Aliens represents a true rarity among movies, a sequel that not only equals or even surpasses the original, but also one that stands alone as work unto itself. You could see this movie without knowing the first ever existed. Knowing the original allows you to enjoy the sequel on other layers of course.
Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, the sole survivor of a mining ship whose crew was wiped out by a previously unknown creature. After killing the creature, she climbed into a lifeboat and put herself into suspended animation. She stayed that way, drifting through space, for 57 years until she was found. Her story is discredited, however, and she is forced into menial jobs. However, a colony has been established on the planet where Ripley’s ship found the original alien and now contact has been lost with that colony. Ripley is invited to accompany a platoon of Marines to the planet to investigate. At first, Ripley resists, but the need to purge herself of the nightmares that have been plaguing her sleep impels her to confront her fears.
The gung-ho Marines arrive to find the colony deserted, with signs of desperate fighting all around. They also find carcasses of alien “face-huggers,” which plant the seed of the adult alien into human hosts, and one lone survivor, a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). An attempt to locate and rescue the other colonists, however, leads most of the Marines into an alien ambush and most of the platoon is wiped out. The few remaining survivors have to desperately fight off hundreds of aliens while searching for a way off the planet.
Aliens is less of horror story, like the original, than a straight-forward action story, and on that level it succeeds as well, if not better than Alien did as a horror movie. It represents the peak of James Cameron’s career so far, creatively speaking. Those who only know Cameron through Titanic might be surprised to note that yes, he really can bring in a film for only $17 million, on time and under budget.
For a film released in 1986, it was certainly not the norm to have a female lead anchoring a science-fiction action film. It’s not even common enough today. That’s what makes Sigourney Weaver’s performance so striking. She can bring off a female action role without ever calling undo attention to the fact that she is a woman. Lesser filmmakers would have felt it necessary to pepper the film with self-conscious feminist rhetoric and lesser actress might have played it self-consciously butch.
That wouldn’t have worked in this film. Aliens is, among all the macho posturing of the marines, the high-tech weapons and furious gunplay, ultimately a film about motherhood. For those of you who have only seen the theatrical release, I point you to the Special Edition, now available on VHS and DVD. It contains several scenes deleted from the original release to shorten the running time. The most critical of these is early in the film, before the inquest, when Ripley finds out that her daughter died of old age two years earlier. This loss and sense of failure drives the maternal interest that Ripley takes in the newly orphaned Newt, and this sense of responsibility leads, I think, to Ripley going from a shell-shocked basket-case at the beginning of the film to the rock on which all the other characters wind up leaning.
The motherhood arc extends to the aliens too, when Ripley winds up face to face with the alien queen, another mother who is now super-pissed at Ripley for torching her nest. This film reminds us that, although women might be referred to as “the weaker sex,” in much of nature, the female is the more dangerous and ferocious gender because she is charged with the protection of the young.
If you’ve never watched any of the Alien films, I recommend this one. It’s far less gory than the first and far superior to the third and fourth entries in the series.