Director: James Cameron Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton
Much like Cameron’s other seminal, eighties sci fi extravaganza The Terminator, Aliens was a VHS staple of my early teenage years. Taped off the TV and watched so many times the tape was practically worn completely through it is a film that will always remain with me in intricate detail. Even now, after many years have gone by without me watching it, I could probably recite the entire script from memory, so indelibly has it been stamped on my brain. It served as my introduction to the Alien canon and remains my favourite in the series even if (arguably) the first one is considered the best. After the glory that was the newly remastered edition of Alien on Blu Ray, I couldn’t wait to see Aliens in beautiful high definition. There will be some minor spoilers ahead for Aliens and Alien.
It takes up the story where Alien left off. The Nostromo’s lifeboat (the Narcissus, trivia fans) is found floating in deep space by a salvage crew. Ripley is revived from hyper sleep to discover she has been adrift for 57 years. LV426, the planet where she first encountered the alien, has long since been colonised by terraformers. When the company loses contact with the colonists they start to believe her tales of strange and deadly beasts and send in the Marines who she joins in an advisory capacity. Armed to the teeth and arrogant to boot, the Marines soon realise they have bitten off more than they can chew and Ripley is once again fighting for survival against the merciless alien hunters.
Whereas Alien is stalker horror in space, Aliens is much more a war movie in space. The suspense and dark, creeping horror of the first film is replaced here by scale. One alien on its own is bad enough but here they have to deal with a massed colony, working together, intelligent killers stalking their prey. Granted, the Marines have formidable hardware but a succession of planning mistakes, poor leadership and good old fashioned panic eliminates this advantage early on. The team find themselves stranded with limited resources and having to face a far superior force. The tension comes here not from the thing that goes bump in the night but from the realisation that even with all the training and equipment the Marines have, they are still lambs to the slaughter who will need every ounce of resourcefulness and courage to survive their ordeal.
Building effectively on the aesthetic set down in the first film Cameron manages to maintain the feel of realism that is necessary for a film like this to work. Resisting the temptation to demonstrate too much progress with the ship design and technology he keeps the heavy industrial feel of the ships and terraforming installations with a few nods to the systems on board the Nostromo (the drop ship’s guidance system on landing appears to work on the same principle as the Nostromo’s but looks more advanced for example). There is great consistency with the already established parameters of the Alien universe, elaborating on some of the unspoken back story of the first film with the Weyland Yutani Corporation playing a more prominent role. Again, the designs for the vehicles and technology give the impression of things designed for a practical purpose, rather than just trying to make everything look flashy and futuristic.
There are more great performances. Weaver brings Ripley to new levels of fierceness, facing her own demons (literally!) by returning to the wastelands of Acheron and proving her worth once again in the face of abject terror and peril. Cameron wheels out his Terminator alumni – Henriksen, Biehn and Paxton for the major roles in the squad of Marines. Biehn’s cool and confident Hicks is the reincarnation of Kyle Reece. Paxton gets all the best lines as the swaggering Hudson loses his composure in the face of the alien menace and Henriksen is excellent as the understated and soft spoken Bishop. The rest of the Marine cast are perfect for their roles as well, giving a great gung ho performance and living up to the “get some” archetype that, to be fair, most real life Marines seem to live up to as well. Paul Reiser shines in his own snivelling way as the sleazy and untrustworthy company man, Carter Burke. Much like the first film, the chemistry between the cast is electric and really helps all the elements to gel into a wonderfully cohesive whole.
Once again, the sound design is excellent. The screeching wail of the aliens, the hum and buzz of the colony installations, the unmistakable chatter of the Marine’s weapons all add to the experience, creating the chaotic atmosphere of battle wonderfully. Once heard, the quickening pulse of the motion detectors as the aliens close in is never forgotten and is a brilliant device for cranking up the threat level. The attention to detail is magnificent, from the tiniest chirp of a computer console to the echoing thud of a collapsing bulkhead and it serves to complete the illusion of a fully worked out universe. James Horner’s dramatic score is the icing on the cake and really does serve to amplify the film’s most exciting sequences.
Why the second installment of the series has left such an impression on me I’m not sure. It might be because it’s the first one I saw or maybe it’s because it’s the most frenetic. Perhaps it’s because of its themes of technology versus nature, money versus humanity and survival at all costs. Whatever the reason, it is and I suspect will always remain, my favourite Alien film. With the remastering job on the Blu Ray it looks the best that I’ve ever seen it look and even though some of the effects shots look a touch dated the film itself has stood the test of time well. Besides that, who can argue with that ending.