again, but this time they have their own military full of bad-ass marines. There’s the alien from the title, but now there are hundreds of them. Multiple facehuggers, multiple ventilation sequences, another android explosion with a milk bath, Etc.
This isn’t completely terrible, but sometimes it can be a little forced. Let’s look at Burke (Paul Reiser) as an example, comparing him to his equal character from the previous title. He is a Weyland-Yutani company man that is filling the role of Ash (Ian Holm): the company android aboard the Nostromo. What made Ash imposing as the company man is, despite there being an alien creature aboard the ship, he has no concern for his own safety. Ash is eventually found out to be an android and the puzzle comes together for the audience: he had no concern because he’s programmed to only follow company orders. Now Burke attempts the same sneaky company man moves that we should expect. He plans on infecting someone with the alien, putting them to sleep on the way back to the company, and thus fulfilling Weyland-Yutani’s evil wishes for the alien. This is still fine until we stop and think for a moment. Burke is not a robot and has definite concern for his own safety. Why would he want to risk his half-baked plan when everything has gone to hell and he might not make it out alive? It would make sense if he was secretly a robot like Ash, and was just feigning his cowardice. But we already have our android quota met with Bishop (Lance Henricksen), so that is null (we have to commit to being like the original, remember). It is instances like Burke’s character that make adherence to Alien fall flat.
Marines, Alien(s), and Other New Features
Alright so some things that were held over aren’t great, so let’s look further into this movie at what is new. For starters, this movie has an added “ticking clock” element that was not in the previous film. After events unfold involving a crashed dropship, the team discovers that they now have to deal with a new threat. As if the team’s luck hadn’t already been crappy, said crash damages the planet’s terraforming device, leading to a nuclear detonation. This adds a frantic layer onto the already crazy ride that is this action movie. While it seems slightly forced within the context of the writing, it gets a pass because something has to in this movie. Sometimes movies need ticking clocks, and this 2-hour 15-minute movie could certainly use a pickup at the halfway point.
Ripley has a kid now…but she died. With some hints in the original cut, and more explanation in the director’s cut (more on the different cuts later), the audience is told that Ripley had a young daughter that had died while she was in space hibernation. This was a weird addition to her character. To me, Ripley seemed like a space trucker that didn’t have much personal time to have something like a family. What is more weird is that we are told that Ripley has a daughter, and then in the same breath we are told that she is dead (in the director’s cut; in the original version we are just told that Ripley missed her daughter’s 11th birthday). This trivia is seemingly shoehorned in for this movie’s Jonesy cat: a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). James Cameron decided to write these things in to have some character progression for Ripley. She needed to be more womanly or motherly or something. I seem to remember that Ripley’s character was non-gender specific, which probably explains why the script didn’t have moments where Ripley was motherly. This addition to the movie is strange, creating a needless development for the already interesting character.
The marines are pretty fun…no really; they’re the best part of this movie. They fulfill everything I loved about the original film’s Nostromo crew and add some glorious 80’s one liners and guns. I will admit that there are exactly three marines that I forget with each viewing of this movie, but the rest are everything that most people love about the film. Everything that comes out of Hudson’s mouth is fried gold, and Hicks…well, he’s Kyle Reese from Terminator. Hudson (Bill Paxton), Hicks (Michael Biehn), Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), and even the little bits from Apone (Al Matthews) are great. They all bicker in a way that feels real, like the audience is looking at how they interact off camera. Hudson, above all else, is someone that I quote at least once or twice a week in some way or another. An entire star in the rating of this film is dedicated to when Hudson says literally any of his lines.
Unfortunately, with the sugar of the marines, comes the medicine of the aliens: they suck in this movie. Since this is not framed as a scary movie, the aliens are subject just being things to shoot. Some shots of the face and gross spit stuff are littered throughout, and those shots are neat, but they are generally either puppets or people in suits that explode. They were puppets and suited people in the prior movie, but here the cheap makeup and designs are very visible. Gunfire and squib cuts show weird sequences where it looks like puppets are filled with fireworks and just thrown into the shot. They are no longer the threatening force that they were in the horror slasher movie. James Cameron seems to use the monsters as vehicle for the marines to say funny things. Usually this isn’t a bad thing, but when the monsters suck in the monster movie, there’s not tension anywhere besides the ticking time plot.
With little of substance to actually say about the aliens, it’s finally time to talk about…her.
The Queen: A Near Hit
The two best parts should come out first with regards to the queen. I really like the initial presentation of the Queen. We’ve only seen smaller ones and parasite versions up to this point, and they have painted the walls with acid blood. Here we have something neat with the setup that is yet another callback to the presentation of the first alien. Aliens establishes the key notes for the creature like the first movie did: they have acid blood, they burst out of chests, and they are a threat (unless you have literally any form of firearm). The audience is started off easy with a gritty introduction to the chestburster: completely destroyed by a flamethrower. The rest of the movie has the regular monster fodder: they get blown up left and right. While all of this is going on, there are dialogue bits that hint at a much larger creature that is laying all the eggs on the planet.
Audiences are now starting to put pieces together when, like the colony, Newt is taken somewhere instead of being killed outright by the creatures. Anxiety starts to set in when Ripley is searching for a little girl who is bound and being used to make more creatures. Ripley arrives and kills the monster in the nick of time when suddenly, she finds herself and Newt surrounded by hundreds of eggs. The camera pans across the room with their vision until we come across the big threat: a massive alien laying eggs all around them.
By far this is one of the greatest introductions to a monster in film history. It’s so subtle throughout the movie and yet it has been in the imagination of the audience for the entire film. We have seen many large eggs throughout the two movies, and one could only imagine something that lays an egg of that size. However, once it is on screen, subtlety goes right out the window and BAM! It’s right there and it is going to get you.
Another great moment is the final confrontation between it and Ripley. It takes a good fight scene for me to actually be engaged (if you guys haven’t noticed yet, I only like boring sci-fi). Ripley seemingly popularizes mecha anime with her use of a robot loader from earlier in the film. She tussles with the giant monster and quite literally slaps it around with claw hands. If the rest of the movie was completely dreadful for you, then this will at least get a scuff out of you as a grand finale.
Other than those two aspects, the queen is really lame by itself. It is the age-old solution to making something more of a threat: make it bigger! I know that I said that this was interesting earlier, but it is only made interesting with how it takes its time to be revealed as the larger threat. The escalation of threat levels is exciting, and has a really cool payoff, but it only lasts in two moments. Aliens brings you back into the “same movie but different” theme by shooting the queen out of the airlock, striking the same movie beat as the original. A lackluster send off for a fulfillment of “remember this?”
Closing Thoughts: Less is Sometimes More
The last thing I wanted to touch on for Aliens is the differences between the director’s cut and the theatrical version. Normally there is not a controversy if the director wants to show the audience more with their version of the movie, but in the case of this movie, there comes some complications. Specifically, there is a scene in the theatrical version where Ripley and friends stumble on facehuggers and other weird oddities in test tubes. The colony, paid for and operated by the evil company, has been doing some science experiments while trying to maintain a front where families can live. Ripley and her friends are tense, making the scene work really well. The marines had been briefed that they may come into contact with aliens on this job, but this is the real deal, and it appears Weyland-Yutani isn’t being entirely honest. The damaged transmitter seems much more suspicious when we see an evil lab and people either missing or dead.
In the extended cut, we get backstory on some of the people in the colony. We get Newt’s family discovering the derelict alien spaceship, and other colonial people doing their company jobs. My issue is that everyone depicted in this special scene are all a bunch of space hick dummies: just normal people. Disconnection happens in my brain when I try to put together evil science experiments with space hick people. Aside from Decker possibly being a replicant in Blade Runner, this has to be the most senseless use of over explanation in a director’s cut.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 5 (or, Bishop Milk Blood)
Aliens, for me, has always had a large set of shoes to fill when it comes to meeting my preference in the series. It has a strong base of characters, and it does the action very well, but it seems like it is really trying hard to remind the audience of how cool the original was. Much like the Terminator series, the sequel is just TOO similar for me. All of the tension that I remembered this movie having seemed to be gone in this rewatch and I find myself confused about characterization and other basic movie things. This final verdict would normally be a 3 out of 5, but I had already lamented that Hudson adds a star by himself, so what is a critic to do.
(SHAMELESS PLUG) There is a commentary track that I made with a friend for this movie that I will be posting on my YouTube channel. I will post an announcement once it is up and running. The audio is a work in progress for that type of thing so bear with me while I make those tracks if they become popular. Or I’ll can the whole thing out of embarrassment; be on the lookout for that as well.