Given the task of following up Ridley Scott’s Alien, a lesser director would have simply provided more of the same. Another ship, and another crew to impregnate, stalk and terrorise by an apparently indestructible alien creature. It’s to James Cameron’s credit that, when he wrote and directed the sequel to Ridley Scott’s original, he chose to strike out on a different path, creating a film with its own tone, pace and themes while still adhering to various visual and narrative laws set up in the first film.
Where Alien was a comparatively slow horror thriller that prowled like a lion in undergrowth, Aliens was a war film that sped from one set piece to the next, slowly building up to a roller coaster of bombastic action. That Aliens is bigger and louder has led some to suggest that Cameron’s sequel is superior to Scott’s original, while others prefer the latter’s reliance on atmosphere and quiet suspense.
I’d suggest that, rather than either being superior, the two films complement one another in a way seldom seen in cinema.
Alien was metaphor for sex and encountering something traumatic that could barely be comprehended, a monster that violated as well as killed, that rendered its victims chillingly powerless. Aliens is about facing trauma head on, and gaining closure in the process.
In Aliens, Cameron quickly establishes that the events of the first film had caused Ripley to lose everything. By returning to LV-426, the now terraformed planet of Alien, Ripley is able to confront the trauma of her past, and in the final battle with the alien queen, ultimately overcome it.
It’s also worth noting that, where Alien was cut off from any sense of society, Aliens gives a greater sense of social order. We even see the ant-like hierarchy of the aliens themselves, with soldier aliens protecting the egg-laying queen. We even learn that the aliens can, in a basic way, be bargained with, as Ripley threatens the queen’s eggs with a flamethrower. With a quiet nod from the queen, the soldier aliens back away.
As a pure action movie, Aliens is one of the best constructed and paced in Hollywood history. Its first hour methodically reintroduces Ripley and the outfit of cocksure Colonial Marines who will accompany her to LV-426. Once the action starts however, the film turns into a tour de force of action and suspense. Then there’s Cameron’s endlessly quotable script and broad, memorable characters. Wisecracking space marines have since become a cliché of cinema and videogames. Cameron’s, headed up by Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez, are the original and still the best. And lets not forget about that creepy android (or Artificial Person) Bishop. Can we trust him? At least we can trust the corporation, represented by Carter Burke. Or can we?
Cameron’s biggest achievement in Aliens was in creating a film that dovetails so perfectly with the original Alien. Watched back to back, Alien becomes the first act to Cameron’s lengthier story. Ripley encounters the xenomorph and all the horror that comes with it in the first film, and through a mixture of circumstance and bravery, is able to put those horrors to rest in the second.
This gratifying sense of closure is one reason why the attempt to create a second sequel was always doomed to failure. With Aliens, Cameron had already created an arc for Ripley’s character that was both satisfying and logical, and demonstrated that the aliens themselves, apparently indestructible in Scott’s movie, could be killed after all.
Aliens is one of those films that stands the test of time. Sci-fi action films have come and gone since, but none have achieved the level of perfection and intensity that Aliens does. Many the imitations and rip offs have come, but it still remains unchallenged in it’s genre for 25 years now. For fans of science fiction films, Aliens can do no wrong!