2 Hrs., 17 Mins.
he sequel to Alien (1979), Ridley Scott’s saturnine body-horror classic, was intended to arrive earlier than 1986. In 1979, not long after the latter film had become an international critical and commercial phenomenon, it was announced by David Giler, then a co-owner of the Brandywine Company (who co-produced Alien), that he and his fleet of moviemakers aimed to make a follow-up immediately. Evidently, that didn’t happen. Amid personnel changes at 20th Century Fox, plans had to be postponed. Perhaps this was a good thing: An expeditiously mapped and produced sequel ups chances of inferiority. Haste can only increase possibilities of a
botched development of the narrative.
It wasn’t until around 1983, after financial disputes and development woes were settled, that dedication to protracting the world Scott had created all those years ago was renewed. Interest furthered that summer when Larry Wilson, a development executive tasked with finding a screenwriter, stumbled upon the budding filmmaker James Cameron’s script for The Terminator (1984). Though Cameron’s industry experience at that point had only come in the form of co-writing 1981’s Piranha II: The Spawning, Wilson recalled knowing immediately that Cameron would be the right person for the job.
After the inevitable offer came, Cameron was enthusiastic, and quickly wrote a 45-page concept screenplay. Obstacles, of course, came about. Fox executives were not preemptively fond of the pitch; delays burgeoned; and, obviously, Cameron would put the Alien sequel on the backburner and first move forward with the production of The Terminator.
The Terminator’s success, however, was enough to push Aliens to the fore. And the resulting film, which would be released in 1986, impressively avoids looking like a recapitulation of Alien. Pulpy and propulsive, it is by and large a kinetic actioner — an unrelenting whirlwind of gun battles and bloody, often frightening extraterrestrial showdowns. It can be viewed as a standalone film. Whereas Alien might more easily be grouped next to the body horror-centric works of David Cronenberg and the more phantasmagoric projects of John Carpenter, Aliens is homologous to the films of George Miller and the Wachowskis, both known for their relentless, sci-fi-leaning action movies.
Staying the same, though, is the unsinking sensation of terror. Aliens is not as much an escapist cinematic roller coaster as it is a strenuous, hellacious nightmare so intense that we’re more throttled by it than we are comfortably thrilled. Yet the throttling is so proficient and unparalleled, we’re more than happy to let Cameron and his band of moviemakers grab us by the lapels and swing us around a few times.
In the film, the dogged Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of Alien. Though at the end of that film she locked herself in a stasis chamber programmed to move toward Earth’s direction, she is thwarted in Aliens: After floating in a shuttle for 57 years, she is taken in by a salvage ship owned by her previous employers, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
Although Ripley informs her new superiors that the deaths of her co-workers — not to mention the destruction of her ship, the Nostromo — was the responsibility of a hostile, multi-fanged alien creature(s) — all surrounding her are doubtful of her claims. That doesn’t stop them, though, from encouraging her to embark upon a new mission with a coterie of astronauts. All it entails, the apparent nice-guy representative Burke (Paul Reiser) says, is that she and her team travel to LV-426 (where her former crew first came into contact with the alien creatures) and destroy any beasts they find there. LV-426 supposedly now homes a terraforming colony populated by humans. Nevermind the fact that Weyland-Yutani lost contact with them ages ago.
Expectedly, Ripley and her team do not come to stumble upon a utopia but rather a hellscape — one in which the alien creatures are still, much to her dismay, looking for new hosts. Once again, Ripley is beset with the onus of leading the fight against the beasts, a task made more urgent by the fact that an elementary-aged girl (Carrie Henn) somehow managed to survive the massacres that destroyed the colony. The motivations of Burke and his accompanying Weyland-Yutani, predictably, remain murky.
Structurally, Aliens moves about without too many twists: it’s a narratively undemanding survival thriller where the usual everyone-will-be-picked-off-one-by-one trope is enacted, guaranteeing that our unwearying Ripley entertains us by figuring out just how exactly how to outsmart this cortège of slimy brutes. But how Cameron gets us there is merciless and seamlessly thrilling; your muscles are never given the chance to slacken once the carnage kicks off.
Most of the film is characterized by a startling succession of perfectly executed sequences of suspense and genuinely nightmarish design, topped off by a Weaver performance so prodigious that you’re pressed to think of another action protagonist capable of inspiring as much awe. This is virtuosic genre filmmaking able to be rewatched in the ways its predecessors — and perhaps its successors — arguably cannot be. A