This time, it’s war.
Aliens is a seminal science-fiction film that successfully blended action with outer space. It raised the stakes for sequels everywhere and contained many thematic elements that explored deeper social issues.
Some time after the original Alien film, Ripley returns to the planet with some space marines to destroy the aliens. Big ships, big tanks, big guns. It’s not going to be enough is it? The trailer shows lots more action as the marines are surrounded by multiple aliens. There’s even a young girl involved in the mix this time. It looks like Ripley’s gonna need to kick butt and take names again!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Fifty-seven years after the events of the film Alien, the lifepod of the Nostromo is found adrift in space with only Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as the lone human survivor. She is brought before a board of inquiry and questioned about the events that led to her winding up in space. She attempts to tell the executives about the alien presence they encountered, but they say there’s been no reports of creatures on LV-426 by the terraformers currently stationed there. Ripley is then stripped of her license for her part in the destruction of the Nostromo and its payload. However, a couple days later a member of the company, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), and Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) arrive at her home and ask her to return to the planet with some Marines, as Weyland-Yutani has lost communication with their outpost.
The ship, the Sulaco, arrives at LV-426, and the Marines under the command of Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), along with Gorman, Burke, Ripley, and Bishop (Lance Henriksen) come out of cryo-sleep and ready themselves for the mission. When Ripley learns that Bishop is an android, she tells it to stay away from her, remembering what happened with the synthetic humanoid on her previous mission. Ripley briefs the Marines, including the stoic Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) and the jokey Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), on what they can expect to find on the planet before they hop into the drop ship and descend to the planet.
The group separates into two teams and enters the base but find no trace of the colonists or any aliens, just some acidic burns on the deck plating. Inside the medlab Bishop finds two live specimens of the ‘facehugger’ alien in glass tubes, waiting to be studied. A motion tracker alerts them to something moving and the group discovers a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) who has somehow survived there for weeks. Hudson discovers the trackers for the colonists who are holed up in the atmospheric processing station. The team gears up including the two Privates that carry the heavy machine guns and lead the squads, Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston).
Inside the station they are told not to use weapons, as it may cause a breach of the reactor and an explosion, but Vasquez and Drake have back up circuits for their guns and begin shooting as soon as trouble emerges. Half the team is killed or taken by the creatures never to be seen again, including Dietrich, Frost, Crowe, Wierzbowski, Apone, and Drake. Gorman freaks out in the command APC so Ripley takes control and gets Bishop to drive in for a rescue. Hudson is injured in the escape and Ripley and Hicks agree that evacuating and blowing up the site from orbit is the best option. They radio for Ferro (Colette Hiller) and Spunkmeyer (Daniel Kash) to pick them up in the drop ship, but an alien aboard causes the ship to crash.
Ripley and the seven other survivors hole up in Operations and begin to figure out a plan, which includes Bishop making his way to the antenna array and remote piloting the second drop ship down to them, while everyone else uses the small amount of ammunition to hold off the oncoming horde. Ripley puts Newt to bed on a cot in the MedLab and has a tender bonding moment with the young girl, who reminds her of her own daughter. Burke, wanting to make sure that he has “samples” of the alien lifeforms, releases the facehuggers into the MedLab hoping to implant their spawn in Ripley and Newt. The base is overrun with the adult alien forms which the team holds off as best it can. But eventually they begin to run out of ammo and get killed. Hudson is the first to go. Burke then gets his comeuppance. Vasquez and Gorman decide to blow themselves up with their final grenade, taking dozens of creatures with them.
Newt is captured by an alien and taken back to the hive and Hicks is injured, so it is up to Ripley to go after the young girl before the station explodes. Descending into the industrial maze of pipes, steam and alien resin Ripley finds Newt and they make their way out. A giant, egg-laying Queen alien follows the humans back to the landing platform where Ripley and Newt get back on the drop ship with seconds to spare. Safely back on the Sulaco, Ripley is shocked when Bishop is torn in two by the Queen alien’s tail. Ripley jumps into a power loader suit and finds the monster, managing to expel it through the airlock. She tends to Newt, putting her and Hicks into cryo-sleep before stepping back into the tube herself for the long trip home.
“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” – Ripley
History in the Making
Just as Ridley Scott had done with Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens takes what has come before and expands on the themes and ideas of the predecessor while creating a new type of film in the process. It takes the lone survivor of the previous film and crafts a new, larger story around her, multiplying the one monster for dozens, and coming up with a new mega-alien character for the finale. The original studio 20th Century Fox was reportedly shy about committing to a sequel, but work progressed on the film nonetheless, headed by the original production company for Alien. Cameron was brought in due to the strength of his screenplays for The Terminator (which was not yet released) and Rambo: First Blood Part II, which he wrote with Sylvester Stallone. Fox was not sold on the young filmmaker, who also wanted to direct. His only released film by this time was Piranha II: The Spawning, which was not a hit, but the release of The Terminator won many people over.
Reportedly Cameron was unsure how a sequel to the successful 1979 would work, and knew that he had to get Sigourney Weaver to return. Her involvement does make the film work, but it’s also the elevation of stakes and the fusion of the action elements, with the already solid science-fiction and horror elements, that made the film resonate with audiences. While Alien was a horror film set in space within a relatively small space, Aliens created a much larger universe with a big cast, and an even bigger influx of creatures to deal with. The addition of the one single ‘s’ onto the original title really tells it all. It was now go big, or go home. With a lackluster assortment of sci-fi films in the previous few years, such as Explorers, Enemy Mine, and Invaders From Mars, and with the huge influx of classic action films from the era, which include Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), 48 Hrs (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), the infusion of the action elements into the genre provided the boost that audiences were looking for. Aliens took the action of the Rambo franchise, melded it with the camaraderie of war films such as The Big Red One (1980), and the sci-fi elements of stories like Starship Troopers (which would become a film one day itself) to craft a new style into the sci-fi genre.
There are very few films that might be considered perfect, but Aliens has got to be in a shortlist of titles for many viewers. After making The Terminator, which was more a horror film than a sci-fi film, Cameron had many ideas on how to make this sequel worthwhile. The early 80s were a burgeoning time for studios trying to create successful sequels in hopes of leading them to lucrative franchises. Fortunately Cameron had enough willpower to see this film through, as it helped to expand the Alien universe and created one of the best film sequels ever. The film perfectly balances the science-fiction elements with the horror aspects and the action beats. Most genre films of any one of these types were limited to a runtime of 90-100 minutes, but Aliens clocks in at 137 minutes, nearly 30% longer. However the film doesn’t feel that long. It’s pacing and tension drives the story so well that the viewer gets lost in the feeling and swept away by the film. Audiences cheer when the characters are successful and grip the edges of their seat as they walk through the dark corridors of the station. This experience was one of the first relentless sci-fi films that thrilled audiences, much as Raiders of the Lost Ark had done for the action genre a few years before.
The fusion of military and sci-fi was almost exclusively limited to science-fiction novels and stories at this time. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had turned that franchise around by injecting a bit more action and militarism into it, and The Terminator featured some extraneous future war that created the backstory for the action in that film. But Aliens was the first film which took the elements of the war film and put them solidly into futuristic alien worlds. The special effects crew created tons of recognizable futuristic military hardware including the gun-like spaceship Sulaco, the dropship and the APC. It helped that these elements were all based on modern vehicles of war such as battleships, helicopters, and actual armored personnel carriers. The film did not shy away from having the soldiers speak in the vernacular of Marines, or showing off the way which the weapons worked. All of this additional footage led to a better characterization of the people and a better understanding of the firepower that they brought to the table. Fans already familiar with the abilities of the alien creatures would think that having a machine gun (or pulse rifle as they are called) would provide some leverage for the humans. But that’s the other great twist on the film. The number of creatures overwhelms the firepower in a thrilling and shocking turn of events.
Cameron also continues the use of horror tropes which the original Alien made great use of. The set design, with the dark corridors, dangling tubes and wires, and frequent haze and steam effects made it difficult to see where the creatures may be hiding. Sometimes the scenes were about setting up the jump scare, as with the apparently dead facehugger in the liquid filled tube that suddenly tries to attack Burke. But once the adrenaline gets moving in the audience, Cameron turns up the intensity, unleashing hordes of aliens to chase and pursue the soldiers. The chaos and confusion of the screams, gunfire, and editing of the film sows a greater fear into the audiences, much like a thrilling roller coaster ride might. By the finale of the film, Ripley is going after Newt alone. The film shows her travelling through narrow, obscured corridors, heading into the alien hive with limited firepower, against the ticking clock of the explosion of the facility. The longer the sequence goes on, and the longer it takes for audiences to spot any creatures, the stronger the tension gets until finally it’s partially relieved with the appearance of the Queen. Cameron then unleashes the tension as Ripley and Newt race back to the drop ship and escape, allowing audiences a momentary sigh of relief, with the first of several final fake outs.
Aliens also stands as the first major depiction of the strong female lead, set as a counterpoint to the hyper-masculinity seen in typical Hollywood action films. While Alien also presented Ripley in a strong role, her place in that film was reluctant hero. Much like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, the characters were forced into a fight or flight situation and decided to push back (having little choice) against the villains. Here, Ripley takes a reluctant step forward but at least knowing what that step entailed. Her hand forced by the corporate overseers, she takes control of her fate and the fate of the others, being the only person that had experienced an encounter with the aliens first hand, and survived. This strong female character would set the tone for other such films, both in and out of the genre. Films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with the transformation of Sarah Conner (quite similar to Ripley’s turn here), or Jodie Foster’s Agent Starling in The Silence of The Lambs, created action oriented roles and strong portrayals of women that would continue to inspire audiences and filmmakers today.
Ripley is also given a softer side for this film, pairing her with the young Newt who she treats as a daughter. The extended cut of the film has additional backstory that Ripley’s daughter grew old and died while she drifted, frozen in outer space, waiting for rescue. Her lack of being there for her own daughter creates additional feelings for the orphan girl allowing Ripley to see her as a surrogate child. Newt also comes to view Ripley as a mother figure, finally calling her “mommy” in the closing scenes of the film. The strength of the bond becomes evident when against all logic, Ripley decides that she has to rescue Newt from the aliens rather than flee. The countdown to the explosion of the reactor and the potential alien obstacles were not going to prevent her from saving the only character that Ripley truly cared about on that horrible planet. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of the future sequels to this film decided not to continue that story which is a detriment to all.
Aliens also continued the role and idea that in the future commercialism and corporate oversight would be the roots of evil. This was not the idyllic future of the Star Trek universe. Aliens was a gritty and tough future imagined as an extension of the corporate sprawl present in the 1980s. Like Escape From New York or Blade Runner, the future was dark and dour and it continued the idea that a giant mega-corporation (named Weyland-Yutani here for the first time) was willing to risk the lives of a few hundred colonists, and a handful of Marines in order to secure a living bioweapon. Burke is the personification of this greed, similar to the role Ash played in the original film. Burke’s conniving and spineless manipulation of the players seems to really piss audiences off, enough that his death at the hands of an alien feels justified and victorious.
The Science in The Fiction
The alien life cycle was explored in detail in the original film. From egg, to facehugger, to chestburster and adult alien, what more could be revealed? The now-obvious creation of the hive matriarch that laid the eggs seems like a no brainer, but was a clever addition to the alien menagerie of creatures. Both Ron Cobb (who worked on the original film) and Syd Mead (Blade Runner, 2010: The Year We Make Contact) were tasked with expanding the look of the film in both a technical scale as well as with the creatures themselves. Their designs created a believable, well-worn world, where current world technology was extrapolated several hundred years into the future.
Besides the creations of the military hardware and vehicles, they also imagined a future forklift that was a powerful endo-skeleton/robot. This was setup in the opening of the film, seen loading bombs onto the drop ship, but was also a key piece of hardware for the final confrontation between Ripley and the Alien Queen. It was not a sleek futuristic piece of hardware, but a worn and bulky machine, drenched in industrial yellow to showcase its mundane place in this society. The look belied the importance that this interesting looking device would have in the third act. It’s these small design choices that create a sci-fi look that appears more within reach than films like Star Trek or Buck Rogers.
The Final Frontier
Aliens showed that there was a possibility for a franchise with these characters. Alien 3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997) would continue Ripley’s story in ways that were not as well received as this film would be. The adventures of these characters could be relived in the Aliens: Colonial Marines video game which was released in 2013 for a number of platforms. The stories of Newt, Hicks and Ripley would also continue (apocryphally) in the Dark Horse Comics Aliens series. Securing the license to this franchise in the early 90s, these comic books told the continuation of the events from this film and what might happen if an alien ever got back to Earth.
The film raised the stakes for film sequels, becoming one of the few sequels (along with The Empire Strikes Back and Godfather II) to be thought of as greater than its progenitor. For Cameron it was the beginning of his ascent to making greater and bigger films like Terminator 2, The Abyss and the Avatar series (not to mention the non-genre, Academy Award winning film Titanic). The film also likely saved 20th Century Fox which was in a slump at the time. It is a masterclass in some of the best ways to make a sequel, make an action film, and communicate effective suspense and horror in cinema.
Aliens is as much a horror film as it is science-fiction and serves as a great place to pause this series before October. Sci-Fi Saturdays will be taking a couple of weeks off as I prepare the articles for 31 Days of Horror, which delves into the exploration of a different horror film each day in October. But fear not, Saturdays will still have a place to talk about iconic, fun, and genre-defining science-fiction films but with a horror twist.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.