Aliens (1986) Retrospective Review

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Lucas Hill-Paul.

James Cameron Aliens Movie

Aliens (1986)
Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Carrie Henn

I’ve always felt that Aliens just about had the edge over Ridley Scott’s original. Maybe it’s simply because, as a kid, it took me about three distinct occasions to sit down and get through the damn thing, thanks to a combination of its weighty runtime and a hyperactive group of friends. After teasing myself with that gripping opening sixty minutes or so, finally getting the film to myself and witnessing that explosive final hurdle undoubtedly blew my adolescent mind.

Ten years ago, Empire Magazine named the film the best sequel ever made. Perhaps the rankings would change in light of Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049 and a handful of others, but its level of prestige has always stood my opinion in good stead. Since watching it for the first time, I’ve always made sure to use the Director’s Cut upon revisits, as the development of Ripley from a bereaved mother to the guardian of recently orphaned Newt, which is all but missing in the theatrical version, felt like a crucial counterpoint to the colonial marines’ misplaced bravado.

Everything is “bad-ass” in Aliens. Not only does the literal bad-assery of the revolutionary action scenes still hold up remarkably, but the swaggering insistence of the colonial marines to occupy ultra-masculine, hostile personas offer a transparent misdirect for the imminent carnage. The great Bill Paxton strutting around his team of “ultimate bad-asses”, Apone chewing his cigar to shreds, the sick burns and sexual boasts at breakfast. Aliens forged the concept of space marines that inspired so many film and video game properties to come, but it must be remembered that their initial creation was masked by insecurity. There’s a reason why “game over, man!” has resonated so heavily; toxicity and machismo are easy shields to hide behind, but the layers quickly wear thin when tragedy levels the playing field.

Cameron is clearly playing into 80s slasher tropes here in comparison to Scott’s more measured approach to the series’ characters. Unlike the Nostromo crew, the marines “deserve” to die in the cinematic sense, making the final act all the more satisfying when the more resolved, emotionally capable Ripley is once again forced to take her stand against the extraterrestrial threat.

Once the set pieces really get going, it’s easy to appoint Aliens as the standard for action filmmaking, that is until Cameron one-upped himself again with Terminator 2. But the thematic, horrific groundwork established by Scott shouldn’t be forgotten, nor is it. Ripley’s aversion to synthetic lifeforms is tested by Bishop who, after spouting Asimov’s laws of robotics to assure her safety, eventually becomes an invaluable saviour. Now faceless corporations take the place of Ash’s role from the first film. The Weyland/Yutani logo is plastered on every wall and uniform, and Bourke offers an equally chilling counterpoint to the influx of artificial persons, proof that you don’t need to be made of tubing and programming to become robotically unfeeling.

The obsession with spaces remains, and Scott’s slow, exploratory camerawork through spaceship interiors remains, though the USS Sulaco is obviously populated with mechanical weaponry and tools as opposed to the biological parallels of the Nostromo. Once the team reach the infected colony, however, there’s far more emphasis on the biological colonising of the xenomorphs. Cold, sinewy passages drip with bodily fluids and shape corridors like rib cages and oesophagi via mysterious, unseen methods. Framing the aliens as an unstoppable hivemind force, like ants or bees, was a stroke of brilliance. Not only does the insectoid imagery punctuate the species’ otherness perfectly, it makes the foreboding potential existence of the queen an implicit, unthinkable possibility from the first moments on LV-426, and a hopeless inevitability when she finally makes herself known.

One aspect introduced here that I’ve always found to be grotesquely poignant is that both Ripley, in her traumatic nightmare, and the later victim of an emerging chestburster, beg to be killed. Perhaps a less sophisticated horror technique, and the confluence of trauma with suicide or euthanasia is definitely an irresponsible relic of the 1980s, but it still makes the skin crawl.

Plus, Ripley’s arc from immediate despair from the imminent threat of the xenomorphs to destructive determination was frankly unheard of within the horror genre at the time. Nancy Thompson and Kristen Parker’s recurrences throughout the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise are possibly the only comparable contemporaries, but their retainment of victimhood is undeniable. Ripley wasn’t the first female action hero, but her complex portrayal and satisfying arc ensured she wouldn’t be the last.

The Alien franchise would abruptly run out of steam with David Fincher’s unfortunately botched Alien3, and the subsequent attempts to scrutinise and expand on the series’ mythology. Now Disney’s acquisition of Fox has added the property to its increasingly amorphous roster of IPs, perhaps Scott can be redirected away from his misguided prequels, and an independent upstart filmmaker can reboot the franchise under the watchful eyes of the conglomerate’s team of executives. Whatever the future of Alien, this particular sequel remains a landmark in action-horror, James Cameron’s best film, and a high bar for blockbuster filmmaking that is only surpassed perhaps once a decade.

24/24


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