Holidays are one of the best reasons to watch movies, among the literally trillions of other reasons to watch movies. Christmas offers a cornucopia of choice, from timeless classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, to adopted festive films like The Wizard of Oz and Jurassic Park, to the best and least-festive Xmas flick of them all: Gremlins. Other occasions do not offer so many options. For my money, Mother’s Day offers only one serious option, one of the greatest sequels ever made, James Cameron’s Aliens. If Alien turned Ellen Ripley into a hero, Aliens is where she ascends to the status of true badass, one of the Holy Trinity of amazing sci-fi movie heroines alongside Sarah Conner and Leia Organa. Aliens expands upon the original concept into a very different kind of film, and confidently ticks every box on the ideal sequel checklist.
57 years after the USCSS Nostromo‘s fateful encounter with the vicious Xenomorph, sole survivor Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued by a deep space salvage team. Upon discovery that during her extended suspended animation that a colony has been established on the planet where the alien was discovered, LV-426, and that said colony has gone silent, she joins the deceptively chummy company man Burke (Paul Reiser) and a squad of hardened space marines to investigate what has happened. They find the colonists slaughtered and the place overrun by dozens of Xenomorphs, and the marines’ first contact leaves them decimated and terrified. Those left alive, including Ripley, Michael Biehn’s Cpl. Hicks, Carrie Henn’s young colonist Newt, and Lance Henriksen’s serene android Bishop, must escape the aliens and the sinister machinations of Burke, who tries to have one infested so as to bring a live specimen back for his corporation. They reach the drop-ship, but Ripley is forced to venture alone into the aliens’ lair to rescue Newt when she is dragged away by one of the slavering monsters. While they are able to flee the planet and destroy most of the Xenomorphs, they are attacked by the hulking alien Queen, forcing Ripley to don a mechanical exoskeleton to battle the beast and tangentially to deliver one of the best one-liners in action movie history. When the Queen is forced out of the airlock, Ripley, Newt, a grievously-injured Hicks and a mangled Bishop set course for home, shaken but finally safe.
Aliens is a departure from Alien in terms of scale, which changes even the genre of the film. Alien was a tense extraterrestrial slasher flick, the creature stalking through the darkness to pick of the Nostromo‘s crew one by one. The terror comes from being trapped in the most enclosed space imaginable – a spaceship surrounded by vacuum – with something incredibly dangerous. Aliens swaps out a cadre of space-truckers for a squad of battle-hardened marines with a huge arsenal at their disposal, and so the threat must be similarly multiplied. The isolation is much lessened, but this does little to diminish the characters’ dread. This time, the horror is not so much that death could be anywhere, but that it is everywhere. The film’s tagline is accurate: “This time it’s war.”
Alien benefited from a complete uncertainty about who would make it out alive, especially after Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas is one of the first to be viciously dispatched. Sigourney Weaver’s resultant fame and top billing made it perhaps unlikely (though not impossible, as in Skerritt’s case) that she would be killed, so the same trick is performed with the space marines instead. Even the most genre savvy viewer would struggle to predict in advance which marines will be first to the slaughter. Hudson (the late, great Bill Paxton) is a goonish braggart whose motor-mouth and over-confidence would seem to mark him for an early and highly karmic death. Not so. Hicks (Michael Biehn) practically begins as a background character, and the most significant thing he does before the first assault is sleep soundly through the turbulence of the journey into the planet’s atmosphere. This might as well make him comic relief until he is forced to take command as the last ranking officer. Of the remainder, Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) might seem a likely survivor as the most prominent female marine, but even this offers little solace. Certainty is low, and anxiety is high. It is perhaps appropriate that the actors playing the marines were asked to read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; the wanton butchery of Aliens would go on to inspire the carnage of Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of that novel, and both films show that the glamour of war vanishes at the first sight of a formidable foe.
All of the marines that make it out of the initial meeting with the Xenomorphs become rounded characters in their own right, not merely corpses-in-waiting for the audience’s sadistic pleasure. Hicks goes from obscurity to arguable co-lead status. He develops a nascent romantic relationship with Ripley, and shows cool-headed leadership while Hudson freaks out, Vasquez goes silent, and alleged CO Gorman (William Hope) is only slightly more useful while conscious than while comatose. Hudson suffers a colossal crisis of faith when his supposedly invincible unit is annihilated, only to prove his reckless bravery when the group’s stronghold is breached and he goes down fighting valiantly, if foul-mouthedly. Vasquez has an antagonistic relationship with Gorman even before his incompetence and indecision gets her partner Drake (Mark Rolston) killed. Yet, in spite of her reaffirmation of her loathing for him, the two cling to one another as they commit suicide-by-grenade in an attempt to slow down the pursuing aliens. A small effort to give the supporting characters some definition makes all of the difference, adding an emotional kick to their deaths that so many action films lack.
The most important relationship in the movie is not a romantic one but a surrogate parent-child one. Ripley awakens from her hypersleep to discover that her young daughter has grown old and died in her absence. Understandably heart-broken, she naturally grows close to Newt, the one person to survive the colony massacre, whose small stature allowed her to remain unseen within the ventilation system. Newt also gravitates towards Ripley. Having seen her family killed before her eyes, she is nearly feral and deeply mistrustful, but she is still a child and cannot help but respond to Ripley’s care and reassurance. Her trust might have been destroyed when her family was torn away from her, because her parents promised that they would return from investigating the site of the Xenomorph eggs and when they do, they are already doomed. It is restored when Ripley does come back to save her, like she swore that she would.
The prominence of the Ripley-Newt connection raises the question of whether Ripley can be considered a feminist character. Her problem is not unique. Sarah Conner is tough-as-nails and single-minded in her mission to stop Skynet, but is driven by a desire to protect her son, the prophesied saviour figure. Her actions are for his benefit, and that of humankind. Leia is a military and political leader, but also serves as a damsel-in-distress, and as the object of desire in a love triangle between herself, Luke and Han, which is resolved almost as much convenient (inconvenient?) genealogy as by choice. Ripley is undeniably the hero of Aliens, the most dynamic character, and the one who saves nearly every other principal character at least once. However, the most daring of these actions, her rescue of Newt and her battle with the Queen, are motivated by maternal impulses, placing her in a traditionally feminine role, albeit using traditionally non-feminine methods involving heavy weapons and a mech-suit. She places herself, arguably unnecessarily, in harm’s way because of her motherly feelings for Newt. That the relationship is explicitly parental is confirmed when Newt calls Ripley “Mommy” when they are finally safe. These criticisms of the film’s feminism are valid, but ultimately unconvincing. Whatever Ripley’s motivations, they are internal and not imposed, and it is her agency and her capability that make her an admirable character, female or otherwise. As in the Star Wars and Terminator movies, there are extenuating circumstances that maintain the integrity of the feminist reading, and it requires a superficial interpretation to discount it.
Sequels must blend familiarity and novelty, carrying on the spirit of the original while bringing fresh ideas to justify their existence as separate entities. Aliens is a brilliant film, debatably the best in the whole franchise, whether taken alone or as part of the larger story. I saw Aliens long before I ever saw Alien, and little is lost in the omission. In my view, this is James Cameron’s best film, the best movie in the Alien series, and very nearly the best sci-fi action movie ever made. Aliens is positive proof that, even in the middle of the current deluge, sequels are not inherently evil. Crap sequels are.
Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron, David Giler and Walter Hill
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and Carrie Henn