As kids, my brother and I had a penchant for wrapping our plastic weapons together with duct tape and tip toeing through our home in search of extra-terrestrial life. “Check those corners,” I would say while clasping my Nerf gun turned pulse rifle, which was attached to a yellow and green Super Soaker turned grenade launcher. At some point, one of us would yell, “Contact!” before leaping about the floor and blasting imaginary Xenomorphs to smithereens. Inevitably, one of us would always get sprayed by acid and (oddly enough) morph into the Alien King.
Yeah, it didn’t make much sense then, either, but when your 11-year old life revolves around James Cameron’s 1986 masterpiece Aliens, you do what you can with what you got. (To be fair, there weren’t a lot of Aliens-themed toys on the market aside from those 1992 Kenner figures.)
I first saw Aliens on network TV sometime in 1990 or 1991 on a school night, a detail I remember because my parents turned the film off immediately after Ripley and Co. blasted off to space, which meant I was robbed of the big Ripley vs. Queen fight that occurs in the final final part of the flick. It didn’t matter. Everything I saw up until that point was magic — Ripley’s badassery, James Horner’s fierce score, the mind-blowing set pieces, the intense action, the quotable lines (“Game over man!”), Sigourney Weaver’s Academy Award-nominated performance, the strong supporting cast led by Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser, Lance Henricksen, Carrie Henn and Jenette Goldstein … Aliens was pure gold.
The film often played on FOX Night at the Movies or during Sunday afternoons on random channels like WGN where the editing and dubbing was particularly egregious. We had several recorded copies over the years with varying degrees of quality and I actually memorized when each commercial break occurred so that I could zip through them on our high-tech VCR — for some reason, the networks decided it was a good idea to cut to commercial right before Dietrich happened upon the cocooned woman; and later, right after Newt slid down the chute following Vasquez and Gorman’s death. Talk about ruining the tension.
Still, I didn’t fully appreciate Cameron’s epic until I purchased the 1997 Widescreen Series VHS — my first-ever widescreen purchase, in case you were wondering — and really got a good look at those astonishing VFX. From that point on, Aliens has steadily risen on my All-Time Favorite Movies List.
Make no mistake, this is one of those films you have to include when playing The Desert Island game — and not as one of Meredith’s guilty pleasures, ala Legends of the Fall, Legally Blond, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Bridges of Madison County — because it really is that good.
So, what makes Aliens work so well? And why does it actually look better than most movies produced today? The film cost $18.5M in 1986 (on par with Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II and other films released the same year) but actually looks like a $100M+ blockbuster, which is really hard to do.
The answer to the above questions regarding why Aliens works so well is easy: James Cameron. The man. The myth. The legend. Cameron has directed just eight films, but each one (aside from Piranha II: The Spawning) is a classic — The Terminator, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar. Wow.
Aliens came right after Terminator and helped cement Cameron amongst the power players of the 1980s. I won’t delve too much into the intense production — read J.W. Rinzler’s fantastic The Making of Aliens for all the juicy info — suffice to say, Cameron did a lot for very little utilizing a ridiculous amount of unique techniques he learned while working under Roger Corman in the early 80s. Cameron’s attention to detail and willingness to go the extra mile (and, by default, pushing others to their absolute limits) is what makes Aliens such a special cinematic creation.
Of course, no film is complete without characters or story, and it’s here that Aliens truly excels. Interestingly, Cameron follows the basic template laid out by Ridley Scott’s equally stupendous Alien in 1979 — i.e., a distress signal lulls a group of unwitting travelers to LV-426 where they encounter nasty extraterrestrials, Ripley assumes command when the leadership fails/dies and eventually goes it alone in the third act before battling the big bad one-on-one in the climatic finale — but ups the ante by expanding the character of Ripley and her mysterious foes.
In Alien, for example, Ripley was part of a seven-member crew heading back to Earth. We learn very little about her person, except that she can handle herself and take charge when needed. In Aliens, Ripley grapples with the events of the first film and hesitantly agrees to return to LV-426 with a group of Space Marines if only to purge her personal anguish.
“Just tell me one thing, Burke,” Ripley says. “You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out.”
“That’s the plan,” responds Carter Burke. “You have my word on that.”
“All right, I’m in.”
Much like Rambo, in Aliens Ripley is a reluctant hero who agrees to do a job because she has no other choice and doesn’t trust others to complete the task. She simply cannot stand idly by knowing the Xenomorph exists somewhere in the vacuums of space.
Plus, at this point, what does she have to lose? We learn Ripley was adrift in space for 57 years in between films; and a deleted scene further reveals she left a daughter behind, a character beat that aids in her emotional connection with young Newt later on in the film. (Why was this scene cut?!)
Newt is the film’s biggest gamble. Look, most films featuring kids usually suck. In this case, Newt works because she fleshes out Ripley’s character and gives the character something meaningful to fight for. Plus, it adds more layers to the overarching Mother vs. Mother conflict.
Also, as an aside, Carrie Henn is terrific as Newt.
Cameron also ensures the action in Aliens serves the story. Here, every character choice (no matter how positive or negative) carries repercussions that sets up the next scene or Act.
For example, when Drake and Vasquez defy orders and fire their M56 Smartguns during the firefight in the Alien Hive, the cooling towers are ruptured thus setting up a need to flee LV-426 as quickly as possible. Carter Burke then accelerates his plan to harvest Ripley, Newt, and the remaining Marines by haphazardly dumping two face huggers in the Med Lab … which leads to the Futile Escape sequence … which leads to Vasquez and Gorman’s death … which leads to Newt’s capture … which leads to Ripley’s Rescue … which leads to the Alien Queen smackdown.
Cameron never includes action scenes just for the hell of it. Like a well-oiled machine, everything happening in his films works together to serve a larger purpose to the central narrative.
Likewise, the climatic Ripley vs. Alien Queen showdown packs a punch because both characters have pre-established motives based around their figurative children — Ripley must defend Newt, while the Queen must avenge the loss of her eggs. In a weird way, we understand the Queen because her rage matches the anger Ripley displayed earlier when she lost Newt.
Indeed, it’s interesting how both mothers react similarly when their children are taken from them.
Cameron also ensures all of Ripley’s actions throughout Aliens are almost always directly related to the events of Alien where Ripley, despite her better judgment, relented to her superiors, namely Dallas, Kane, Ash, and Mother; and failed to impose her will until it was too late.
By contrast, in Aliens, Ripley blatantly ignores Lieutenant Gorman’s orders during the Alien Hive battle and takes control of the situation immediately following the initial alien encounter.
Ripley successfully changes her life for the better. When we first see her, she lies in cryosleep alone, save for a cat, and endures horrible nightmares. By film’s end, against all odds, she has eliminated her greatest fear, saved Bishop and Hicks and gained a daughter in Newt.
In other words, she takes back everything that was taken from her in Alien, which is why it’s so upsetting when Alien 3 randomly erases all of these accomplishments during the opening credits.
I mean, imagine if John Conner was killed following the events of T2! That would be really stupid and basically negate all of his actions.
Even side characters like Lt. Gorman and Vasquez enjoy powerful arcs. I love how, facing death, the duo clasp hands similarly to how Vasquez and Drake did earlier in the film. There’s also the bit where Burke labels Hicks “a grunt” before adding, “no offense,” which Hicks echoes later when they have Burke cornered. These minor character details are as important to Aliens’ success as the aforementioned technical aspects, and a reason the film holds up all these years later.
Look, I’ll be frank: Aliens is a perfect film. No, really, it’s a perfect film. Everything about this movie works, and I haven’t even delved into James Horner’s pulse-pounding, anvil-clanging score that plays over my favorite sequence:
Aliens is one of those movies I wish I could go back in time and watch with an audience on opening night. Can you imagine this moment with an exuberant crowd?
Thirty-five years later, Aliens remains damn near unmatched because James Cameron took the time to deliver a pulse-pounding, action-packed, character-driven sequel that rivals the genius of its classic predecessor.
Aliens isn’t just a great sequel, it’s one of the greatest films ever made.