Thirty years ago, a long-awaited sequel burst onto American cinema screens in a blaze of publicity. This, after all, wasn’t just any old sequel – it was the follow up to Ridley Scott’s legendary Space Horror, Alien. There was surely no way anyone could recapture the slow-build dread and terror of Scott’s classic though. Fortunately, Aliens was more interested in forging its own path.
Whereas its prequel was a study in ratcheting tension, subtly preying on inherent subconscious fears, and short bursts of violent action, Aliens gripped all of these by the scruff of the neck, strapped them to a rocket, and aimed them straight at our nerve centres. Quite simply, it upped the ante. Big time. As the tagline promised, this time it was war.
Its premise was fairly basic: one xenomorph was hard enough to destroy, so what about an entire nest? This was the question foremost in the mind of director James Cameron. And exactly how would you go about defeating so overwhelming an enemy? Appropriately, the incomparable Ellen Ripley, not one to put undue value on Weyland-Yutani property, sums it up beautifully with the famous line: “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure.”
Set 57 years after the fateful events aboard the Nostromo, the movie opens with Ripley fortuitously rescued by a salvage crew. She’s been in a suspended animation stasis all this time, and this scene is a nifty piece of mirroring for the end of the movie. So too does it make for some interesting philosophical SF subtext: Ripley, lost on the stream of time and space, drifting from one nightmare to the next. An explorer of the farthest and darkest corners of the psyche, if you care to extend the analogy that far.
But even if such musings hold no interest for you, there’s no disputing what a phenomenal technical achievement Aliens was, utilising an extraordinary blend of creature animatronics, economical use of visual effects, expert lighting, and some of the best sound mixing ever commissioned to film, to create something that holds up to this day. Compare the look and atmosphere of it to any number of effects-heavy modern blockbusters, and see which is more convincing.
So, after a brief post-mortem, as Ripley is grilled by a tableful of dollar-concerned Weyland-Yutani suits about what exactly happened all those years ago, we thrust onwards. All the while, the sense of calm before the storm looms large, even as Ripley is plagued by nightmares. She is cajoled into joining a band of marines whose mission is to visit the colony on LV-426. Ominously, contact has been lost with its inhabitants. We know this won’t end well – after all, it’s what we signed up for.
All the while, James Cameron is slowly, deliberately turning the dial. The pressure builds and builds … and then everything catches fire; the aliens literally crawl out of the woodwork, the brakes fail, and we are hurtled screaming into the darkness.
At the time, Aliens was cited by numerous critics as the scariest movie they’d ever seen. In retrospect, it’s easy to scoff at that. But anyone who experienced this in a blackened cinema in all its glory, certainly wasn’t disputing that assertion. It’s not so much the scare-factor (though there is plenty of that) – it’s the relentless pace of it; like being injected with a massive shot of adrenaline, strapped to a cart, and shoved down a rickety track into an abandoned mine. Here there be monsters, you best believe it.
It’s not all about the rollercoaster though. The dialogue too is a thing of joy. One-liners and quotable moments abound. To deliver these effectively, it needed a good cast … and this is one of the finest ensembles you could hope for. It would have been easy for the marines to end up nothing more than a troupe of unlikeable numbskulls. But everywhere you turn, there are career-high performances:
Bill Paxton (Private Hudson) veers brilliantly from a wise-cracking, strutting peacock of a soldier, to a panicked, get-me-the-hell-outta-here liability. Michael Biehn (Corporal Hicks) displays the kind of calm his colleagues seem incapable of when the secreted resin hits the fan. Lance Henriksen (Bishop) is exactly the kind of android you’d hope for when the chips are down. Paul Reiser (Burke) plays brilliantly against type as a scheming, slime-ball company man.
Let us not forget, of course, the magnificent, cigar-chomping Al Matthews (Sergeant Apone), William Hope’s cowardly Lieutenant Gorman (“You always were an asshole, Gorman”), or Jenette Goldstein’s hard-as-nails Private Vasquez (“Hey Vasquez, you ever been mistaken for a man?”) and her brother-in-arms, Mark Rolston (Private Drake).
Carrie Henn’s Newt doesn’t quite hit the same high notes, her lines often proving to be a little clunky and grating, but she’s still a vital part of the mix (the focus point of Ripley’s maternal instincts). And she does get that line: “They mostly come out at night; mostly.”
However, the undoubted star of the show is Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Science Fiction blockbusters rarely yield Oscar nominations for acting, so it was something of a pleasant surprise when she was given the nod. If ever a performance was deserving of the ultimate accolade, this was it. Unfortunately, the Academy, somewhat predictably, opted for a safer choice as the ultimate winner that year. But make no mistake, Weaver is hypnotic here in her most iconic role. That she makes the testosterone-fuelled, predominantly male, marines look like a bunch of quivering mice in comparison to her is testament to the power of her screen presence.
And it’s not a case of her having to become overtly masculine in order to be perceived as strong either; the nuances of her character are many and great. It’s obvious how much the xenomorphs terrify her: you can feel the anguish as she battles to overcome her inner demons. In this she is grounded, real, flesh and blood. Then, through sheer force of will, she transforms, emerging as a warrior without equal, while all around are losing their heads. It’s a masterclass of subtle facial expressions belying the emotions within, and an intensity that is frightening in itself. Weaver inhabits this character so much so that she becomes Ripley. What a shame that it still to this day isn’t widely vaunted in the same breath as more heralded roles, from the likes of Pacino and De Niro. It is that good. In terms of landmark female lead performances, it is almost unparalleled (look at it again now, in the context of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, another role criminally overlooked by the Academy).
One cannot overestimate James Cameron’s part here either. That he managed to so acutely tap into the spirit, and potential, of the character, is deserving of high praise. The same can be said for the way he managed to craft a blockbuster the likes of which, it seems, we might never witness again. He may have received all the accolades and praise for Titanic, but this was the moment where he truly strode onto the pedestal, and announced himself as the premier director of his age. Not to mention what he did with the other all-important stars of the show, the titular aliens. What works so well about them is that he keeps them largely in the shadows. When they do emerge, the use of lighting, nifty camera work, and a variety of other clever techniques, brings them to life. The sense of menace and single-minded intent has never been so effectively realised.
That what followed in the series so wantonly laid waste to their predecessors should not be allowed to detract from Aliens. In short, it remains a powerhouse, monumental event, and everything you could ask for in a movie: exhilarating, hugely entertaining and endlessly watchable. Rightly esteemed as one of the very greatest.
For some of us even, the pinnacle itself.