“They cut the power,” says Ellen Ripley. Private Hudson responds, “What do you mean ‘they’ cut the power? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!”
Ridley Scott made the perfect “haunted house in outer space” movie with his landmark, Oscar-winning 1979 film Alien. Although a critical and financial success, it would take several years for a sequel to emerge. James Cameron, fresh off the success of 1984’s The Terminator, would take the Alien franchise in a new direction, adding the war movie genre into the mix (he envisioned the sequel as a Vietnam allegory set on another planet). I first saw Cameron’s Aliens on the big screen at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City’s Lincoln Center almost 12 years ago as part of their “Widescreen Cinema” series. I would get to see Aliens on the big screen for a second time at a midnight showing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema seven years ago. Even when watching an old, scratched up 35mm film print of the film, it’s still an awesome experience (that’s how good it is).
1986’s Aliens follows Ripley, who’s awakened from cryo-sleep 57 years after the events of the first film. After the Weyland-Yutani Corporation loses contact with their colony on LV-426, Ripley reluctantly accompanies a group of colonial space marines to investigate the situation and face her inner demons (mainly, the alien that haunts her nightmares). Cameron assembled a terrific ensemble that includes the returning Sigourney Weaver (as Ellen Ripley) as well as new cast members Michael Biehn (as Corporal Dwayne Hicks), Paul Reiser (as Carter J. Burke), Carrie Henn (as Newt), Bill Paxton (as Private Hudson), Lance Henriksen (as Bishop), Jenette Goldstein (as Private Vasquez), William Hope (as Lieutenant Gorman), Mark Rolston (as Private Drake), Al Matthews (as Sergeant Apone), Colette Hiller (as Corporal Ferro), Daniel Kash (as Private Spunkmeyer), Cynthia Dale Scott (as Corporal Dietrich), Ricco Ross (as Private Robert Frost), Tip Tipping (as Private Crowe), Trevor Steedman (as Private Wierzbowski), and Paul Maxwell (as Van Leuwen). Best Actress Oscar nominee Weaver turns in a strong performance as the emotionally distraught Ripley who returns to LV-426 to face her fears, redefining Ripley as a badass heroine in the process. The rest of the cast shines as well, including Reiser as the slimy Burke, Biehn as the reserved Hicks, Paxton as the scene-stealing Hudson, Henriksen as the android Bishop, and Henn as the young Newt.
Cameron’s screenplay focuses on a woman’s struggle with PTSD as well as the previously mentioned Vietnam allegory (the space marines go to LV-426 with superior firepower but have no understanding of their enemy and are overwhelmed when they come into contact with the aliens). There is also a good amount of humor that helps alleviate the tension (especially from Hudson). Adrian Biddle’s Oscar-nominated cinematography matches the tone of the film while continuing the look established in the previous film (I liked the scenes where the aliens’ nests were lit mainly by the lights on the marines’ armor). The Oscar-nominated production design by Peter Lamont and Crispian Sallis is incredible, ranging from the colony sets, the alien hive, to the marines’ ships. The Oscar-winning special effects by Stan Winston, Robert Skotak, John Richardson, and Suzanne M. Benson remain impressive (the practical effects, the miniature and rear projection work, etc.) and the work put into creating the Alien Queen is still a stunning feat.
Ray Lovejoy’s Oscar-nominated editing moves the film at an excellent pace and punches up the action sequences, and Don Sharpe’s Oscar-winning sound design creates unique sounds for the film (the sound of the pulse rifles firing is really cool). James Horner delivers an Oscar-nominated score that reflects the terror and action (what’s even more amazing about his nod was that lot of the music was re-edited and sometimes moved to other scenes). Cameron’s Aliens is not only one of greatest sequels of all time but also one of the greatest sci-fi action movies of all time. It features a standout performance by Weaver, whose milestone Best Actress Oscar nomination, while completely deserved, was still surprising because the Academy historically hadn’t recognized female performances in science fiction films and whose portrayal of Ripley became a great symbol for female empowerment. Cameron released a director’s cut of the film a few years after the film’s original release which ran 17 minutes longer and restored a few important scenes (including Ripley learning about the death of her daughter and Newt’s parents discovering the derelict alien ship on LV-426). Aliens is a great film that simply cannot be missed!