Trilogy of Terror: Aliens (1986)

Alien was an instant classic, and its clout has only grown since. Looking back on it for last week’s review, I find it hard to identify anything that it did wrong. Sure, I might disagree with the need for one narrative wrinkle or another, and certainly the alien itself looks a bit silly compared to the rest of the effects and sets, but it’s impossible to deny its masterful atmosphere, its solid performances, the deliberate, creeping terror that unfolds at an almost unbearable pace.

Audiences liked it. Critics liked it. Sigourney Weaver became a star, the design of the alien became a standard against which others would be measured, and even the film’s tagline (“In space no one can hear you scream”) took on a life of its own.

Oh, and it made something like 20 times its budget back at the box office. Presumably that was important to someone…

None of which leads me to say that a sequel was inevitable, exactly, but there were certainly plenty of parties interested in the possibility. When we did finally get one, it was with a different director and an almost entirely different cast.

James Cameron took over for Ridley Scott, and Weaver — returning as Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo — was the only returning face.

Aliens, 1986

Occam’s Law of Film Titles was undoubtedly adhered to here, as pluralizing the original really was the simplest and best idea. It also made sense in terms of the film’s content. Alien featured one alien. Aliens featured many aliens. Alien3 featured aliens made of Lego.

The title was also great because Alien 2 would have suggested little more than a sequel. And, yes, Aliens is a sequel, but it’s also an entirely separate film.

It takes place in the same universe, but it doesn’t have to. And just a little bit of rewriting would, hypothetically, allow this film to exist without the previous one having happened at all. Aliens is the rare sequel that genuinely wishes to be appraised on its own merits.

Of course, that’s no more an inherently good thing than an inherently bad thing, but it’s nice to see a sequel to a popular film that does more than repeat the original, beat for beat, to diminished returns.

Aliens in fact repeats relatively little, and the viewers that it’s bound to disappoint most are those who want more of the same.

Aliens, 1986

To some extent, I think I wanted more of the same. At the very least, I don’t like Aliens nearly as much as I like Alien.

They’re both successful in what they set out to achieve, but Alien set out to achieve many of the things that I enjoy in a film. It was contemplative, sedate, artful, intelligent. Aliens set out to achieve many of the things that I don’t like. It was flashy, loud, action-heavy, and interested in filling in gaps that Alien left deliberately open.

They’re both good at what they do, but I don’t enjoy what they do equally. There are obviously those who prefer the sequel to the original, and I’m happy for them. But I also imagine that they and I wouldn’t have much overlap in our lists of favorite films.

Aliens, 1986

Aliens picks up exactly where the previous installment left off.

…in a way.

We ended Alien with Ripley entering deep sleep, and we open Aliens with her being revived. There was a fairly long gap between films in the real world — seven years, to be exact — and Cameron expands that gap by another 50 years.

Yes, Ripley’s been asleep in that pod for 57 years. Ripley didn’t just outlive her previous crew…she outlived her own young daughter.

She returns to an Earth that isn’t exactly the same as what she left behind, without any of the social or family connections she once had. Very quickly her professional connections are severed as well, as Ripley is tried for the destruction of the Nostromo.

Aliens, 1986

The trial scene is great, not least because it’s a very natural, believable way for the last film’s tragedy to be addressed: in an overly bureaucratic concern for lost revenue.

It’s also tremendously difficult not to feel sorry for Ripley during this scene. She escaped by the skin of her teeth at the end of Alien, but that stroke of good fortune turns out to be the first shift in her next avalanche of misfortune. There’s no evidence to corroborate her story; we know she isn’t lying, because we were there, but these folks sitting around a table know nothing except that she detonated the ship and fled.

Sure, there could have been an alien, and it could have murdered the crew, but she just as easily could have gone insane and blown up the ship for no real reason.

In fact, to them, that’s actually the more likely outcome…there have been humans colonizing the very planet upon which she claims to have encountered the alien, and they never complained about any hostile organisms.

Aliens, 1986

That’s where the film gets going in earnest. Ripley warns that the ship full of alien eggs is definitely on that planet, and, of course, the company immediately sends somebody to seek it out. (In a nice bit of sad symmetry, it’s Newt’s family who does so. Ripley unknowingly robs the girl of her parents before stepping in to serve as their surrogate.)

It’s also where the film deviates entirely from the approach of the original. Yes, giving Ripley a daughter, and explicitly naming and spending time with Weyland-Yutani as opposed to casual and vague mentions of “the company,” takes the film in a unique direction, but the way in which the cast of each film confronts the alien menace is the defining difference.

In Alien, the crew had no choice. Once the alien was aboard, they were trapped. The shuttle wouldn’t fit all of them, so they had to fight…and they had to fight with what few resources were at hand. In Aliens, we send in the marines with as many resources as they like, and direct them to shoot the living shit out of whatever they encounter.

Aliens, 1986

The former approach lends itself to a concern for caution that gradually gives way to all-out desperation and panic. The latter approach lends itself to…well, an action film.

Alien had a cattle prod and a flame thrower, neither of which did anyone much good. If anything, they were symbols of protection that didn’t actually offer any; they were a small psychological concession rather than anything that actually helped. Aliens by contrast has bullets whizzing by, grenades exploding, aliens tumbling out of the ductwork, heads bursting in plumes of acid…

At times, it gets pretty mindless, as an action film does. It relies on spectacle — impressive though much of it is, visually — rather than consideration. It’s a film that contains intelligence without actually rewarding intelligent viewing. If you’re there for fire and blood you’ll be much better served than if you’re there for smart, efficient storytelling.

Aliens, 1986

I mentioned last week that Alien predated the home-video renaissance. Aliens, by contrast, landed just about at the very beginning, and I think that this shaped the film’s approach. After all, seeing a film in theaters was no longer the end of its profitability. Now a theatrical release could double as a commercial for its purchase on home video. Don’t show somebody a movie they enjoy; show them a movie that thrills them. Show them something they’ll want to own.

So Aliens screams. It bellows. It hollers. It commands and demands attention. It’s vast, long, and sensational. It shook theater seats. It got audiences excited.

Long, silent pans down the deserted corridors of the Nostromo? Who’s going to buy that? Give us gunfire and waves of alien guts!

Aliens, 1986

It’s a bit of a cynical way to look at what is, strictly speaking, a pretty solid action film. But as a sequel to Alien, and as a deliberate evolution of the series, it’s instructive.

Bombast sells. Videos, action figures, video games… Introspection doesn’t shift units.

Cameron, to his credit, doesn’t let spectacle run away with the film. At least, not overall. And it’s worth taking a moment to spotlight a few of the things that his sequel did exactly right.

For starters, it’s good in itself that it was so different. This meant that no matter how the film was received, it would leave the reputation of the original untarnished. Maybe you’d love Aliens and maybe you wouldn’t, but no matter how you felt it wasn’t likely to change your opinion of the first film.

Sequels to other franchises often hew so closely to the original formula that it retroactively makes you feel tired of the film you once enjoyed. (See: Austin Powers.) But when the sequel is so different, so unique, so independent of the original experience…well, it allows both films to just exist, without any necessary comparison between the two.

This is a uniformly positive thing.

Aliens, 1986

Cameron also iterates impressively upon a few of the breadcrumbs sprinkled by Scott’s film.

Most notable, of course, is “the company” becoming Weyland-Yutani, with a slogan, a series of commercials, and a disregard for employee welfare that would make Donald Trump blush. While we saw the company treat one single, presumably small crew as expendable, here we see them treat an entire colony — consisting not only of employees but of those employees’ families — as expendable.

Greed knows no boundary…something made clear enough by the first film, but illustrated with horrifying clarity in this one.

Aliens, 1986

Weyland-Yutani is personified here by Burke, played by Paul Reiser, in a role that miraculously holds up.

One would be forgiven for assuming that his years of starring in punchlines like My Two Dads and Mad About You would render any menace here inert, but he does a genuinely great job with his material. He seems every bit the dedicated, somewhat dim company man — and ally — he pretends to be to Ripley, but once he makes his turn he’s no less believable.

We never have to see Burke as a criminal mastermind…just somebody who would willfully sacrifice others for the sake of padding his wallet. He’s not evil because he doesn’t believe he’s evil. He thinks he’s smart, and knows that you don’t win a game of chess without sacrificing a few pieces. Reiser does excellent work here, blending both halves of Burke so seamlessly that neither feels more real than the other.

Then there’s the other major seed planted by Scott: Ripley’s distrust of androids.

Aliens, 1986

Aboard the Nostromo she had to contend with Ash, the science officer, who was secretly an artificial person. The revelation came as an unpleasant surprise for the crew, as they realized that he endangered them for the sake of a company that programmed him to do so.

Ripley is already en route to deal with the aliens before she realizes that Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen, is also an android. It’s too late to turn back, and Bishop swears that he would never do anything to jeopardize a human life, but she doesn’t accept that. She tells him to stay away from her, smacks the tray of food out of his hands, and makes it clear that she will not trust him.

Cameron could have gone either way with this. The way he did choose to go — Bishop was genuinely well-intentioned, and willing to sacrifice himself to protect her — was probably for the best, but either could have worked.

After all, Ripley was already going back to face the aliens against her better judgment; serving with an android that ultimately betrayed her for a second time would just be salt in the wound.

Aliens, 1986

Instead, Bishop’s a good guy. Far from inviting the tragedy to them as Ash did, Bishop is the only reason, several times over, that anybody is able to escape this one.

This means that for most of the film, Ripley is the antagonist, at least from Bishop’s point of view. And that’s a pretty impressive flourish, I have to admit. Her mistrust is understandable at the same time that it’s out of line. Her experience being pushed around on the Nostromo prepared her to push back against the one character who truly wants to help.

It’s also impressive that Cameron doesn’t feel beholden to the themes Scott established and explored in his previous film.

Here, we chart new territory. Most significant are the meditations on motherhood, but he also has a lot to say about the United States’ militaristic mindset, and colonialism in general. We’ll come back to each of those, but they’re worth bringing up here, briefly, as evidence that Cameron had something to say with this film, even if he didn’t say any of it as gracefully as Scott did in the last.

Aliens, 1986

There’s also a nice way of retaining Ripley’s outcast status, even while her knowledge of and experience with the alien are invaluable: she’s not a soldier.

The company, and the military in general, may respect her experience and understand how much they need her, but the soldiers themselves are grunts. (No offense.) They don’t respect her, they don’t care about her, and they’re much more interested in themselves than they are in anything she has to say. This keeps Ripley on the strategic sidelines once again, which is important, because if she had it her way they’d have nuked the planet from orbit to begin with, and, in the words of Kermit the Frog, that’d be a real short movie.

Those are the good things. The bad things, however, are not in short supply.

Most urgently, I think, is the quality of the acting, which simply was not on par with the tight performances of the first film.

Aliens, 1986

Sigourney Weaver, unquestionably, is great. There’s no scene or moment that is not elevated by her presence. Aliens calls for a broader range of emotions than Alien did, and Weaver hits them all perfectly.

She’s great, and the film’s clear MVP. Paul Reiser turns in a surprisingly good performance. Lance Henriksen makes a great android. And…that’s about it.

Somewhere in the middle we have Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks, who would probably be a lot better if he had more to do, and Carrie Henn as Newt, who would probably be a lot better if she had less to do.

Aliens, 1986

The marines on the whole, though, come off like caricatures. They don’t feel real…they feel overacted. The kind of thing somebody might picture after reading a lot about the Marine Corps. but without ever actually meeting someone who served.

The marine scenes seem amateur and unnatural, and like the work of a director who…well, to be honest, I’m not sure what any director would be going for with these performances. They’re broad. Forced. Too-obvious relics of fiction in a film that feels otherwise grounded.

The marines operate on a very different tonal plane from the rest of the film, and, frankly, I don’t believe in them. It’s like they’re trying too hard to be one thing in a film that needs another.

My position is one that’s admittedly easier to take when you’re not watching the film, and nearly falls apart when you are: Cameron is trying to embed an anti-war satire in the middle of a film that’s otherwise not satirical.

This explains the performances, and even allows for them. It explains why we’re suddenly in the company of a squad of cartoon characters instead of nuanced individuals. It explains their purpose.

Aliens, 1986

But watching the film, they don’t actually feel satirical so much as they feel misjudged.

I think there are important things to be said about the way the U.S. is so quick to resort to mindless firepower, to dismiss or disregard intelligence, to believe in an inherent and sustained rightness that had everything to do with our egos and nothing to do with what’s actually happening in reality.

But I don’t think that Aliens comments on those things adequately, or at least not adequately enough to justify the inconsistent performances. It really should be impossible to look at Bill Paxton’s performance and Sigourney Weaver’s, and believe that they both originated in the same film.

And yet, here we are.

Aliens, 1986

Newt as a character serves a purpose, both structurally and thematically, but, again, I’m not sure that she was handled entirely the way she needed to be.

Henn does well enough for a child actor, but she’s still a child actor. She screams a lot, because she’s told to scream a lot. She stumbles over lines, because she’s a little kid being asked to tackle a difficult role, and to pretend she’s in the throes of a trauma she can’t actually imagine.

But she looks the part, and when she’s not talking, she’s actually pretty great. She has expressive eyes. She trembles believably. When she’s at her most frightened and vulnerable, I believe in Newt, and I want Ripley to protect her. When she has to say anything, or do something other than scurry away, though, it’s easy to be swept out of the moment.

Aliens, 1986

What I do like about her is that she seems almost like a comment on the first film. Whereas in Alien it might have seemed pretty careless for Ripley to go back for the god-damned cat, it’s much more believable that she’d go back for Newt.

She needs to save Newt. She’s already lost one daughter and countless associates; saving Newt makes a kind of narrative sense that saving the cat, to me, never did.

Newt also reinforces the theme of motherhood, which is strongly at play in Aliens and is a valid filter through which to view the entire film.

The “I” on the title screen actually spreads itself open as though giving birth. We learn that Ripley is a mother…or was. She has alien-specific nightmares about being impregnated…a term that’s used with notable caution in the film.

Aliens, 1986

Newt is newly motherless, and is also seemingly the only survivor of the entire colony, scarred and horrified though she is. Ripley and Hicks fall into a kind of parental relationship with the girl, and into (at the very least) a mutual respect for each other. (It’s also pretty great that Ripley befriends Hicks by respecting him when he becomes the de facto first in command; something her crewmates on the Nostromo did not do for her. Kindred spirits.)

And, of course, there’s the alien queen. A mother herself. And their big showdown toward the end of the film sees each of them fighting to protect their children.

On one level, it’s a big action sequence. But keep in the mind the theme of motherhood, and it becomes much more layered, more complex, and more nuanced.

Aliens, 1986

The ending, though, it needs to be said, goes on far too long. I like all of it, to some extent, but it’s in serious need of editing. At the very least I don’t think they need to lose Newt just to find her again just to lose her again just to find her again, and the very fact that she slips down that laundry chute — or whatever it was — feels like padding.

Moments like that can create tension, but use them too frequently, or too clumsily, and they only engender frustration.

We should absolutely keep the part where Ripley beats the shit out of the alien queen in her powerloader and says GET AWAY FROM HER YOU BITCH though because that’s incredible.

Aliens, 1986

Ultimately, though, the film’s biggest crime was redefining Ripley as an action hero. As we discussed last week, she didn’t survive the Nostromo because she was brilliant, or powerful, or anything else, really. We were just grading on a curve, because the alien grabbed the slowest animal in the pack each time.

Ripley survived because she was the fittest of that sample. She kept a relatively clear head, was relatively competent, and was relatively calm.

Everything was relative.

Here, she legitimately kicks ass.

Over, and over, and over again.

Aliens, 1986

She’s an action hero, and while it’s admittedly nice to see a female busting heads now and again in the interests of equality, it makes her a lot less interesting as a human being. Action heroes are less interesting as human beings, because they all tend to speak the same language: that of violence and triumph.

Ellen Ripley attempted violence in Alien, but quick thinking and a bit of luck is what actually saved her. And she triumphed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, with every other member of the crew wiped out, the ship destroyed, and her life and career ruined upon her return.

She was a human being. In Aliens, though she has some very human moments, she’s not.

She becomes a powerful force in her own right, which can be fun, but can’t as easily be cared about.

Aliens, 1986

I do care about Ripley. I’m glad that she forged a bond with Hicks. I’m glad that she rescued Newt. I’m glad that she had a nice moment with Bishop before he was ripped in half. And I’m glad she survived another film. But whereas that survival was a genuine surprise in the first movie, it was a foregone conclusion in this one. Of course she survived.

She’s an action hero, and Alien is now a franchise.

Then again, in a sense, maybe it’s not Ripley we should worry about. Aliens potentially gives us a new victim: the aliens themselves.

After all, aren’t we impeding on their turf? Aren’t they just trying to survive the way their natures require them to survive? They didn’t come to us…in each film, we went to them. The fact that they didn’t play ball, did not submit to us, did not go gentle into that good night…well, is that really their fault?

Sure, they’re violent and deadly, but that’s also their nature. And at the end of the film, that’s a human being roasting alien eggs with a flame thrower while the queen shrieks with helpless horror, is it not?

We side with the humans because we are human, but that’s just self-interest.

Aliens, 1986

On the alien homeworld they made the same movie, and it wasn’t an action film. It was a profoundly distressing tragedy.

But, hey, at least those brave alien soldiers fought to the very end, against invaders they never provoked in the first place.

Join us next week, when any discussion of intelligence, artistry, or competence will have no place whatsoever.

2 thoughts on “Trilogy of Terror: Aliens (1986)”

  1. I fall into the camp that prefers the first film. It’s my own damn fault that I watched dozens of derivative movies that came in the wake of Alien, but one of the soldiers here voiced my feelings precisely that this whole endeavor just seemed like another “bug hunt”.
    Also, how did this little girl who can’t stop screaming manage to successfully hide from the aliens for that long?

  2. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t love Bill Paxton in Aliens.
    I was a teenager growing up in the 80s, so obviously Aliens was the greatest action movie outside of Star Wars that I’d ever seen.
    I was also profoundly disturbed by the scene in the atmosphere processor when the marines found the colonists embedded in the walls, their faces a waxwork horror show of faces screaming in the throes of final agony.
    This really got into my head as a teen leading me to years of disturbed nights as I lay awake imagining if that was me, watching my friends and family die in front of me whilst I could feel this thing growing and moving inside of me, waiting for my turn to die after being violated in the most violent and horrific way.

    And I think that this is why the Alien is so terrifying… it rapes, impregnates and kills men as well as women.

    But yeah… Hudson is the best. “Game over man, game over !”

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