A review of the James Cameron classic just as soon as I declare game over, man!
Aliens is everything that Alien isn’t. I don’t mean for that to sound detrimental to the film because it isn’t, in fact it’s one of its greatest strengths. But while Alien was slow and methodical, Aliens is fast and loose. While Alien toyed with pseudo-sexual imagery, Aliens favours a ‘family’ dynamic and the alien-as-insects idea.
Coming off The Terminator James Cameron took Ridley Scott’s Alien and jettisoned most of what made that film work in favour of making it his own. The only constant here is Ripley, played again by Sigourney Weaver. Picking up seemingly a short time after Alien ends, Ripley is picked up miles from Earth, and informed that in fact it’s been about 80 years (She also suffers the pain of knowing her daughter is now an old lady, whereas she’s barely aged at all). The planet from the original Alien has now been colonised, and as she’s the only known person to have a run in with them and survived, she’s to be used as a consultant while a group of Space Marines land on the planet and investigate a distress call.
Broken down to it’s most base elements – Crew answers distress call, things go awry – Aliens uses the same set up as Alien, but to wildly different ends. Cameron knew that you simply couldn’t replicate the first movie, so instead he pays his dues to that one in subtle ways while making the film all his own. He retains the ‘Space trucker’ aestethic from the original film, showing the Marines to be just as much individuals as the cast from the first film were (Something that Alien 3 failed to do, but more on that soon).
As the title suggests, what’s more horrifying than one alien? How about a dozen of them! It’s the standard trope of a sequel, take what worked the first time around and just add more of it. Given the budget limitations at the time I’m not sure that the idea totally works. We definitely get the sense that right from the start the Marines are outnumbered, but baring one or two moments it’s actually largely implied. There wasn’t really an established fiction for the Alien universe when Cameron made his film, so he’s able to play around with some elements suggested by Scott’s film. There’s the sense that the alien from the original was just a killing machine, cognitive of what it was doing, but here Cameron falls back on the idea of the aliens as drones in service to a Queen and therefore subject to a hive mind. In a weird twist, the next film in the series (Alien 3) suggests something more in line with Scott’s version, whereas the fourth film (Alien Resurrection) is in line with Cameron’s.
Though he doesn’t retain the Freudian ideas held in Scott’s film, Cameron instead focuses on the family dynamic. It’s often noted that there’s the Mother/Daughter that transpires between Ripley and Newt (A surviving child found on the Colony) but there’s also the Father figure of Corporal Hicks, that’s just as protective of both Newt and Ripley herself. It’s a decidely feminist film, with the final battle literally coming down to two females over ownership of Newt. Ripley’s much lauded line “Get away from her you Bitch!” really solidifies that idea in case you weren’t sure.
It’s important to note on that issue that Cameron did more that just write Women who were like Men when it came to his characters. All to often a writers idea of a strong Women is just someone who can kick your ass, which I find more insulting than anything. The idea implies that Men can only be characterised by their strength, and therefore a strong women is just someone who can lift more weight or punch a little harder. Hell Cameron falls into that trap here, with Vasquez being an example of what I mentioned (Though it can be argued that as she’s a Marine the focus on her physical capabilities would come first). Both Ripley and later on Sarah Conner were strong (Not necessarily physically so) but they still retained what made them Women, which it makes the mysogonistic leanings of True Lies all the more perplexing.
Cameron’s film is a blockbuster through and through, but it’s a great example of one. It’s probably not as deep as it claims to be (The calls of some people that the film is an allegory for Vietnam are a little wide of the mark) but it is a smart, fun time. Something which is sadly missing from most Blockbusters these days.
Next up: We go all dark and spoil the franchise with Alien 3!