Aliens (1986)

Info SidebarAliens is a James Cameron film, through and through. It is packed full of explosions and soldiers firing at shadows in the dark. It is chockablock with preposterous stunts and last-minute rescues. It carries a strong political message. Its heroine is taken for a psychopath and then later expected to aid the government. It has a greedy, conniving, manipulative human villain. It’s got special effects all over the place. It’s dark and gloomy, and seems to inhabit a world similar to the future in Cameron’s 1984 The Terminator. And did I mention the explosions?

Now, I’m not sure if some of the stuff I’m about to explore falls into the spoiler section, so if you haven’t seen this movie, maybe you should stop reading here. Just to be safe.

The aliens in this movie — the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 suspense masterpiece — are plentiful, and they come hard and fast, devising new ways of reaching our merry band of soldiers, and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). They know how to avoid weapons. They know, in one of the movie’s most toenail-curling moments, how to use the air ducts instead of the front door. And their leader, the monstrously grotesque Alien Queen, surprisingly knows how to operate a cargo lift. Yet for all their cunning, they reminded me not of vicious killers, but of zombies being lined up for slaughter. The structure of this movie is very much like the structure of a zombie apocalypse, but without a queen laying zombie eggs. Deadly minions infest an interstellar colony. They move quickly and in large numbers. They seem almost impervious to gunfire (only direct shots to the head, or an explosion, will do them in good). Because of their confined environment, they have to move in single file, which means getting those head shots in isn’t as difficult as it sounds. And they always seem to come back for more, each time setting themselves up for new ways of getting killed.

I personally have nothing against this. Credit must go to Cameron for making the conscious decision to not film a retread of Scott’s suspense-filled Alien. That movie was built like Jaws. The Alien was a lone predator that snuck around corners and hid in claustrophobic chambers. It didn’t show itself until it was absolutely necessary, and it made the darkness a terrifying place to be. In this movie, the Aliens are compared to ants and bees; they spawn from the eggs of a queen, who spends most of her days glued to a massive tubular egg sag and moans and whines as the eggs slowly but surely exit through the rear end. The movie is an action romp from start to finish. Sure, it takes us more than an hour to see the first Alien, but by then we are wondering why it hasn’t popped up sooner.

The story begins with Ripley being retrieved from the escape pod we last saw her in at the end of Alien. She’s been in cryo-sleep for 57 years, and the world has changed around her. Her daughter is dead, and humans have colonised the planet on which her commercial crew first discovered the extraterrestrial spacecraft. The agency that rescued her refuses to believe her stories of the Alien, and decides to put her under monthly psychiatric care. But after reports of a family disappearing on the alien planet sound through the agency’s thick skull, it decides to send Ripley back. Enter, Burke (Paul Reiser), the scheming, manipulative worm of a man responsible for organising a team of Marines and persuading Ripley to take the job. Ripley finds that the only way to stop her cold sweats and constant nightmares is to accept.

Once the team lands on the planet all hell breaks loose. You can imagine what’s become of it after reading about the Queen and her eggs. Imagine a large chamber once filled with children and laughter. Now remove the children, remove the laughter, and replace them with countless alien eggs. And then redesign the facility walls by adding organic sludge and slime. Everyone is dead. The planet is a wasteland, save for the aliens. The Marines barge in all gung-ho, as if they realise that this is their one shot at reenacting Nam. Soon they’re reduced to pockets of survivors and they realise that this isn’t what they signed up for.

Aliens is a dark movie. There is no daylight. None at all. Everything takes place in the gloom of the planet’s facility. Even the landscape is shrouded in a perpetual fog and blown over with high winds. It’s also dark because all its characters are not expected to come out alive, except perhaps for Ripley. Cameron assaults our senses by flooding the screen with an endless supply of bullets, suppressing fire, explosions, aliens, more explosions, special effects, more bullets, and so on. It’s a lot to take in, even for 2 and a half hours. But I suppose it does what it set out to do, and that is to be a uniquely independent movie from the first one. Do I prefer it? No. I believe a creature like the Alien belongs in the shadows. But I do think it’s a good adventure. In an alien-zombie kind of way.

Best Moment | Hmmm. The air duct shot. Or the Alien rising out of the water behind a poor little girl.

Worst Moment | The lift scene.

This is a review of the 1992 Special Director’s Cut edition, which has 17 minutes of additional footage. It explains more clearly the relationship between Ripley and Newt, a plot detail that proves highly consequential to the overall story.

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