I’ve had a rather strange relationship with the Alien franchise. It’s taken me forever and a day to finally catch up on them (I watched the original only two years ago) and have essentially spent the last 21 years hearing about how amazing and influential the first two films are. In fact, I saw the wildly underrated Prometheus a long time before even touching these, which has no doubt colored my opinion. Regardless, its about damn time to finally check out James Cameron’s Aliens before Ridley Scott takes another crack at the prequel franchise with Alien: Covenant.
What becomes instantly clear while watching this film is that this is Scott’s original film on steroids, with everything dialed up to 11. Our working class group of truckers have been transferred for bulked up marines, armed to the teeth with bullets and quips. A claustrophobic spaceship has become an entire planet full of elaborate caverns and hazards. One Xenomorph? Nah. How about thirty? However, Cameron keeps everything fresh by not even trying to re-create the tone of Scott’s film. He’s aware that since these elements have been dialed up, this is now a full-on action film, and he embraces that completely.
The suspense here doesn’t stem so much from anxiety as it does sheer escalation. One minute, our marines are caught inside a colony base being decimated by a horde of Xenomorphs, the next, they’re trapped in an air vent with a few of them right on their backs. Most of the special effects are done practically too, which gives everything a tangibility that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Even if the costumes and puppets used for the Xenomorphs look a little cheesy by today’s standards, they still feel like flesh and blood creatures. Cameron is a master of over the top, visceral action set pieces, and he makes the audience feel as though we’re touting a gun right along with these guys. It’s a balls to the wall shoot ‘em up, through and through. Commando by way of H.R. Giger.
Even with all of the madness going on, Cameron never forgets that we need to care about these characters in order to tune into the chaos. Sigourney Weaver is perhaps even better here than she was in the original. Here, we see an Ellen Ripley who has already been through hell and as such has no problem bashing in a few black, almond shaped heads in order to get her way. Even so, we never feel as though she’s been completely robbed of venerability, as her maternal relationship with Newt always keeps her rooted in primal human emotion. Meanwhile, the colonel marines are a delight, particularly the skittish Private Hudson played by the late Bill Paxton. Their banter is pure 80s machismo, keeping the audience in the know that we’re not taking things too seriously.
So why didn’t I love this movie? While certainly very enjoyable, Aliens never quite crossed over into being a completely satisfying package for me. I suspect that a massive part of this issue might be that the film has become a victim of its own influence. Having spent so many years watching films that are clearly derived from pieces of this often turned certain moments into un-intentional parody. Aliens is an unapologetic embodiment of blockbuster tropes and the lack of subversion hurt my connection to it a little bit.
The pacing is rather lopsided, opting to put most of the character work and build up in the first half, and the majority of the action in the second. This makes both sides of the equation a little tedious, especially considering the two hour and eighteen minute run time. After all, there’s only so long that folks with guns can swoop around darkened hallways before it starts to wear a little thin. By contrast, the second half essentially turns into a video game. A great video game, but one that I needed a break from after a while. It lacked some of the energy that other Cameron films such as True Lies and Terminator 2 had in spades, even with so much iconography running through it.
I undoubtedly prefer Scott’s more reserved approach to this franchise. There’s something so chilling about a feral creature hiding within the walls of a vacuum to which there is no escape. Keeping the Xenomorph in the shadows not only amplifies how terrifying it is once we do see it (even if it’s a bit silly looking) but makes the gore that much more cringe-inducing. However, Cameron’s film is a lot of fun for what it is, a bonanza of brash action sequences and delicious camaraderie. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that while nobody can hear you scream in space, they can certainly hear you shoot.