The first time you sit down to watch Aliens after having watched Alien, there is a sense of anxiousness as to what the sequel could possibly offer in order to up the ante from Ridley Scott’s terrifyingly suspenseful masterpiece. From the moment when that initial proximity alarm inside the Narcissisus escape shuttle sounds, the unease grips you as you are unsure if Ripley is going to be safe, simply because of the relentless ferocity of the happenings of the first film. Director James Cameron undoubtedly knew this as the robotic laser utilized by the salvage crew was paid for by the director out of his own pocket due to budget constraints, but he was adamant that it had to be featured in the film to create tension from the very beginning. This proved to be a wise move as having something non-human enter the shuttle first does indeed prolong the feeling of anxious uncertainty. This of course continues into the next scene, where the sheer terror of the fantastically executed chestburster nightmare tells the audience that they are in for one hell of a ride. However, it does more than merely establish the tone and intensity of the film; it also establishes that Ripley is suffering from severe PTSD.
To make matters worse, Burke, a representative for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, informs Ripley that she has been in stasis for a shocking 57 years, meaning that the xenomorph not only inflicted severe emotional trauma on her as she lost her crew and fled the Nostromo, it also effectively stole her life. The impact of this forced disconnect from the life she knew is particularly evident in the special edition version of the film, where Burke once again is the bearer of bad news when he informs Ripley that her daughter has died aged 66, a mere two years prior to Ripley being found.
As if that was not bad enough, when Ripley attends a hearing shortly after getting the devastating news, the suits from Weyland-Yutani refuse to believe that she could possibly be telling the truth about what happened to the Nostromo. When she suggests that someone should be sent to LV-426 to verify her story, the chairman, Van Leeuwen, nonchalantly brushes off Ripley’s request as he informs her that there have been people living there for over 20 years. A stunned Ripley is left speechless when she learns that not only are there people living there, they are also families.
Defeated, Ripley seemingly gets back into the habit of a daily routine, but she is still haunted by traumatic nightmares. Suddenly, Burke shows up on her doorstep unannounced with Lt. Gorman of the United States Colonial Marines in tow. Unsurprising to both Ripley and the viewer, the company has lost contact with the colony on LV-426. Initially refusing a condescending Burke’s request to tag along with the marines to the planetoid as a consultant, her recurring nightmare finally pushes Ripley over the edge and she realizes that she has no choice but to revisit LV-426. Not only will she then get the chance to exterminate the xenomorphs for good, she will also have the opportunity to process her trauma by confronting the cause of it.
This is where some of the most memorable badasses to ever grace the silver screen are introduced as the setting shifts to the military vessel the Sulaco. The atmosphere is charged with overconfidence and bad jokes as the cocky marines remain unfazed by Ripley’s account of her initial encounter with the most hostile of organisms. Before long, everyone is in full swing with preparing the drop-ship for the last leg of their journey, and the viewer feels somewhat reassured from seeing their arsenal of impressive weapons, as these guys clearly mean business.
As the drop-ship hovers above Hadley’s Hope, the colonist complex on LV-426, the structure looks intact, but there are no signs of life whatsoever. Once the marines are on the ground, they proceed inside with military precision, but the interior shows no signs of life either. They do, however, find signs of a panicked struggle in the form of makeshift barricades and weapons damage caused by small firearms. Additionally, there are also some very large holes going through several floors of the complex, as if substantial amounts of a corrosive material melted its way through the structure, which the observant viewer of Alien will recognize as a recall to the first film, except this time the damage is much more extensive. As the tension increases to painful heights, more discoveries are made in the facility’s medical lab, where the marines’ motion trackers suddenly start to ping.
Ricco Ross, Mark Rolston and Cynthia Scott lead by a frosty and alert Michael Biehn.
The sound of those motion trackers would turn out to be one of the most unnerving elements of the film as it went on, but aside from the comic relief in the form of a false alarm triggered by some hamsters around the same time as we see the infamous half-eaten donut – if you are a big fan of this film, you know the one I am talking about and how much of an obsession it is within the fandom and what it lead to in the generally abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines game – the only other time the motion trackers are not a warning about impending xenomorph mayhem is when they detect the presence of the little girl Newt.
Once Newt is reluctantly caught by a fiercely determined Ripley, the two quickly begin to bond because they share the trauma of witnessing the horrors the xenomorphs are capable of inflicting on people, and Ripley gradually develops a relationship with Newt, becoming a surrogate mother for the child. Having lost her own daughter, Ripley becomes fiercely protective of Newt, but the little girl avoids becoming an obnoxious element of emotional manipulation by proving her worth several times, showing that it was not simply sheer dumb luck that kept her alive, as she plays a pivotal role in escaping the aliens later in the film.
Newt has a strong character arc, one which not only intertwines with Ripley’s due to shared experiences, but also adds depth to both characters, which is an essential part of the film’s appeal, as it makes the viewer that much more invested once the marines learn the hard way that the xenomorphs are the ultimate killing machines, making their trip to LV-426 spectacularly go from bad to worse to nuke the site from orbit.
Well, hello there, childhood trauma.
Whenever I recollect my first viewing of Aliens, Alien always bleeds into it with the chestburster, the scared cat and Brett finding the molted skin of the chestburster before the fully matured xenomorph descends upon him. However, there are always two scenes I can clearly remember; Ripley holding Newt in the queen’s nest, surrounded by the alien eggs, and the alien queen falling into space during the finale on the Sulaco. The former image would prove particularly impactful as I was myself a pale, scrawny girl with long blond hair, much like Newt.
Experiencing Newt go through all those horrors resonated with me profoundly. With my mom sporting a perm similar to Ripley’s at the time and my sister being a buff and sassy badass with a hairstyle similar to that of Vasquez, it seemed inevitable that I would forge such a strong bond with the franchise because of this installment. As it turned out, my love for this film and its universe would to some extent infuse itself with my identity, particularly in terms of my skepticism toward large corporations – more on that in my retrospective review of Alien3 – and I have had many great experiences because of the particular fandom that materialized after Aliens burst on to the screen.
Actor Bill Paxton on set with writer-director James Cameron.
In the summer of 1983, the young filmmaker James Cameron was about to begin shooting The Terminator, but there was a scheduling conflict as Arnold Schwarzengger had agreed to star in Conan the Destroyer, which delayed the production of The Terminator by 9 months. While this was not long enough to make another film, it did give Cameron the opportunity to take on a writing assignment. During a meeting regarding another project, Cameron was made aware of the studio’s plans to make a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, and Cameron gladly accepted the task of writing the script. However, once the shooting of The Terminator was finally about to commence, Cameron was unable to hand in a finished script for Aliens. He had only managed to write about 90 pages and was still in the middle of the second act, but the studio loved it so much that they did the unthinkable; they told Cameron that they would wait for him to finish the script once he had finished filming The Terminator, and if that film showed promise in terms of his skills as a director, they would also allow him to direct Aliens.
As production on Aliens began, Ron Cobb was hired once again because of the substantial amount of realism his highly practical designs had brought to Alien. Conceptual artist Syd Mead was also brought onboard to help with the production design, in particular that of the Sulaco, the drop-ship and the armored personnel carrier. With the Vietnam War still haunting the national psyche of the USA, these vehicles were deliberately designed to subconsciously remind the viewer of Vietnam War imagery. This subliminal element also played into the design of the marines’ uniforms and how they were decorated; the sentiment of the unruly and cocky marines came to be thanks to Cameron’s impression of the behavior of the American forces towards the end of the Vietnam War. However, the parallels ran deeper than mere visuals, as Cameron had deliberately written the story of the xenomorphs overpowering the marines as a paraphrasing of how the Vietnam War had played out. The dynamic between the protagonists and antagonists in Aliens sought to capture how the arrogant, overconfident American forces relied too much on their seemingly superior technology and how they were bested by the Viet Cong because their knowledge of their local environment gave them the high ground in spite of having less sophisticated weaponry at hand.
While the most was expertly made of the film’s modest $18 million budget, the production itself did not progress smoothly once shooting began in Acton and at Pinewood Studios. Not only were there issues with asbestos at the decommissioned Acton power station in West London, which served as the interior for the colony complex, Cameron also butted heads with the British crew at Pinewood Studios. Not only was the crew enamored with Ridley Scott’s original film and had little else but contempt reserved for the young Canadian writer-director, they also largely worked permanent jobs at Pinewood, which made them further apathetic towards the production. One of the ways this was apparent was in the form of the many tea breaks on the set; as anyone familiar with British culture can tell you, the British are largely fueled by tea, so when the tea trolley would makes its rounds at Pinewood, the crew would bolt to get their refreshments. This infuriated Cameron, who was used to a different work ethic in the States, and things eventually got so bad that a mutiny almost occurred on the set, with much of the crew preparing to leave the production altogether.
Thankfully, a full-blown crisis was averted, and Aliens became a smash hit when it opened in the summer of 1986. Both critics and audiences alike were enthralled by the fruits of Cameron’s labor, resulting in the film receiving almost universal critical acclaim as well as grossing over $85 million during the four consecutive weeks it spent as number one at the North American box office. Additionally, the film was also nominated for 7 Oscars, which aside from the expected technical awards also included Sigourney Weaver’s first Oscar nomination. While the film only won two Oscars for Best Sound Effects and Best Visual Effects, the fact that Aliens was recognized in the prestigious Best Actress category was an unprecedented acknowledgement of the horror and science fiction genres, which are mostly shunned by the Academy. Mostly.
John Rosengrant and Tom Woodruff Jr. working on more flexible xenomorph suits.
In 1979, the xenomorph was portrayed by the exceptionally tall and slender Bolaji Badejo, whose portrayal of the creature certainly managed to terrify audiences around the globe, but the costume he wore was anything but flexible. Thus, when Cameron wanted to include multiple xenomorphs in the sequel, he wanted the alien suits to allow for increased mobility in order to help increase the intensity when they had to go up against the marines and their advanced weaponry. Furthermore, there was also the concern of budget constraints, which resulted in many of the suits being realized as spandex suits with alien skin accents attached. This design approach may look crude when you see it in the workshop as above, but Cameron knew how he wanted to light and shoot the costumes, which would never involve dwelling on the basic suits long enough for the audience to notice the primitive construction.
Cameron has always been open about his admiration of Ridley Scott’s Alien, and while he rightfully considers the chestburster in Aliens to be an improvement over the original incarnation because the one in Aliens is much more articulated, he has stated that he thinks the facehugger in Alien looks superior to the ones featured in the sequel. However, while the skin texture and representation of the creature’s innards were executed with delightfully grim detail in 1979, the original facehugger was lacking severely in terms of movement. Considering the sequence where Ripley and Newt are trapped in the medical lab had to focus on evading agile facehuggers, the special effects team ended up creating the illusion of a ferocious parasite by using an amalgamation of animatronics as well as pulling limp rubber facehuggers attached to wires. The effects may look underwhelming when presented separately, but the different elements were edited together so well that this scene remains unbearably suspenseful to this day.
The word ‘intense’ springs to mind.
However, the biggest creature effect in terms of both size and impact was the addition of the alien queen. Wanting to explore where those eggs aboard the derelict spacecraft introduced in the first film came from, Cameron had already added the queen of monsters in his script. While H.R. Giger was not involved with the production of Aliens, Cameron based his design for the new creature on Giger’s original work. Knowing that Cameron would only suggest something that had the potential to become a reality, special effects master Stan Winston then began having a creative back-and-forth with Cameron, whereby they continuously enhanced each other’s design suggestions. Becoming one of the largest practical creature effects achieved up until that point, moving the queen would require the effort of up to 16 operators, but all the hard work paid off as the queen of monsters became an equally chilling and awe-inducing addition to the franchise’s impressive cabinet of horrors.
Stan Winston on a ladder on the set with the intimidatingly huge queen.
1992 Special Edition
Due to multiplexes not being as common in 1986 as they are today, Aliens had to be no longer than 2 hours and 10 minutes in order to fit in as many screenings per day as possible. This frustrated Cameron, as he felt his vision required a longer runtime to be done justice. He therefore ensured that a special edition of the film was released on laserdisc in 1992, where 16 minutes worth of footage was added. Aside from the tense sentry gun sequence, these additional scenes mainly focused on character development by showing Ripley getting the devastating news about her daughter in the beginning of the film as well as having her and Hicks exchange their first names towards the end of the film. Another addition, which not only adds some background information about Newt and her family, also covers what some may consider a plot hole in the theatrical cut of the film, namely how the colonists on LV-426 got exposed to the alien species in the first place.
While being able to add more depth to an already great film such as Aliens raises the stakes and thereby makes for a better film as a whole, having been fortunate enough to experience both the theatrical cut and the special edition on the big screen, I would argue that the theatrical version is the best introduction to the film for first-time viewers. This is largely due to how the uncertainty of what awaits the marines once they set down on LV-426 is much greater when the extra scenes in the beginning of the film are removed; having no context makes the imagery of the damaged complex and particularly Newt’s entrance much more suspenseful. In return, the special edition is the preferable option for repeat viewings, as increasing the emotional depth of the characters and making the ride longer and bumpier is what has ensured the film’s rewatchability.
Whenever I am asked what my favorite film is, I always pick Aliens without any hesitation whatsoever. James Cameron expertly expanded upon the extraordinary foundation laid by Ridley Scott in 1979 by answering questions we wanted answered, creating another terrifying monster, and giving us the marines to love and Burke to hate. He made Ripley an even greater character than she already was and gave her one of the greatest one-liners of all time, which still causes enthusiastic rounds of cheering and applause from cinema audiences to this day. Aliens is an action-packed, intense thrill ride that is both a product of its time as well as a timeless classic. Even now, in my function as a critic, I cannot fault Aliens whatsoever, and I am not ashamed to admit that whenever I rewatch Aliens on the big screen at the Prince Charles Cinema, I tend to get a little teary-eyed out of sheer, unadulterated adoration for this masterpiece, which kick-started my love for cinema.
Verdict: 10 out of 10.