One of the premier physical cinematic experiences, bar none. I can only imagine the added impact of seeing Aliens on the big screen. Comparing James Cameron’s sequel to its predecessor is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Aliens is a clever divergence from the cerebral, psychosexual, intimate horror of Ridley Scott’s original, with Cameron opting to not only widen the scope (nothing new regarding sequels) but completely switch genres. Alien was claustrophobic terror. This is all-out chaos and war.
After Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is picked up and thawed out from a 57-year cryo-sleep she’s sent along with a troop of marines as an advisor on a rescue mission after a Weyland Corporation (the real villains here, once again) loses contact with a terraforming colony established on the very planet Ripley’s ship fatefully touched down on many decades prior. Cameron establishes early that this is a war film with horror trappings, and not the other way around. Many of the marines are dressed and outfitted like U.S. troops were in the Vietnam war, violent catch-phrases written on their helmets, and they hunger for the heat of battle. And, as a nice commentary on the Vietnam War itself, the Lieutenant in charge of the operation is utterly clueless, giving the orders that lead his soldiers to death without truly being in danger himself.
It has to be said that something feels lost in this transition. Cameron masterfully stages all of the film’s big set pieces, but the way in which the Xenomorphs quickly become cannon fodder (literally, as the turret sequence in the expanded cut shows). It is no longer the creatures themselves that terrify us, but simply their overwhelming numbers.
Minor shortcomings aside, Aliens does set itself apart distinctly in more than just its genre divergence, and that’s in its focus on motherhood (it utilizes this theme for horror, as well). In her 57 years of cryo-sleep Ripley’s daughter (11 at the time she embarked on her journey in Alien) has passed away. Enter Newt, a survivor of the Xenomorph invasion on the colony, about the same age Ripley’s daughter was the last time she saw her. Their scenes together give the film an emotional, familial anchor that Alien lacked, and Cameron also utilizes this theme for terror as well. In Aliens the biggest fear is not that the Xenomorphs will kill you, it is that they won’t, instead impregnating their victims alive, helpless, praying to be killed before they give birth. Ripley herself has nightmares about this, and it’s clear, during the film’s most terrifying sequence, in which two captured Facehuggers have been let loose in a lab, that she fears this the most as well. The Facehuggers in Aliens feature a very visible, very phallic probe that the original did not. This is explicitly sexual assault, and makes these creatures all the more horrifying, and in turn makes Aliens‘ feminist denouement all the more powerful (I won’t spoil it). Ripley has morphed, by necessity of genre and situation, into full action hero, and Weaver’s performance is staggering and more than up to the task.
Aliens is one of the ultimate analog pieces of cinema. Cameron and production designer Peter Lamont (who worked on several 007 films) realize the world of the picture exhaustively. The machines and corridors and weapons and installations are all so practically rendered and captured that Aliens will forever be ageless (aside from its clearly-80s-computers, of course). You can almost feel the heat of the steam in the corridors that the marines move through, almost smell the sweat everyone is perpetually drenched in. The Xenomorphs themselves are physically there, light splaying off and through their grotesque bodies and rendering them nothing but matte silhouettes until they’re so close that their acidic saliva is nearly dripping on the camera. When guns fire smoke hangs in the air. The shots echo off the walls. The practicality of Aliens makes it a filmic experience rather than a viewing one, and Cameron captures its physicality masterfully. Enthralling. Demands to be seen in the dark expanse of a movie theater more than almost any other film.