Aliens (1986)

Directed by James Cameron

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Almost right away I decided that I didn’t like this film as much as I liked Alien.  This decision was based on me not wanting to like this movie as much as that one, and an early nightmare Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has that felt like a cheap attempt to scare the audience while we lay down poor exposition to set up the story.

Alien is slender, lean, thrilling, horrifying and surprising.  It feels innovative where Aliens feels repetitive.  At the same time, I felt like I wanted to hate this movie just because it’s not the same as Alien.  I rushed to a conclusion early in the film, but this movie works in a lot of ways that I struggled to appreciate.  I have to admit that when we got that shot of the door rising up revealing an armored-suit clad Ripley, I was losing my shit.  This climactic scene is famous, so it’s not like I didn’t know it was coming, but it was a great payoff and an awesome escalation of events that had, to that point, begun to feel a little too stung out.  The cliches and predictability and lulls of the middle of the film were all forgiven, as if theoretically well-written scenes died as a sacrifice to this awesome moment.

So I think I liked this film.  It’s more ‘Hollywood’ and summer blockbustery than Alien which to me had much more purpose.  Alien was a horror film, and it committed to its genre.  There were moments of extreme tension and surprising gore as well as creative moments of body horror that stuck with you.  Aliens is kind of a like a greatest hits album, but a band doesn’t typically release a greatest hits album after only a single release.

The story picks up right where the first one left off, sort of.  Ripley is in deep sleep alongside her cat, Jonesy, in her escape pod following the events of Alien.  A crew finds her and wakes her up.  I think 57 years have passed, but I’m not entirely sure because Burke (Paul Reiser) tells her this in what turns out to be a nightmare she awakens from.  I was waiting for the amount of time that has passed to be part of the nightmare, like someone might walk in and say “haha it’s only been three months,” but that never happened.  The nightmare was Ripley imagining one of those baby aliens emerging from her stomach as in Alien.  This was annoying because it wasn’t an earned scare.  It’s shoved in there, and it doesn’t enlighten anything about Ripley.  We already know she’s terrified based on her behavior and what’s already happened.  I suppose this film did come out 7 years after the original (and I just watched the original the night before) so maybe Cameron felt the need to make sure we knew how petrified Ripley was.

Okay, so then she is challenged by a group of people who don’t believe her story from the first film.  It would have been great if she told them this story like it was a movie pitch, “and then at the end of act 2 we found out Ash was an android!”  The group of studio executives or whoever they were are more concerned with the cost of the ship Ripley blew up, but then, wait, if this did happen 57 years earlier wouldn’t they have already accepted the sunk cost of a missing ship?  Okay, I’m not sure how much time has passed.

Anyways, Burke pressures her into a mission back to the planet where the original alien was uncovered.  Apparently the society that has been built on that planet is unresponsive.  This is great timing because in the previous meeting where the studio executives doubt Ripley’s story, they tell her that people have been happily living on this planet for years!  And then, suddenly, they realize Ripley might be right, of course.  The plan, as in the prequel, is to find and kill the aliens, not to study them or anything, but to obliterate them.  Ripley is accompanied by Burke and a group of cocky, young marines as well as another android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) whom Ripley does not trust based on her previous experience with androids trying to kill her.

This is where the movie drags on too long, at the beginning of act 2.  They investigate the planet which seems completely devoid of life.  Then the marines go in and are royally screwed as they are surrounded by aliens.  This sequence, actually, is another good example of where the film struggles while Alien flourished.  In Alien, Ridley Scott established early on that the alien bleeds acid, meaning that you can’t simply shoot them. This was established early enough that you knew this problem for the next occasion in which it came up.  You were there with the crew, trying to figure out how to attack the problem with the same knowledge they had.  In Aliens, the crew ventures into a settlement while Ripley, Burke and a young, inexperienced Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) follow the crew’s progress from the safety of the ship.  The crew goes deeper and deeper until they hit a level where they’re right under a cooling system.  Ripley realizes they can’t fire their guns or else they’ll destroy the cooling system and all hell will break loose (it will explode or something).  What I hate about this is that it’s brought up right before it becomes an issue.  Ripley’s right, of course, but this gives the audience no time to form a plan alongside the characters in this film.

In Alien I felt engaged as a viewer, like I was trying to decide what the crew should do as if it was a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of game but they simply weren’t listening to me.  In Aliens, we just follow what happens.  To add to this, there are scenes later in the film where we can’t figure out a way out of the conflict because we don’t know the geography of the space they’re in.  We’re always a step behind, and it doesn’t seem like it’s for a good reason.

Anyways, half the crew is wiped out.  Later they are about to get a ride out of the settlement, but an alien kills the pilot who is coming to get them, and their ride is gone.  Ripley, Burke and the other marines hide in a command center on the planet and formulate a new plan.  Burke becomes more of an obvious enemy (though his guilt was always implied) as he is only interested in money and taking one of those aliens home for profit.  Ripley insists that the aliens must all be killed.

Because of the helicopter that crashed, something was damaged and the planet or command center will explode or something.  Bishop the android crawls through a tube to a spot where he can remotely pilot the remaining ship to come pick them up.

Oh jeez, I haven’t even mentioned Newt.  She’s a little girl Ripley finds who has improbably survived the alien attack for who knows how long.  She’s basically Jonesy 2.0, another effort to copy the success of Alien.  Ripley and Newt sleep in a room where two of those face hugger aliens (which impregnate you) attack them.  Burke deliberately turns his back on them, willing to let them die and making it extra clear how evil he is.  The other marines soon find out, though, when Ripley uses a lighter to set off the sprinkler system.  They save her, and Ripley accuses Burke of planning to set the face huggers on her and Newt so they could be impregnated, allowing him to smuggle the aliens back home.

More aliens attack, and more people are killed, including Burke.  Ripley and another marine, Hicks (Michael Biehn) are all that remain when Newt falls down a shaft.  They go looking for her, but an alien takes her before they can get to her.  It has been established that the aliens don’t kill their victims, but rather make a cocoon out of them.  Ripley sets off to find and save Newt, venturing to deep within the mother alien’s lair.

This is the best part of the movie.  Describing the plot up until now has been exhausting, but this is where the movie kicks it up a notch.  Ripley ventures into this dark, misty area while the settlement threatens to explode (because of what we established earlier), and she finds Newt as well as a bunch of eggs that will hatch those dreaded face huggers.  When Ripley gets Newt, she backs away from the aliens which don’t attack her because she demonstrates a willingness to use her flamethrower on the unhatched eggs.  This is where the aliens become a little unbelievably smart.  They understand the threat, so they back off until Ripley decides to burn the eggs when she’s far enough way.  She gets away with Newt, but the angry mother alien comes after her and learns how to use an elevator to catch up to her.

When Bishop arrives with the plane, the alien latches onto the bottom of the flying object, only to reveal itself by stabbing and ripping apart Bishop the alien right after he and Ripley share a moment of tenderness and respect.  Ripley gets that crazy armored suit and kills the mother alien, much like she did the first alien in Alien.

There’s a concept in screenwriting that coincidences are only allowed if they make life harder for your character.  So the alien learning to use an elevator might feel a little too easy, but it makes Ripley’s story more challenging, so it’s okay.

This film was a drag for much of the first half of the story, but the action was great in the final act.  I think you should embrace this movie as a B action movie.  It’s fun, and it’d be great to see in theaters.  Everything is a little heightened or exaggerated, whether it’s the fact that they up the danger from a single alien to as many as they need (there seem to be hundreds here), and the marines are so douchey and aggressive.  They feel like cartoon characters, paritcualrly Bill Paxton’s character.  He’s great in this film, but his performance feels like something out of a comedy.  Everything is heightened so as to be scary or funny.

I much prefer the first film to this one, but James Cameron seems like he wants to be a crowd please.  He feels like he wants to give them the moment to cheer for in a nice, chilled movie theater on a hot summer day, and that moment with Ripley in the suit gives us that empowered feeling.

 

I think the biggest takeaway from this film, in terms of storytelling lessons, is the way Cameron heightens and builds on the action to create more suspense and more drama and more of a thrill.  Ripley’s journey into the mother’s nest is a little eerie, but it does the best job of building excitement and showcasing an entire short film, really, contained within this sequence.  This part of the story is more like something out of Indiana Jones than the first alien.  It’s like a puzzle that needs to be solved.  As a self-contained story it deals with the idea of motherhood and protection (both Ripley and the alien mother) as well as evolution.  The alien evolves in front of us.  Not only is she the biggest, baddest alien we see (suggesting an evolution of the alien we’ve come to expect), but she learns new behavior (the elevator as well as her stabbing, sharp tail).

 

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