Aliens (1986) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexual references, gore, scary images and language
Running Time: 137 min. (theatrical) / 154 min. (director's cut)
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein, Al Matthews, Mark Rolston
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron
Review published July 12, 2004
Debates may rage on as to whether Aliens is actually a better film than Alien, and I'm of two minds myself on it myself, but regardless of the conclusion, one thing is clear -- they are both exemplary works of science fiction cinema. Ultimately, where you stand will probably have more to do with what kinds of movies you have a preference for. If you like intelligent, absorbing sci-fi and atmospheric horror, Alien is the choice. If you like adrenaline-charged action and mind-blowing special effects, Aliens gets the nod. Or if you're anything like me, and love both styles of movies, you'll be in for a treat, as both films are near the tops of the list no matter which way you try to slice it.
Aliens is the right way to do a sequel. It carries the storyline where the first film leaves off, and rather than regurgitate the formula, it takes the story into a new direction, and does so without ever losing momentum in the process. There is also a maturation in the characters, all of whom change as the film drives forward, rather than stay stuck in shallow stereotypes. Ripley (Weaver, Ghostbusters) started off Alien as your average woman who is thrust into bravery out of necessity, and this trend continues, seeing her go the distance in becoming a full-fledged soldier in doing what's right (from a humanistic point of view). Even the supporting characters change on a smaller scale, with the diminutive Newt learning that she can trust someone again, while the big-talkin' Hudson (Paxton, Apollo 13) eats a bit of humble pie once he gets a taste of how dominating the menace truly is. This isn't just great action, it's terrific character development, and while the technical aspects do leave a lasting impression, it's really the quality screenwriting by Cameron that allows the film to pay off in a large way as the film heads toward its explosive conclusion.
Although the film starts where the first film leaves off, with Ripley in a cryogenic sleep drifting in the escape shuttle, what Ripley doesn't know until after she is rescued is that she has been that way for 57 years. When she gets back, the company that owned her ship is very interested in why she decided to blow it to smithereens, and are not too impressed with her implausible "alien on board" story, since they have recently inhabited the newly terraformed world Ripley claims to have encountered the alien on, and have found nothing to indicate there is any danger there. That is, until the company loses all signal from the far-off settlement, and offer Ripley full reinstatement if she will act as advisor to a squad of Marines sent to investigate the affair.
With intensity that builds to a fever pitch, Aliens is a true rollercoaster ride that only accelerates to white knuckle proportions right up until the cataclysmic ending. This is action filmmaking at its finest, with complex plot developments, an absorbing science fiction backdrop, and truly heinous villains to make you squirm in your seat. The funny thing about it is, I'm only describing the second half of the film. The first hour is almost nothing but plot and character development, with only the merest hints of an alien monster to be found. You'll never notice, because the drama is every bit as interesting as the further action scenes, working perfectly in concert to make each half all the more satisfying.
It's a great action, science fiction, horror, and war film all rolled into one -- working so wonderfully on all levels that you almost forget the underlying social commentary on the evil motivations of corporate greed and the continuation of the female as action hero that Cameron (True Lies) would perfect in the Terminator films. It's a dark and sticky descent, but effectively so, as the grotesque imagery only makes the situations all the more horrific, and the danger to the precious little girl Ripley all but adopts all the more immediate.
Aliens is absolutely must-see for anyone who has seen Alien, and both films are essential viewing to anyone who enjoys science fiction and horror. Sadly, this is also the final film in the Alien series that I even claim to be part of the story, as subsequent entries do little more than destroy almost every facet that made the first two films so wonderful to behold. Cameron's mastery of action is prodigious, Weaver's Ripley is fantastic, and the special effects wed the story to perfection. Pure adrenaline for all action junkies -- it's one of the best thrill-rides ever made.
-- Followed by two sequels, Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, and the prequels, Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.
©2004 Vince Leo