THIS TIME, THERE'S MORE
Sequels. So often tried, yet it is the popular consensus that they rarely work out. The first film sets the bar and it is the job of the sequel to clear it, but they so regularly fall short that it feels like a bigger disappointment. There are some sequels out there that probably would have been much better received if it wasn’t for the ghost of their predecessor hanging over them. A sequel to Alien especially would have proved a real challenge. Ridley Scott created a superb and highly influential slice of sf terror, made with vision and brains… where exactly do you go from there? James Cameron had an idea, and thus was given his chance in 1986 with Aliens.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the only human survivor of the Nostromo, is discovered by a salvage ship after 57 years in deep sleep. Back in civilisation, she learns that the same planet where the alien was first found has since been colonised. When contact with the colony is lost, she is sent back to the planet along with a team of marines to investigate.
Frankly, there’s a certain simple genius to Cameron’s idea of what to do with the follow-up to Alien. A kind of genius that you can actually see in most of his work. If Alien was an intense sf horror picture that couldn’t really be topped, why bother trying? Cameron decided to go in another direction by adding a single letter to the original’s title, turning the fear of one into the fear of many. Cameron was also smart enough to know that he couldn’t really compete with Scott’s powerful sense of dread as a horror, so he would just switch tactics altogether and make it an actioner. From this, Cameron came up with what would be the main conceit of his film: Marines versus Aliens. Thanks to this idea, and the character types that Cameron would utilise to such classic degree, Aliens would go on to be the blueprint for modern commando/military unit movies, including the Predator films that would eventually crossover with this series.
Cameron’s direction is of a much broader sense than Scott’s. That’s not to say that it’s stupid, but it’s a far more dynamic approach. Cameron doesn’t want the audience cowering in their chairs, trying to hide from the beast… he wants them to take the aliens head on. He wants to invoke a kind of infectious panic, but in a good way. Less a quivering, jibbering hysteria; more an active sense of confrontation. He wants you to actually be with these soldiers as they enter hostile territory - apprehensive, but prepared. The sheer badassery of these grunts works well to that point. Michael Biehn’s Hicks is calm and level-headed; Bill Paxton’s Hudson is a loudmouth joker; and Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez is the Chick-That-Can-Kick-Your-Ass type 14 years before Michelle Rodriguez cornered that market (There’s the classic exchange between Hudson and Vasqeuz: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?” “No. Have you?”).
The lesser gung-ho characters fill out proceedings well, too. William Hope’s Gorman is the squad leader, but he’s no field operative, so he’s ill-equipped to deal with disaster and the grunts know it. Paul Reiser plays a typical yuppie shmuck in Carter Burke, who looks so sincere that you know he’s going to do something (weird how, even in the future, 80s slimeballs still exist). Lance Henriksen plays the newly Asimov-ised android Bishop with a nice sense of understatement, though it is rather undercut later on in the final battle (he seems to be an android that can feel pain, despite Ian Holm experiencing none in the first film). Carrie Henn as Newt, though occasionally awkward, does very well here, too. This would be the only film Henn ever did, but she does the traumatised bit quite well. She does revert to screaming a lot when I’m not sure she would have survived like she did with that as her first response, but that’s a flaw in the script, not Henn’s performance. And it does save her at least once.
Then there’s Ripley. There’s a sense in Aliens of a different kind of Ripley. In the first film, she was a much more controlled presence. In her confrontations, she was always the calm one. She responded to pressure not with overly emotional displays of crying or shouting or lashing out; she was smarter than that. In Aliens, her smarts are still there, as is her bravery, but she’s less of a still water running deep. She’s more aggressive, forceful. She should be. She alone knows what the team is going in against, and she’s got a better chance making her point by shouting than whispering. Weaver is more than up to the challenge of this more vigorous version of Ripley. She still has the cleverness and the physicality to do what she has to. Ripley’s still awesome.
There are aspects of the film that border on the ridiculous, but these will only be noticed if you’re not going along with the ride. The final battle between the Queen Xenomorph and Ripley in the power-lifter rig is the true test of this. When the bay doors open and Ripley steps out in that hydraulic monster and utters one of the most quoted lines in film (“Get away from her, you bitch!”), a bit of you should be going “Yeah, let’s kill this alien mother!” If you aren’t enjoying the film, because it’s too different from the first film perhaps, this will be the final straw. As it is, I do find it silly, but enjoyably so.
The picture doesn’t just pummel the audience with dumb action, either. Cameron’s film also has some brains, carrying over thematic concerns from the first. I mentioned in yesterday’s piece about Alien having its horror roots in sex, rape, impregnation and birth. Aliens does let go of the more aggressive aspect of this subtext (i.e. the rape) and focuses more on what would be the next stage in the process: Motherhood. I also mentioned yesterday about the matricidal tendencies of the first, with people killing their mothers, either literally or figuratively. In Aliens, the mothers fight back. Ripley effectively becomes mother to Newt (there are actually deleted scenes in which Ripley, after many years in stasis is told of her own daughter’s death, and also one where Newt, having lost her real parents, expressly asks Ripley to be her new mother), and as such goes to incredible lengths to protect her. Similarly, the Queen Xenomorph goes on a rampage after her own spawn are killed. This dynamic of mother-as-protector even has its own moment when, as Ripley and Newt are trying to escape and end up in the chamber with the Queen and her eggs, Ripley threatens the safety of the eggs with her flamethrower in order to force the Queen to give them safe passage out of the chamber, which the Queen allows. It’s a wonderfully effective scene, as Ripley and the Queen Xenomorph find a brief moment of common ground, from one mother to another.
There are also some arguments that have been made about the Marines ill-fated battles with the intergalactic killer species serving as a comment on the state of US military policy, harkening back to the Vietnam War. There, as far as the popular reading holds, American forces were unprepared and overwhelmed by an enemy they didn’t seem to fully understand. They so underestimated the enemy’s tactical capability and lethality, where enemy forces struck from everywhere without warning, that they were at a loss almost immediately. The Marines do have superior firepower and the will to use it, and as such believe that no enemy can beat them. When they enter what has become the Xenomorph’s home territory, they are hammered so quickly and brutally that their numbers are cut in half in a matter of minutes. So devastating is the attack, that Hudson, the loudmouth of the group, instantly buckles. In what has become one of the most quoted lines of the film, he says, “That’s it, man! Game over, man! Game over!” If Aliens does serve as a sort of critique of US military policy, it does so whilst celebrating the sheer balls of the men and women that are entrusted to enforce such policy.
Overall, I can honestly say I don’t enjoy Aliens nearly as much as I did its predecessor. For me, it lacks the full crafted polish, the unsettling atmosphere, the overwhelming tension that rests beneath every scene, the sense that you are watching a project that has been thoroughly conceived from beginning to end. That said, there is still plenty to enjoy in James Cameron’s crack at the series. The characters are fun to watch, the action sequences are strong and it has an effective adrenaline thrill that is of a completely different variety to Scott’s vision. I don’t really think it quite matches up to the high standard of the first, but it doesn’t really try. It goes in its own direction, and it sure is a fun ride to go on.