Aliens (1986)

2009 #14
James Cameron | 132 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Once upon a time, sequels were universally regarded as Bad — the inferior product of a great original; most frequently a remake in continuation’s clothing. These days we regularly see sequels that continue and expand on their predecessor, frequently leading to higher praise and a better reputation. It’s almost become expected, in fact — look at the number of reviews of Star Trek that express more anticipation for the inevitable sequel than the one just released (my own included). The archetypical “sequel that betters the original” was always James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day — though currently critics often seem to pick X2 — but long before either of these Cameron was ahead of even himself with this sequel to Ridley Scott’s acclaimed sci-fi/horror.

The difference here, perhaps, is that Scott’s movie was so well-regarded and well-known in the first place. But Cameron cannily marks his sequel out by making it totally different, much more so than X2 to X-Men or even T2 to The Terminator. Where Alien is a Horror Movie — but in space — Aliens is a War Movie — but in space. The story structure is somewhat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, for example; the central characters are a team of marines, as opposed to the original’s ordinary guys; where the first film’s design was dark, shadowy and oppressive, here it’s all gleaming tech, tanks and guns and spaceships and the like; and, just to underline the point, the score is full of military drums. If Scott’s could have been translated to any modern-day industrial setting, Cameron’s could be in any modern-day war zone. It works because Cameron builds on the original without ignoring it, and it succeeds because he then makes a fine war movie in its own right.

The elements Cameron chooses to retain from the first film aren’t necessarily obvious, but all are very wise. He continues its believable, realist aesthetic: businessmen wear suits, for example, and while some of the military outfits and weaponry are clearly grounded in sci-fi, it’s all only one step removed from what we see in reality. He’s also not afraid of a slow build-up — thirty minutes passes before they even arrive at the planet, and, just like Scott, he keeps the Aliens off screen for almost an hour. Nor is he afraid of acknowledging the first film, something a less assured filmmakers might shy away from in the hope it would be forgotten and no comparisons would be made. There are many references back to it, but especially the first ten minutes, which are effectively a coda to Scott’s movie before Cameron’s can properly begin.

When it does, the title is apt: Scott’s film had one monster stalking his crew, Cameron has an army of them. Their first appearance is in a brilliantly directed epic skirmish, a solid burst of action that decimates the cast within minutes and helps pay off the slow build. Again learning from Scott, Cameron keeps the creatures in shadow, showing just enough to convey their horror but not enough to make them look silly or ineffectively realised. However, he ensures that when we do see more of them — such as the attack on the base, or the climax with the Queen — what we manage to glimpse still hides any technical shortcomings, resulting in a truly alien enemy that is flawlessly executed. In fact, despite the greater volume of Aliens surely creating a bigger effects challenge, they look even better than in Alien, shorn of such weakness as glove-like hands and keeping the awkward legs (nearly always a shortcoming of creature design) out of shot.

Are the Aliens even creepier and more menacing here? Maybe — there are more of them, which naturally increases the stakes, but we’re also shown even more of they’re capabilities. Despite the all-out battles, Cameron still relies on building tension. As Doctor Who fans will certainly be aware, the film becomes a classic Base Under Siege story once the remaining marines are holed up in the abandoned base, and most of the siege is done without any direct attacks — it’s all preparation, build up, waiting for the big moments. When it comes, it’s one huge attack that then leads straight into the climax — appropriately, the best bit of all. The Alien Queen is a clever invention, creating a Ripley vs Alien finale that mirrors the first film, but ups the ante in line with the new genre by making said Alien bigger and badder. The resulting Power Loader vs Queen battle is justly famous, a flawless marriage of writing (plot, dialogue, seeded elements), effects (without a pixel of CGI, of course), direction and choreography to create a perfect finale.

It’s easy to see why opinions are divided over which of the first two Alien films is better. Both are near-flawless sci-fi masterpieces, but for different reasons. It interests me that Scott’s original comes out top on lists like IMDb’s (though only by 15 places), because on the surface the action movie antics of Aliens would seem more crowd-pleasing. Personally, I’m going to cop out of a decision and merely reiterate that both are excellent and, by being so different but doing what they each do so well, make for a great pair.

5 out of 5

Tomorrow, Alien³.

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