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.