It’s always difficult finding words to describe a movie like Aliens. James Cameron’s bonafide classic sequel evokes admiration from the hearts of multiple genre stylings. Whether you’re an action junkie, horror fiend, or science-fiction fanatic, Aliens has something worth offering.
Along with being one of the few sequels capable of standing up to the original, many would argue it even surpasses Ridley Scott’s seminal monster movie. The discussion of which film is superior certainly leads to interesting debate, but Aliens maintains its status as a classic for reasons beyond that. It goes to show sequels can do something drastically different than their predecessors and still work as a thematic whole. Much like the first film, the pop culture zeitgeist is redefined by the world building presented in Cameron’s sequel.
The industrial designs of Scott’s first feature return with a cleaner,Cameron aesthetic, juxtaposed against the new uglier setting of LV-426, where we’re introduced to the Queen and the xenomorph species acting as a bee hive. It’s not the detail oriented prism of Scott’s ghastly haunted house in space, but it provides us with even more iconography to add to film history.
Cocky space marines became the standard action heavy science fiction. How could they not? The renderings of Vasquez, Hudson, Hicks, and Apone are innately recognizable at this point. The movie puts the colonial marines to good use by immediately killing off the majority of them on LV-426. It quickly re-establishes how terrifying the creatures are and confirms Ripley’s fears. James Cameron might as well have shouted over a megaphone, “A battalion of marines couldn’t stop hundreds of these monsters. Good luck!”
Even video games have plenty to thank Aliens for. The futuristic assault rifles and Pillar of Autumn in the first Halo game copy-and-paste the style of the Sulaco. The build up to the Alien Queen? Beat-for-beat the final boss fight in Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Narrow corridors with horrific creatures launching themselves at the protagonists? See: every action-horror game.
Furthermore, Aliens contains a handful of iconic crowd-pleasing moments for action cinema. What makes these moments so impactful is their extension of character. Hudson standing up to the xenomorph horde is exciting because he whimpers his way through the second act of the film after seeing his squad members completely decimated. Ripley’s “Get away from her, you bitch!” – the moment when Sigourney Weaver crowns herself the queen of Science Fiction – is sure to give you goosebumps even 30 years later.
This is why it’s vital to have characters worth rooting for in a movie like this. It’s pretty basic story stuff but James Cameron’s deft direction keep the story streamlined and work their way to natural/thematic conclusions. When Ripley throws down with the queen in the finale, it’s the final cherry on top of her conquering her trauma from the first encounter with the species. She’s overcome her fear to go head to head with the monsters that kept her up at night.
And what would these moments be if they weren’t accompanied by great music? They’d still be worthy of praise, but it helps when you have the late James Horner’s score. One of the cinematic all-timers, Horner’s score captures a vast range of emotions. Militaristic action bravado encounters the horror of the unknown, slowly amping up the dosage before giving you an exhausting amount of adrenaline.
The one thing I wish we all spoke about more is the manner in which it sets up the ideal sequel routes for the franchise. It’s a mostly standalone story, informing and building on what came before but declaring a purposeful existence from the outset while still engaging in the same ideas shown in the first entry while presenting them in a new approach.
Ripley and her new crew still end up fighting a variety of issues along with the alien threat. The company is still filled with pricks who want to screw Ripley over to weaponize the creatures, extraneous environmental nonsense still works against them, and there’s another android onboard. Although, Bishop is much better company than Ash thanks to a sense of humanity.
On a franchise level, the trilogy it helps form is more than one of Ripley’s battle against the aliens. The original trilogy tells a story of birth (Alien), life (Aliens), and death (Alien 3). Aliens fulfills life by giving Ripley a new reason to live and realizing what is essentially the ecosystem of the xenomorph. Whether or not anything happens to Ripley after is irrelevant to this film. From the opening frame to the closing credits, it’s Aliens tells its own story. No sequel baiting. Just a proper story worth giving a damn about.
We last see Ripley heading back to Earth in cryosleep alongside a surrogate family. It’s a well-deserved rest.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox