Arguably the best action film ever made, and a top three contender for finest sequel ever, Aliens, the sequel to a classic and a classic in itself, is simply a fantastic film that has frightened, terrified and thrilled audiences since its release in 1986.
The film is a ‘nightmare’ envisioned on the screen – call it Ripley’s nightmare, indeed she’s asleep when we first meet her at the beginning and she’s asleep when we leave her at the end. It’s one of those dreams where you’re being chased and you just can’t seem to wake yourself up, as the thing that wants your blood gets ever closer. What James Cameron was able to do was recreate the adrenaline, the anxiety, the impending terror of ‘those’ dreams, and sit you on a roller coaster as your head spins with images of something unimaginably awful, getting ever closer.
The director doesn’t stop there – maintaining a level of tension and suspense that easily matches the original film, but where Ridley Scott had a languid, operatic pace that forced you to hold your breath, Cameron hits you with fast images, claustrophobic set-pieces and a blurred sense of reality – decipher what is attacking at your own peril. It isn’t as if Cameron neglects Scott’s way of building suspense, he actually embraces it, but it’s the way the two director’s handle the pay-off that differs. Scott is happy to give you a quick shock to the system then let you stew on what you’ve seen, the heart beating ever quicker as the ‘horror’ begins to settle into your system. Cameron on the other hand will hit you with a quick shock then throw you into the coliseum during the battle of the ‘barbarian horde’, and hide the exit. Aliens has an intensity not matched before or after by any action film, especially the film’s finale, which almost never ends. It doesn’t feel never-ending because it isn’t any good, but quite the opposite, in that it works so well at pushing the heart rate past acceptable levels that you’re begging for, at the very least, a little breather so you can actually get a little oxygen to your brain.
Cameron begins the film showing the wide expanse of the galaxy, with the Nostromo’s shuttle slowly moving through space. We begin where Alien left off with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in hypersleep, only now it’s 57 years later. Her ‘pod’ is found by a deep-space salvage team and she is revived, but an investigation team doesn’t believe her story why she denoted the Nostromo to self-destruct. Time passes and Ripley is haunted by memories of her experiences with the ‘alien’, but an opportunity arises to return to the planet as an advisor – she’ll regain the ‘Officer’ status that was taken away from her when the investigation team couldn’t prove her story, and she’ll have a chance to face her demons and conquer them. It is explained to her that since she was in hypersleep, colonists had been sent to LV-426 (the planet where they find the alien in the first film), but due to unexplainable circumstances, they had lost contact with them and were sending a team, along with a protective marine unit, to find out what had gone wrong.
The film is riddled with excellent set-pieces but this is hardly surprising given the premise – in Alien we had one unstoppable beast and very little weapons, now we’ve got lots of aliens and lots of guns and Cameron just throws them together and says, ‘go at it!’ It’s the anticipation of seeing how the enemy copes when human’s throw everything they’ve got at them in order to survive: imagine if Halloween’s first sequel was Mike Myers versus the U.S Army, or the film that actually made it to the screen: Godzilla. Seeing a horde of alien creatures drop from the ceiling and ambush the marines with guns firing this way and that, makes for fabulously claustrophobic action cinema. The consequent escape through the ventilation shafts is even more exciting. Cameron wants the audience to be scared, to be shocked, to be overwhelmed, but first and foremost, he wants the audience to have fun. Everything that happens in Aliens is created to keep you on the edge of your seat, from moments of great tension to moments of sheer excitement. It’s in the anticipation of what might happen where Cameron is able to almost play with the audience – the film has been rightly likened to a roller-coaster ride, because you know what is coming (the big drop, the loop), but it’s in the anticipation that creates the tension and ultimately, the excitement and fun.
The Vietnam connotations are there for all to see: low-tech enemy against high-tech liberator. Cameron is perfectly happy to make a ‘war’ movie in space, but he is less concerned with making any political statements. If anything, he merely accepts that the full-on, ‘blow the crap out of everything’ attitude hardly ever works, and that military power is not always the answer to every problem. It is interesting however, to see how Aliens dips into many genres from the ‘war’ film to the gothic horror movie. Alien is perhaps primarily a science-fiction film, but it has roots firmly in horror, and Aliens again bases itself within the sci-fi world but branches out, sipping whatever fruits other genres can bring to the table. It only gives substance to the idea that Cameron wants the audience to have fun, and if that means widening the film’s generic range, then so be it. I think you’d be hard pushed to find another film that contains the conventions from so many genres (certainly within contemporary American cinema), and yet uses them so well.
Aliens’ detractors will happily brandish the film as mindless explosions and eye-candy, made by a very average, overrated director. I think most people would find it difficult to honestly refute such claims, as Cameron has proved he can’t consistently produce the goods, and the film is full of things blowing up and all things ‘eye candy’. However, there was a time in very early cinema when a train coming into the station ‘wowed’ audiences to the point they thought it was going to keep going and enter the theatre. There was a time when watching workers leave the factory at the end of the day was unbelievably wonderful – just look at this window to the past! Aliens harks back to ‘why’ cinema was used in the first place – the wonderment of the medium, the escapism from our daily lives. It might ask you to leave you brain at the door but that isn’t a bad thing, because totally immersing yourself in its world creates that ‘wonderment’ of it, and you can take a time out from ‘real life’ for a couple of hours. In this area, the film excels.
Like Alien, the film’s sound design and score are a masterstroke, adding an infinite dynamic, the film wouldn’t be half as good without. James Horner, brought in to create the score for the film produces his greatest work (indeed, the finale orchestral music is used on many trailers since), as he brings an almost romantic tone to proceedings, balancing an unnerving battle cry, with moments of true passion and personal emotion. The fabulous sound effects such as the motion tracker ‘beep’, become a haunting icon signaling danger is not far away, and the seemingly constant sound of wind and rain running as an undercurrent keeps the mood somber and unsettling. Additionally, Adrian Biddle’s beautiful photography seems the perfect companion to Horner’s musical awareness – the beating drums coupled with Biddle’s cluttered, ‘busy’ frame attack the senses. Biddle’s photography suggests metaphorically and physically the walls are moving in, not allowing the feeling of ‘dread’ and the claustrophobic atmosphere to leave the frame, and many scenes have a colour tone that reminds of those very nightmares I discussed earlier. The escape through the ventilation shafts is drenched in an ominous, overpowering red, and Ripley attempting to save Newt is engulfed in mist with harsh shadows being created by beams of bright white light, coupled with flashes of orange and red. It really is the stuff of vivid, undecipherable dreams.
The performances are all excellent with Sigourney Weaver being nominated for an Academy Award. Paul Reiser is superb as the slimy corporate figure, while Lance Henrikson is super-cool as android Bishop. The performances help to ground the futuristic world in a believable reality, but it’s also Cameron’s continuation of Ridley Scott’s revolution in sci-fi, keeping the world raw, dirty and industrial much like our present day. The Capitalist nature of this future is not unlike our own present, the verisimilitude assisting the ‘unbelievable’ feel that bit more real. Cameron gives all his character’s very rounded bases and a marine shouting, ‘they’re coming through the goddamn walls!’ or the little girl Newt whispering, ‘my mummy always used to say there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are’ provides the film with an authenticity that most strictly action-fare movies simply don’t have.
When Ripley strides out in the ‘power loader’ and utters those timeless words: ‘Get away from her you b*tch!’ the butterflies will again be fluttering away in the stomach. For the moment has become a small collectors item in the series, and in science-fiction cinema in general. Shortly thereafter the credits are rolling and the ride is over, but I don’t know about you, I’m off for another go.