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Review: Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986)

Directed by: James Cameron

Premise: A sequel to 1979’s Alien. Decades after Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) encountered the xenomorph on LV-426, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation has colonized the planet. When contact with the colony is lost, Ripley returns to LV-426 with a platoon of soldiers.

What Works: Ridley Scott’s Alien was a groundbreaking picture that mixed the used future style of Star Wars with the intense horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The movie had been a tremendous success and would subsequently become one of the most influential science fiction and horror movies ever made. For the sequel, 20th Century Fox recruited James Cameron who at that point had only one notable picture to his credit, 1984’s The Terminator. Cameron wrote and directed (from a story co-credited to David Giler and Walter Hill) and the resulting film stands with The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Dark Knight among the greatest sequels Hollywood has ever produced. By 1986, sequels had become a firm part of Hollywood’s business model but a lot of sequels were retreads of their progenitors. Aliens took a different approach and the movie represents exactly what a sequel ought to do; it expands the story world, escalates the drama, and develops the characters. To start, Aliens was a different kind of movie that its predecessor. Alien was a slasher movie on a spaceship but Aliens borrowed liberally from westerns and war films. Made after the Vietnam conflict (but before Desert Storm), Aliens presented soldiers in a hopeless situation that had more to do with Oliver Stone’s Platoon than Rambo: First Blood Part II. In this respect, Aliens strikes an important balance. It maintains the harshness and cynicism of Alien but it is also more action oriented and thereby provides a fresh experience that is still germane to the original idea. Aliens did more than just increase the firepower. It also provided deeper characters. The picture is led by Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and her character is given considerable depth. She suffers from post-traumatic stress and her return to the planet puts Ripley on a path to confront her fears. Ripley is both the warrior and the nurturer through her relationship with Newt, a young girl who is the last survivor of the colony. As Newt, Carrie Renn is impressive with much more nuance than we usually expect from a child actor. Among the soldiers, Michael Biehn stands out as Corporal Hicks. Although he is as tough as his comrades, Hicks is more than a grunt. He’s intelligent and even sensitive in a way that gives him more depth than the average sci-fi hero. Aliens also expands the story world of the series. The film smartly parallels the cold corporate logic of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation with a fuller explanation of the xenomorph life cycle. This enriches the story world and makes for more compelling drama by compounding the forces that are stacked against the heroes. The bigger scale of Aliens allows the special effects crew and the art department to fill out the story world. The production design is a natural extension of the original film and the costume and set design of Aliens creates an immersive and convincing environment. The special effects artists showcase some impressive work. The alien queen is a fantastic creation and Aliens has some of the best action sequences to be found in the science fiction genre. There are two different cuts of Aliens: the 137-minute theatrical cut and the 154-minute special edition. Unlike some extended cuts, the longer version of Aliens is actually a better film than the theatrical cut. However, the most important restoration isn’t an action scene but a character detail in which we learn that Ripley had a child who died while she was lost in space. That speaks to James Cameron’s priorities as a filmmaker. As much as he loves the spectacle, his work has always maintained a human touch that distinguishes his movies—and especially Aliens—from so many imitators.

What Doesn’t: Aliens was a product of 1986 and while the mechanical effects continue to impress, there are a few shots that appear to be accomplished with rear-projection techniques that haven’t aged very well. But these are few and far between. Aliens has a sizeable cast and a lot of the supporting actors don’t get to do a whole lot. In particular, Private Vasquez and Lieutenant Gorman (Jenette Goldstein and William Hope) are underutilized. Aliens hints at a deeper and more complex relationship between them but the movie doesn’t allow for it even in the extended cut. There are two additions to the longer version of Aliens that are redundant. The first is an early sequence on LV-426 in which the colonists encounter the alien ship. The sequence is cool but unnecessary and it spoils the surprise when the marines arrive on the planet. Another dubious addition is the automated machine gun sequence. This scene is fun but it doesn’t actually accomplish anything and its absence is not felt in the theatrical cut.

DVD extras: There have been many DVD and Blu-ray releases of this film. The disc in the Alien Anthology box set includes the theatrical and special edition versions of the film, a commentary track, isolated score tracks, and deleted and extended scenes. The set also includes additional discs with documentaries, featurettes, image galleries, and behind the scenes artifacts.

Bottom Line: Aliens is both a great sequel and a great film in its own right. The movie established a benchmark to which other sequels aspire and it provides an example of complex storytelling and nuanced characterization within an entertaining science fiction and horror picture.

Episode: #618 (October 30, 2016)