In 1986, I was obsessed with “Star Wars” cartoons and toys and not even aware of the “Aliens” franchise, which is appropriate, because I would’ve been too young for it. But I can imagine what people thought going into the theater: “OK, here’s Ripley from the first movie, taking us back into the world of ‘Alien,’ a place we aren’t entirely sure we want to return to. And it’s from the director of a weird little sci-fi/romance story from a couple years ago called ‘The Terminator.’ Well, it’s worth a shot at least.”
“Aliens,” of course, became a classic just like its predecessor, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best sequels of all time. Some even count it as a rare sequel that’s better than the original (the public has them in a dead heat, both scoring 8.5 out of 10 at IMDB). On this rewatching, I wouldn’t go that far. There’s a lot to like about “Aliens,” but it clearly owes its existence to the original and largely copies the structure of “Alien,” just beefing up the volume of xenomorphs and the muscle that goes against them, thus shifting the genre from horror to war.
A lot of modern movies spring from the question “Wouldn’t it be cool if …” That’s the reason why the “Aliens vs. Predator” movies exist, and also why they are (rightly or wrongly) discounted even by some fans. “Aliens” was on the ground floor of this blockbuster movement: Wouldn’t it be cool if a bunch of Aliens went up against a bunch of bad-ass Marines?
The result really is “‘Alien’ on Steroids,” but to writer-director James Cameron’s credit, everything that worked in the first movie works again here. A highlight is the personalities of the Colonial Marines, particularly Bill Paxton’s Hudson, who has me grinning at his one-liners on every viewing. Yet he also undergoes a character arc, as a montage of Hudson’s dialog attests.
The growing mutual respect between Ripley and Hicks (Michael Biehn) is enjoyable, too, as is Ripley’s attachment to the colony’s only survivor Newt (Carrie Henn). On the latter point, I watch the whole arc thinking about how Ripley’s own daughter died while Ripley was in hypersleep for 57 years, even though — like many fans — I didn’t experience this juicy detail until the “Aliens Special Edition” (Cameron’s director’s cut) came out on VHS in the late 1990s. It was released on 1991, but only on laserdisc, and I remember wondering back in the mid-’90s if any of my friends’ families were rich enough to own a laserdisc player and happen to be “Aliens” fans. We truly are spoiled today.
Despite sharing many traits with modern blockbusters, “Aliens” — although it has some beautifully blue-tinged space shots — also exists in a fairly primitive era of special effects. The tight structure of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” in some ways has allowed that film to age better than Cameron’s, in which the drop-ship’s flight scenes are clearly blue-screened and there is a skimpy amount of views of the actual aliens at times.
The film mostly makes up for it with the iconic final act sequence where Ripley blows away eggs and alien warriors and puts a few dents in the queen with a flamethrower, machine gun and grenades. But until then, it’s disappointing, for example, to be watching a computer screen showing the number of bullets in the sentry gun counting down, rather than watching a hallway full of aliens exploding. Indeed, when I watch that scene, I feel like we’re supposed to think the guns are shooting at nothing — that the aliens somehow tricked the sensors.
Despite the film’s slight taste of beefed-up remake — it even duplicates the loudspeaker countdown to destruction, one of the hoariest aspects of any blockbuster final act — it did succeed in making “Aliens” into a true franchise. Dark Horse picked up the comic-book license and, a few years later, created the popular “Aliens vs. Predator” universe by merging it with another 20th Century Fox property. In an infamous continuity error, Dark Horse chronicled the adventures of Ripley, Hicks and Newt post-”Aliens,” not realizing that the latter two would never wake from their sleep pods, as revealed at the start of “Alien 3″ (1992). Dark Horse then reprinted those comics and changed the names of Hicks and Newt while making Ripley into an android, but I don’t think it needed to have bothered; no one could’ve imagined the next film would throw away two central characters in that fashion.
“Aliens” doesn’t ratchet up the discussion of sci-fi ideas the way this summer’s “Alien” prequel “Prometheus” does, and perhaps Scott was scratching his head even back then and dreaming up ideas for Space Jockey yarns while Cameron was blowing up acid-filled alien-warrior heads and affirming Ripley’s status as — to use an overused phrase — “a rare female action hero.” But “Aliens” is a classic in terms of characters, action and special effects, and it’s certainly a film we sci-fi geeks have never tired of quoting.
This blog post is “Game over, man, game over,” but you’re welcome to discuss “Aliens” further in the comment thread.