Review: Aliens (1986)



James Cameron
James Cameron, David Gilser, Walter Hill
137 min.
Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, Al Matthews, Mark Rolston, Ricco Ross, Colette Hiller, Daniel Kash, Cynthia Dale Scott, Tip Tipping, Trevor Steedman, Paul Maxwell
MPAA Rating
R for monster violence, and for language

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Source Material

By the mid-1980s, the painful truth was that horror film sequels were terrible. The abysmal second (or in some cases third) chapters of the likes of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Jaws showcased how difficult it was to recapture the magic of the original while building on its reputation. Some of these franchises have managed to have upticks in quality, but that’s an outlier. Today, the disappointment of sequels is second-hand and half-expected when you go into the film. So, in 1986 when the studio decided it wanted to create a sequel to 1979’s Alien, the chances of it being a failure were high. Unlike those aforementioned films and many films thereafter, they decided to give the film a less repetitive name and called it simply Aliens, and the dissimilarities to other films in the genre doesn’t stop there.

Knowing that they had an upward battle to combat franchise fatigue, screenwriters David Gilser, Walter Hill and then-neophyte James Cameron decided to try something new. Instead of trying to stick to the formula established in the first film, they shifted focus from traditional scare-tactic horror and made their film a bit more of a thriller. It worked.

Director James Cameron has proven an innovator in his long career, so it comes as no surprise that his effort on Aliens feels like a watershed moment in both the science fiction and horror/thriller genres. Where most horror films were goosing the gore quotient to elicit excitement from audiences, the visceral nature of Aliens is tempered so as not to override the main thrust of the story, namely that of Ellen Ripley and her attempts to survive an alien attack while now trying to prevent a war-hungry government from getting its hands on what it could use as the next bioweapon or worse.

Speaking out against the militarization of various projects in the modern world, most notably the issues surrounding the Iran Contra affair, Cameron keeps science-fiction in its familiar style by surreptitiously speaking out against the practice. The fact that Iran-Contra didn’t break until after the film was already in release for 5 months before the scandal broke. Iran-Contra was about the illegal sale of arms to Iran while under an arms trade embargo, which isn’t precisely parallel to the plot of Aliens, it’s thematically similar, which makes it seem all the more prescient.

Even without the societal parallels that have often helped define the science fiction genre, Aliens is a tightly constructed yarn that has no problem keeping its audience’s attention rapt. Weaver takes what she built in the first Alien film and further defines her iconic character of Ellen Ripley as one of the smartest, sexiest and toughest women ever created on the big screen.

The rest of the cast is equally up to task, just like the stars of the original film. One of the integral characters of the franchise has been the human-like automaton first embodied by Ian Holm. (spoiler warning) Holm’s physician provides one of the most startling revelations in the first film and is replaced in this sequel by Lance Henriksen who is more than capable of imparting this new model with a dash of humanism he later concedes is part of his new programming. Bill Paxton is good, but gets a bit annoying at times with his hyper-macho attitude; while Michael Biehn comes off best. Even Paul Reiser who I remember first seeing on Mad About You plays his part well (spoiler warning) for a complete, self-centered jerk. Like the original Alien, a lot of these actors had already made names for themselves or were modestly well known in smaller circles but wouldn’t be as familiar to audiences without their work here.

Cameron’s second feature, also in the sci-fi genre, proved he had a suitable understanding of the genre; while not all of his future films would stand as equal to Aliens, it’s clear his work here influenced what would come after not only in his own canon of films, but also in the wider sci-fi genre itself.

To pick a favorite between Alien and Aliens is a daunting task, one which pits one masterpiece against another, but I’ll favor the original here for the simple reason that it had scrapes, scares and inventiveness that wasn’t as evident in the sequel. This film does yield Weaver’s best performance of the series and the effects are more modern and for being a sequel to a popular horror film, they did a fantastic job avoiding common pitfalls and hazards to which so many others succumbed.
Review Written
June 6, 2012

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