Aliens (1986)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, Al Matthews, Mark Rolston, Ricco Ross, Colette Hiller

Directed by James Cameron

Expectations: Y’know, it’s Aliens. It’s good.


As I often say in reviews where I know I’m treading on hallowed ground: I’m just calling it like I see it. I’ve always wanted to burn (or re-burn) through the Alien films in one fell swoop, as until now I’ve only seen them with multiple years in between. Watching Aliens only a few days after Alien, with its tight, restrictive corridors and masterful atmosphere firmly rooted in my mind, was a completely different experience. Instead of purely enjoying the more action-packed take on the xenomorph, I found myself disappointed at the almost entire lack of the look and feel of Alien. I understand that this series is unique in that it has multiple creative forces behind it, but I couldn’t help but think that Aliens was far inferior to Alien. Obviously, this debate has been going ever since this sequel dropped, and ultimately it comes down to what type of movie you prefer, but for my money I have always (and apparently will always) prefer the original Alien to James Cameron’s loud, crammed-full-of-shit sequel.

Harsh words, I know, and honestly I don’t mean them to come off like they probably sound. I love Aliens, I truly do, but my undying love for Alien, coupled with the fact that its memory was as fresh as a newly hatched facehugger, led me to notice the trashy, mainstream-leaning nature of this film like never before. But I recognize that I’m being overly harsh and bringing in a hard-lined bias toward the atmospheric horror of the original. Where Alien transported you into the future and into a derelict alien ship, Aliens feels like you’re watching a movie. It delivers some fucking awesome visuals, but it fails to cohesively feel like a real place to me. At the end of the day, Aliens is a dope sequel to a much doper movie, aimed directly at those in the audience that prefer military clichés and the axiom “Bigger is Better” than silent terror and careful plotting. It’s a throw everything at the canvas sort of deal; James Cameron is clearly the Michael Bay of his era.

That all being said, I did greatly enjoy the slow build-up that the first hour of the film is. Like Alien before it, I prefer this tension building to the later explosions of violence. The marines even wear video cameras and Ripley watches the feeds as they venture into the plant, echoing the similar scene in Alien. It doesn’t create the same effect as it did in the prior film, but it definitely adds realism and feels ahead of its time in its use of video-grade footage, even if Cameron is just reusing the technique from Alien.

Ripley is found and thawed in a wonderful opening scene that reminds you where we left our heroine and begins the setup for the following story. Eventually, Ripley is talked back to LV-426 (the planet where the alien was found) along with a squad of marines. In the years since her fight with the alien, the Weyland-Yutani corporation has begun terraforming LV-426 but now they have lost contact with the colony. Add terraforming to the list of things Cameron later repurposed from Aliens (and other films) into his script for Avatar.

Of course, shit goes sour and, at least for me, this is where the film gets far less interesting. It’s exciting and it has a shit-ton of great moments, but the character development takes a backseat and in a matter of moments we lose some of my favorite marines. Cameron really should have kept the Sarge around to chomp at least one more cigar; that dude was badass. But after this initial firefight scene (the first true moment of action in the film), the film takes on a more action-packed, thrill ride vibe. It feels like it should be a ride at Universal Studios or something. Compared to a truly non-stop film like The Raid, there’s no comparison, but Aliens does do a pretty good job of keeping everything movie forward through sustained action.

But — and you probably saw this coming — there are times during the second half of Aliens when the pace just grinds to a complete halt. For an action film, it has a ridiculous amount of slow sections and feels incredibly overlong to me. Cameron has always been rather self-indulgent and his 137-minute Aliens was perhaps the first inkling of this in any real way. I’ve never seen the special edition, but I honestly can’t imagine what another 17 minutes of footage would do to the pacing. Maybe next time through I’ll watch the special editions on all these Alien films.

On the FX front, I really can’t say one damn thing against them. They looked spectacular in 1986, and they still do. There’s one moment of horrible rear-screen projection that looks like it should have come from a 1990s stage show at Universal Studios, and another towards the end that is remarkably reminiscent of the now-gone Backdraft attraction at the same, but other than those small moments it’s all aces. Seriously, some of the spaceship shit looked so clean and beautiful that I think younger viewers would have a hard time believing it wasn’t CG. I don’t mean to use CG as the barometer of quality, but to young eyes that know nothing else, that’s simply the way it is. I don’t like it, you probably don’t like it, but it’s something we’ve all got to come to terms with. But like Smokey the Bear’s eternal slogan, “Only you can prevent children from growing up without knowing the joys of cinematic model work.”

Sigourney Weaver plays her role like a consummate pro, and, incredibly for a genre film, was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress! Wow! She’s damn good in Aliens, and far more overt than her character in Alien, but I’m still surprised that she would get recognized in a role like this. Perhaps her acting was so convincing that the Academy feared if they didn’t nominate her she’d grab them with a power loader mech and shoot them out a goddamn airlock. Not nominated, but similarly awesome was Lance Henrikson as the android Bishop. As soon as they reveal Bishop is an android it immediately makes sense as Henrikson plays the character with a mechanical softness that illustrates his artificial nature before they mention it. When it comes out, it’s an “I knew it!” moment as opposed to an “OK, I guess he’s supposed to be a robot” moment. Henrikson is awesome, and Bishop is definitely one of his best and most high-profile roles. On the other hand, we have Bill Paxton. Holy shit, the DVD should come with a big slice of cheese to go with Paxton’s whine. He’s so damn annoying in this, but I’ll give him a pass because he did give me some choice moments to laugh at his wildly over-the-top acting.

Aliens is a good film, and a great continuation of the story, but I greatly miss the atmosphere of the original. I also think the alien design in this is inferior to the mysterious, and simpler, design of the original alien, but those fans that just want to kick ass and take names will surely enjoy the shit out of this balls-out sequel. And don’t write me hate letters, I love this fucking movie. It’s just that watching it directly after Alien only shines a light directly on its flaws.

11 comments to Aliens (1986)

  • Stephen

    I’m far more of an action fan than a horror fan. In fact, “tension building” usually translates to “boring” in my vocabulary. So Aliens slips a little ahead on my preference list. But it’s saying something that I like the first film almost as much. Somehow Ridley Scott kept it interesting, which is quite the feat for a genre that I usually have little interest in.

    I think it’s because the crew were always so proactive in the first movie. They were always trying to understand it and fight it, not just run and hide. It kept me from getting bored waiting for the alien to attack someone.

    I actually felt the slower moments in the second half of Aliens kept it coherent. Without those planning and organizing moments the film would have lost direction and devolved into a pointless shooting spree going nowhere. The character development may have been weak, I won’t argue that, but the plot development stayed strong, and that as much as anything keeps me interested.

    I can definitely understand a horror fan like yourself putting Alien way ahead of the sequel, but give me some guns and explosions any day.

    • Naw man, tension building is the shit! I understand your position, though, and our differing opinions is one of the great things about the Alien series. Instead of every film being a simple rehash of the same old shit, each one delivers something completely different.

      I never think of Alien as a horror movie, even though it sort of is, and that should illustrate why I think it appeals to so many people that don’t like horror movies. It follows a basic framework too, but it does so interestingly and very proactive like you say, so it never gets tiresome.

      I agree that Aliens needs the slower moments to avoid being pointless, but they just bothered me a lot this time around. Perhaps it was because I knew where it was all going. I don’t know, It might be different next time I watch it.

      • Stephen

        Yeah, I’m glad the series has some variety. If they had decided to toss Ripley on a spaceship with another alien, it never would have held up to the original, and everyone would have been disappointed by it.

        • I could interpret this comment as a dig at Alien: Resurrection, but I don’t think it was.

          I’d also like to add that while the multiple creators give each film its own vibe, I would have loved to see what Cameron’s Alien 5 idea would have been. He was working on it before they started Alien vs. Predator, but after that he ditched the idea. Oh well, now we’re stuck with multiple Avatar movies from him which will presumably close out his career.

          • Stephen

            Haha, I don’t remember enough about Resurrection to dig at it much. I just remember not liking it.

            I am curious how Alien 5 would have turned out, but directors returning to the older franchises after an extended absence historically hasn’t turned out well.

            I’d better shut up before this turns into a Star Wars rant.

            • I think you’re right on the money to be cautious about Cameron’s Alien 5, but I still would like to know what his idea was.

              And I’m going to avoid the Star Wars allusion in that comment, because like you I don’t want to devolve into a Star Wars rant. That’s one of the main reasons why I think I’ll never review any of them, although I might cave on the originals some day.

  • Nice review, Will. I have yet to see any film in the franchise yet (I know, I know…), but I can see how the genre switch would be a hurdle to get over.

    • Thanks! You should definitely check out the Alien series. It’s one of my all-time favorites and they hold up really well. 3 & 4 not so much, but they have their strengths.

  • I’m always sceptical of folks who prefer the first film over this one, or vice versa, because to me they’re different types of film. Alien is pure psychological horror, while Aliens is an action/thriller, two vastly different types of movie. They just happen to be set within the same universe. Indicating a preference is perhaps less about the quality of each film and more about the kind of film you would rather watch? Would this be a fair assessment? Both films have their share of greatness and a few flaws; your final statement about “missing the atmosphere of the original” indicates that you favor dark shadows and spine tingles instead of bullets and gung-ho machismo – which isn’t a criticism, more an observation – yet I ask the question: had James Cameron simply made a retread of Ridley’s original, would this franchise have lasted past episode 2?

    Sure, the script in Aliens is a little clunky at times, and the ease with which a viewer can “get” each of the 2-dimensional characters will depend on their tolerance for things like substance and depth, but I think this film works infinitely more often than it fails. And dude, I can’t believe you went and bagged Bill Paxton like that. Hudson is a gem of a character, the loudmouth grunt who’s all talk and little truth, although I guess I can see where you think Paxton overacts the part – myself, I enjoyed it.

    Aliens is my personal favorite of the first two Alien films, although having said that I can certainly see where you’re coming from in your assessment of it. Nice work, Will.

    • They are definitely different types of films, and I think the genre change is a necessary one. This time around, though, I just felt it was missing so much in the way of set design and atmosphere, which is one of the main reasons why I liked Alien so much. Alien feels almost like an art film, where Aliens takes that and makes it the most mainstream gung-ho movie possible. Both Alien 3 and Resurrection make a point to focus on atmosphere as well, so Cameron’s film is the outlier on that front. I’m not saying it’s devoid of atmosphere, but so many of the sets look like sets and a bigger focus on lighting in the exact same scene could have made all the difference.

      It’s a testament to the quality of Aliens that despite this issue I have, I love Aliens. It’s an incredible movie filled with awesome stuff, and it works well as a Vietnam allegory too. I’m not saying it’s shit, and I wouldn’t have wanted Cameron to simply remake Alien with a bigger budget. But I think you can have atmosphere and marines in the same movie, and this movie does, just not to the degree of the original… so for me it’s something of a failure in that way. But as I said, I love this movie and it’s incredibly fun (and amazing that this kind of movie only cost $18 million back in the day).

      And Paxton was acting for it! That was his role, and he played it well, but it was so annoying. It’s not necessarily his fault I guess, but I usually think he’s a borderline shitty actor. Except Frailty. He’s incredible in that.

  • […] Aliens is highly-regarded as a science-fiction classic, but how does it look to a horror movie fan who loved the original? Will at Silver Emulsion gives his review here. […]

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