Jun 5 2012 12:00pm

Not Bad... For A Human: Aliens

On one hand, the republic would not have fallen if there had never been a sequel to Alien. Entire books could be written about how great—bordering very closely on perfect—Alien was as both science fiction and horror, not to mention how brilliant it was as cinema. Its unanswered questions are actually assets, deepening the mystery and thus the horror. But, on the other hand, those unanswered questions provided the basis for Aliens, a massively entertaining and actually quite moving piece of work.

What makes Aliens not only a sequel but a companion piece to Alien is the way it does for the action genre what its predecessor did for horror. Each picture is a master class in its respective genre, from narrative to design to acting, with every element integrated perfectly and contributing to making Alien a near-perfect SF horror movie, and Aliens a near-perfect SF action movie.

The story picks up (almost) where it left off, with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Jones the cat adrift in hypersleep, intercepted by another spaceship. It turns out it’s now 57 years later, and not only are all her Nostromo shipmates dead (minor Alien spoiler) but so is just about anyone she ever met before that ill-fated voyage. Even worse, she finds out that the planet where the Nostromo found the alien is being terraformed by Weyland-Yutani.

Inevitably—if you saw the first movie—Weyland-Yutani lose contact with the terraforming colony, and Ripley is asked to accompany, in an advisory capacity, an elite Marine unit to go get to the bottom of things. They find one survivor. Well, one human survivor...

The differences between horror and action as a genre come into play here, as there are this time, not one, but many malevolent xenomorphs menacing our protagonists (all the more reason for the title not being Alien 2 but Aliens) as well as a sequence of escalating obstacles to overcome. Not to mention in an action movie, the likelihood of multiple protagonists surviving is increased, as action frequently requires a team working together.


That brings us to the cast, which is Aliens’ greatest strength. Ripley, simultaneously hardened by her experiences in the first movie and possessed by a ferocious maternal connection to the lone surviver, grade-school-age girl Newt, becomes an all-time classic character. And she’s not the only one: Marines Hicks, Vazquez, and Hudson are all action movie Hall of Famers (easily the best performances of Jenette Goldstein’s and Bill Paxton’s careers, and is only denied the top spot in Michael Biehn’s due to his having been Kyle Reese and Johnny Ringo). Bishop is one of cinema’s great androids, well-played by the great Lance Henriksen. And the malignant Weyland-Yutani yuppie Burke is both a terrifically oily villain and by several orders of magnitude the best thing Paul Reiser has ever done.

Aliens spends over half its running time with its characters before the action starts, which is not to be confused with it starting slowly. If anything, that time adds to the tension (since we all know at some point people are going to start getting their asses handed to them by H.R. Giger aliens) and invests the audience far more deeply in the people handed their ass. That Aliens’ structure is a steady build makes the feverish intensity of the climax all the more effective: contrast it with so many modern blockbusters, that start out with the volume turned all the way up and leave it there for the whole movie, leading to sensory overload. Aliens manages to reach greater heights and have more impact precisely because it takes its time on the build. By the time Ripley straps into the cargo loader it’s all you can do not to stand up and cheer, out of the sheer exhilarating intensity of the movie as a whole.

Easily one of the best sequels extant, Aliens is arguably the first movie of writer-director James Cameron’s to really feel like his; this is to take nothing away from The Terminator, it’s just that its leanness and the small size of its budget has little to do with the bigger-is-better, more more more James Cameron that would follow. Aliens features the goofy gung-ho banter and overgrown adolescents (neither of which, to be clear, is necessarily a bad thing, certainly not in most James Cameron movies) that would later populate The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, and even Titanic to a degree. Aliens benefits from a freshness the others lack in that regard, as this was Cameron’s first trip to that particular well. It was also an early demonstration, much like The Terminator, that James Cameron knew how to build an action movie that worked. Because he does. Oh does he ever.

Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.

Countdown to Prometheus: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. johnnylump
Burke ... It was Burke.
2. wiredog
That movie cam out when I was in the Army, and I knew every one of the characters in that outfit.
3. Kappi
Nuke it from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
Danny Bowes
4. DannyBowes
@johnnylump --- Oh crap, you're right. Sorry about that.
Theresa DeLucci
5. theresa_delucci
-Have you ever been mistaken for a man?
-No, have you?

Boy, I loved all of those characters. This was as close to perfect as an action movie gets. Avatar was a pale imitation. Casting Sigourney Weaver didn't help. And Giovanni Ribisi's arrogant company man was just a boring re-tread of Burke. I wonder how Charlize Theron will do in Prometheus, since her character seems to be filling that position on the mission.
Joseph Kingsmill
6. JFKingsmill16
Is this gonna be a stnad up fight or just another bug hunt?
7. Trike
As good as Alien is, Aliens is a cultural touchstone with few peers.

It informs an entire industry with its style and storytelling, namely videogames. Doom and Quake wouldn't exist. There is no Master Chief without Aliens. (The ship designs of Halo are practically right out of Cameron's sketchbook.) Even Mass Effect takes design elements from Aliens. and even uses the brilliant (and now classic) "beep... beep... beep" of Hicks' scanner as a sound effect. The game Contra has an Alien Queen as a boss, and Metroid has alien eggs. The StarCraft games borrow liberally from Aliens' designs. The list goes on and on.
Bridget McGovern
8. BMcGovern
@johnnylump-- thanks for catching that! It is indeed Burke--correction made.
9. joelfinkle
The one line "Oops, I made a clean spot; now I'll have to do the whole thing," when Ripley finds Newt, has lead to the concept of "Newting" in our household: fix or clean one bit, and you've Newted it, and are now shamed into completing the task.
Theresa DeLucci
10. theresa_delucci
@9 That's hilarious! When I was a kid, I loved Newt, but as I got older, she's basically the cat of this movie.

And I take issue with saying this is Bill Paxton's best role. It's his most memorable, certainly. He got the best lines! (Game over, man. It's game over.) I really loved him in the Southern-fried vampire flick Near Dark. Paxton played really sadistic and sexy Severin (got the best line in that movie, too) Lance Henrikson played the patriarch of the vampire family, and his wife was Jenette Goldstein. Mini-Aliens reunion! It was written and directed by Cameron's future wife, Katherine Bigelow.

I guess everyone probably know this, but Goldstein did think the auditions for Aliens was about illegal immigrants and showed up in a miniskirt and heels. Always thought it was funny how naturally it was written into the script.
11. nickyowen666
Also, big ups to Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen for being the only two people to fight the Triple Crown: Terminator, Alien, Predator.
Danny Bowes
12. DannyBowes
@theresa_delucci -- Yeah, Near Dark is great, and Bill Paxton's terrific in it. I never heard that Jenette Goldstein audition story before, though, that's a riot.
alastair chadwin
13. a-j
This is one of the very few times I've been in a cinema and the audience cheered (at the 'put her down you bitch' moment, obviously) and prefer this film to Alien which, sadly, I've never really taken to but then I've never really taken to any Ridley Scott film
Sky Thibedeau
14. SkylarkThibedeau
@trike there's no "Starcraft" as we know it either. The Confederation Marines all seem to be based on those from 'Aliens'.
16. Croaker41
#10 I read once that Near Dark was made with left over Aliens budget money and that is why many of the same actors are in it. I don't know how true that is though.

I'll bet I've watched this movie hundreds of times. Some of the best action and one liners ever.

Ripley: "Hicks! this little girl has survived months with no weapons and no training.
Hicks: Then why don't you put her in charge!

Love it.
Joseph Kingsmill
17. JFKingsmill16
@10 my favorite BillPaxton movie is Club Dread as Coconut Pete
Craig Barnett
18. Ommadawn
When Aliens was released, I saw it eleven times at the cinema. I'd never done that before, and never have (or wanted to) since. 'Nuff said.
19. chrisblue77
I love this movie:)

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