How do you follow up a movie that is possibly the best example of a sci-fi/horror movie ever? Simple. Make what is possibly the best sci-fi/action movie ever. Eminently quotable and totally enthralling, Aliens burst onto our screen seven years after the original movie was released. At the helm this time was the relatively unknown director James Cameron and didn't he do well? The plot is a simple one. After being cryogenically frozen for 57 years, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), is found floating in space. She is woken up and finds out that the planet they first found the Alien on is now inhabited. Despite her impassioned pleas that her crew was killed by a massive alien that burst out of a man's chest, had acid for blood and two sets of teeth, for some reason she isn't believed. Her pilot status stripped away, she is left to fend for herself, until earth loses contact with the colonists. Then Ripley is talked into joining the Marines assigned to find out what went wrong in an advisory roll. The Marines are cocky, brash, over-confident and wielders of immense amounts of firepower. In short they're dead meat. Also along for the ride are Bishop (Lance Henriksen) - an android, and Burke (Paul Reiser) - a sleazy corporation guy. Upon entering the colonists' facility the Marines find signs of a massive firefight, as well as a remarkably cute little girl generally called Newt (Carrie Henn). Eventually they find where the colonists appear to be. All in one area so it's a simple matter of going down there and finding out what's going on.
After the majority of the marines have been killed and their main way off the planet wiped out it's up to the survivors to basically - continue to survive. Eventually, after a few more casualties, they escape. Except
ooops, Newt didn't make it. Happy to leave behind Marines and corporate stooges by the bucket-load, Ripley, who frankly hasn't been the best mother in the world to her own daughter, decides to go back for Newt. An encounter with the Alien Queen and a whole room full of eggs and her finding Newt later and we're back on the space ship, finally safe. Until, of course, in a fantastic fake-out involving more milk and yoghurt than ever before seen on film we see Bishop ripped to shreds by the Alien Queen we thought was left behind to die. The final showdown of these two protective mother figures is a lot of fun, the Queen is sucked out into space and everyone is happy in the end. OK, so maybe the plot isn't all that simple.
Many people may have heard me call this a Vietnam War movie and, once again, I stand by that. The Marines, despite their high-tech weaponry look like a unit in Vietnam. This was a conscious decision by Cameron, he went as far as getting the actors to decorate and customise their own costumes. The scenario itself (high-tech army against low-tech but numerically superior forces), vents doubling for tunnels, the heat, the loud Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews) the oppressive atmosphere: all of it feels like Vietnam. You even have Hudson (Bill Paxton) talking about being a short timer! This allows the audience to connect with the characters. By making the distant future feel like our recent past (the war had only finished 11 years previously) we are able to identify with their plight. These aren't super soldiers or men in battle suits. These are grunts who are just doing their job.
The acting is generally pretty good, with the supporting cast not given that much to do other than portray a group of Marine stereotypes. Paxton is possibly the most standout of all of the marines, though he does generally get most of the best lines. Michael Biehn as the dependable Cpl. Hicks, Ripley's love interest, is also very good. Both Henriksen and Reiser give great performances, with memories still strong of Ian Holms android going postal in the first movie, Henriksen plays every moment for all of its sinister value until the very end when we realise Bishop is a good guy, and Reiser is so slimy he practically leaves a trail.
The best performance of the movie is easily that given by Weaver. The fact that in 1987 a performance in a sci-fi/action movie should be nominated for an Oscar is testament enough to the quality of her acting. The mother-daughter bond that grows between Ripley and Newt is central to the movie, and one that allows Weaver to develop her character even further. Of course Cameron cannot resist mirroring this with the maternal instincts of the Alien Queen. These themes of motherhood and the nature of the difference between the two species are continued in the next two movies, although never as subtly.
What can I say about the direction? It's James Cameron, so there is a lot of blue or red on the screen. Here it leads to a truly atmospheric feel, the tension building up as things just go from bad to worse for the marines. With clever use of camera angles, quick cuts, lighting and good old fashioned dry ice, Cameron never once gives away too much about the aliens, and manages to make it feel like there are far more on screen than there really are.
This is a movie that does not give you a break. Cameron is either piling on the dramatic tension or the adrenalin pumping action. Everything about this movie is sheer class and it is rightly considered one of the best of its type ever made. If you don't like this movie then the problem is your taste in films, not the film itself. If you have not seen it, not only am I surprised, I recommend you do so when you're in the mood to have a roller-coaster ride but Blackpool is too far away.
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