Ridley Scott's Alien ended in such a way that it begged for a sequel. Even those of us who roll our eyes at the prospect of unnecessary "enfranchisement" had to admit that Ripley's story didn't end with her slipping into cryogenic sleep and hoping someone intercepted her signal. Yet with Scott himself reluctant to get trapped on one series of films, the prospect of a sequel faded into the back of 20th Century Fox's corporate mind for years.
Enter a young upstart named James Cameron, an up-and-comer who'd been thrown off the set of the great Piranha II and then knocked on Hollywood's door with a sledgehammer with The Terminator. A fan of Scott's film, Cameron had an idea for a sequel, but changing hands at Fox put his initial work on hiatus, waiting to see how The Terminator fared at the box office before giving him the keys. Even when they finally relented, they gave Cameron a budget only $7 million higher than the one Scott received seven years earlier. And where Scott got by with only a few distinct sets and a single alien, Cameron's film called for all-out war with more locations, a bigger cast and more aliens.
Thus, when Aliens finally hit screens, the money-saving techniques were plainly evident. The narrower aspect ratio, the heavy grain in the film stock -- reversing the issue of the original Alien's soft stock by leaping to the other extreme -- the recycling of a handful of alien costumes. What is far more noticeable and relevant, however, is the manner in which Cameron dispenses almost entirely with the elements that made Alien great, only to re-assemble the broken parts into a masterpiece in its own right.
Where Scott's film was atmospheric, graceful, cerebral, Cameron's is quickly paced, blunt and in your face. The degree of difference can be seen all over the place, from substituting Jerry Goldsmith for the always on-the-nose James Horner to replacing Alien's tagline "In space, no one can hear you scream" to "This time, it's war." Aliens is loud and brash, with a cast of characters who, in true Cameron fashion, are utterly two-dimensional but just kooky enough to be endearing. Cameron even has the balls to return to the planet where the Nostromo stumbled across the eggs, risking all sorts of plot holes just to maintain a continuity and to avoid larger logical questions. Then, he manages to change everything anyway by dropping in a bit of dialogue that explains Ripley floated in stasis for nearly 60 years, and in the interim, Weyland-Yutani set up colonies on the planet.
This addition, especially as it is fleshed out in the vastly superior longer cut of the film, allows Cameron to develop two of the more tantalizing threads left in the ether in the first film: the vicious anti-corporate mentality of the franchise (and something that would concern Cameron intermittently across his career with the Terminator films as well as Avatar), and the character of Ripley. As we learn in the longer cut, Ripley had a daughter when she left, only to return and find that her child had grown into old age and died while she drifted in cryostasis for six decades. Now, she must sit in a company hospital, discredited by a board of trustees that not only denied her story but charged her with destroying a perfectly good tow-ship, left under nominal psychiatric care as she thinks of the life she no longer has.
Eventually, a company rep, Burke (Paul Reiser), sheepishly and discreetly comes to Ripley and mentions that all transmissions from the colony on LV-426 have ceased, coinciding with a shot given to the audience of colonists sent to inspect the alien ship they somehow never noticed while exploring the planet and returning with a facehugger attached. Ripley, still scarred by what happened to her seemingly only a few days ago, understandably does not wish to go back to the planet to survey what's happened, but Burke's invitation amounts to a tacit acknowledgment of her truthfulness, and Burke will send her with a contingent of marines, though she takes little comfort in this.
If Scott's predecessor cut against the grain of post-Star Wars cliché by presenting a cast of characters who were average and relatable to audiences despite the centuries between reality and fiction, Cameron's film messes with military tropes. It's not entirely clear who controls the marines, but the squad sent to investigate the colony ultimately answers to Burke. If the military is not privatized in this future, it does at least openly look out for business interests. Cameron has never been what you might call subtle, but he gets at a side of Vietnam with this film that even the slew of 'Nam movies didn't address so directly: that war was started by the military industrial complex and kept going long after it became evident we had no business there and, furthermore, could not win. Cameron takes it one step further and brazenly warns of using federal (or planetary) troops to protect business interests.
Furthermore, the initial arrogance of the marines, with their smart weapons and state-of-the-art equipment, falters in the face of a less advanced but more committed foe. Granted, the aliens have an advantage over the Vietcong in that their are biologically superior, but the most terrifying aspect of Aliens is the inability of the humans to even momentarily stop an advance no matter how many creatures they kill. The aliens never retreat, never show any sign of dwindling numbers, and they can pop out of anywhere. Sound familiar?
As for the actual cast, you gotta love 'em. Cameron makes these marines the most hilariously cocky-cum-terrified misfits you ever saw. The C.O., Lt. Gorman (William Hope), clearly just graduated from the academy and is out of his element with the rest of the squad, who've done their time and formed a bond. They make for a veritable who's who of clichés, from the tough-as-nails, black sergeant who whips them all into shape (played by Al Mathews, because Carl Weathers must have been busy); a fiery Latina who does not react to the taunts of her male comrades because she's tougher than all of them (Jenette Goldstein, making up for Veronica Cartwright's hysterics in the first film); and a sensible corporal who matches the sergeant's toughness with a softer side (Michael Biehn); and a private who talks the most shit during the preparation for the mission, only to instantly morph into a coward when he finally faces the enemy (Bill Paxton). Also accompanying them are Burke and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an android who inspires distrust from Ripley based on Ash's actions and spends most of the film walking the line of suspicion.
Given how shallow these side characters are, it's a wonder what Cameron accomplished with Ripley. In the extended edition, the director delves into the character, making explicit her sense of maternal loss. This, of course, is explored more thoroughly through the character of Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl and the only survivor of the alien outbreak in the colony. Her ingenuity saved her, but when the marine stumble upon her in their first sweep of the colony, she's been driven half-feral and silent from shock. As Ripley nurses her back to health, Newt clearly becomes a surrogate child for the daughter Ripley never got to see grow up. So touching and believable is their chemistry, in fact, that even the special edition, which adds mostly additional scenes on this dynamic, does not slow down the film's perfect pacing.
Let's talk about that pacing. Alien worked primarily because Ridley Scott had a keen sense for shot length and plot advancement. His film is slow enough to sink into the mind and give the audience space to inject their own fears into the mystery, yet quick enough not to lose the tension. Cameron faces the problem of maintaining the flow of an action movie. The lulls of a horror film can be as effective in scaring audiences as the actual moments in which something happens, but an action film languishes in its moments of empty character building. Despite the limited budget and the ambition of the project, Cameron never once lets the momentum sag, even in the longer cut. If so many supporting characters are two-dimensional, Cameron at least acknowledges it and doesn't bother saddling us with cheap, dispensable background for them. Apart from Ripley, all of these characters live in the present, and they react to the situation, not dwelling on some past issue. And who has time to even think about what's happening in the moment when dozens upon dozens of aliens bear down on the humans at all times?
The speed of the film also helps Ripley's transition into the ultimate badass for feminists. The first film showed Ripley growing until she proved she had the capacity to survive. In Aliens, she evolves until she proves the capacity to save others. When Gorman blanches in the face of the alien attacks, she steps in and capably directs the marines, who almost never question the force in her voice. She also displays the most self-restraint, choosing to spare the double-crossing Burke even when he locks Ripley and Newt in the medical bay and unleashes facehuggers in the attempt to implant them with embryos to be taken back to the company.
Occasionally, Cameron's lines take on a certain hard-boiled charm. Paxton's goofy performance allows him to toss out nugget after nugget, the best being his macho breakdown when he paces around screaming "Game over, man! Game over!" until Ripley and Cpl. Hicks have to slap some sense into him. When the depths of Burke's malfeasance appears, Ripley spits in disgust, "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." Of course, nothing beats that most crowd-rousing of lines, "Get away from her, you bitch!"
The finale of Aliens puts the final spin on the subject matter that crafts the film into its own distinct entity. Scott's film, leaving H.R. Giger's imagination to fill the cracks of our mind, presented an androgynous vision, pitting Sigourney Weaver, who, at six feet tall with an athletic build, combined traditionally feminine and masculine physical traits, against an alien comprising nothing but phallic and vaginal symbolism. Here, Ripley, traveling into the bowels of the infestation to save Newt, comes across the alien queen, a giant xenomorph laying dozens of eggs to wait for the next round of surveyors to infect. It's a maternal showdown that puts the final touches on Cameron's feminist vision. By triumphing over not only the male establishment that silenced her (by the end, the marines answer to her and the only one who lives, Hicks, treats her as an equal) but a projection of the motherhood she feels she lost, Ripley casts out her demons and just so happens to look like a complete badass doing so.
Upon its release, Aliens enjoyed a similar reaction to its predecessor: Scott's film got mixed reviews at first until the movie took off, but critics and fans alike instantly embraced Aliens, and its effect on reintroducing artistically qualified genre film to America, while not as powerful as the first movie, was substantial: Weaver even snagged a much-deserved Oscar nomination despite the Academy's long-standing ambivalence toward science fiction. The final two films in the proper Alien franchise would suffer from the sudden interest of the studio that casually let Cameron tinker with a classic, suddenly hounding studio hands during every bit of production and robbing the franchise of what made it stand out with its first two films: directorial ambition and artistic daring. Also, the other two had the rotten luck of following perhaps the two most enduringly entertaining and rewarding popular sci-fi films of the 20th century, and they just couldn't live up to the standard. After all, though I must confess to prefer the atmosphere of the first, Aliens is one of those precious few sequels that can stake a serious claim to being better than the original. Apart from Die Hard, I cannot name a more immaculately crafted action extravaganza. And Die Hard didn't also inject a thoughtful meditation on the role of women and maternal instincts within an action framework. Score one for Cameron.
*Some quick words on the Blu-Ray: I'm planning a Blu-Ray-specific review of the new Alien Anthology release for another site (if you're interested, check the Apocalypse Now review I did last week), but I thought I'd at least address some of the concerns related specifically to this entry in the saga. In an interview before the box set's release, James Cameron mentioned that he'd scrubbed all the grain from the picture's infamously thick and hazy stock, leading some to fear that he'd gone haywire with Digital Noise Reduction gizmos and smoothed things until the image looked too plastic. Fear not: Aliens has never looked so good, retaining a great deal of grain in most shots while adding a degree of dimension and depth never seen in the film's image. It's certainly not the greatest restoration I've seen, but frankly I'm impressed that Cameron and the crew that restored the film managed to create such a clear image, and they ought to share their methods with a number of other commercial studios (and to be fair, even Criterion restorers couldn't have totally salvaged this stock). A hearty round of applause all around for the transfer, which doesn't look as spectacular as the deepening of Alien's more softer look, but in many ways this is the more admirable of the two restorations.