Nearly sixty years after her crew was massacred by a savage alien, lone survivor Ripley (Weaver) is woken from cryogenic sleep when her drifting escape pod is chanced upon by a salvage ship. Accused of various charges and still haunted by the experience, she learns that LV-426 – the planetoid where the creature and its eggs were discovered – has since been colonised and inhabited by humans. When communication with the inhabitants is lost, Ripley is reluctantly persuaded to return as an advisor to a team of elite marines, before discovering that there isn’t just one alien down there, but a whole colony…
A thrilling, tension-soaked sci-fi actioner which is rightly considered as both one of the best sequels and action movies of all time, Aliens is definitive proof that it is possible for follow-ups to equal (and, arguably, surpass) the original. While the very notion of following up Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking genre classic Alien would’ve sent most directors packing, James Cameron isn’t most directors and his decision to shift genre gears from claustrophobic horror to balls-to-wall action was nothing short of a masterstroke. In lesser hands, this could’ve been a lazy excuse for mindless shootouts which upped the ante for the sake of it, but Cameron (in only his second ‘real’ feature), realises a smart and expertly-constructed masterclass in building intensity.
Importantly, the writer-director is a gifted storyteller and spends the opening half an hour or so (depending on what version you watch) setting things up, before the team are plunged into one bad situation after another. Exhilarating and unrelenting, from here it’s a series of suspenseful set-pieces and nerve-shredding sequences: the marines’ first failed attack; the face-hugger evasion in a sound-proof lab; the barricade with motion-sensitive guns (has watching a set of numbers count down ever been so gripping?); the team awaiting an alien onslaught as the motion-tracker beeps (has hearing a beep ever been so gripping?)… by the end we’re as shattered as the characters. Of course, it’s essentially the Vietnam War in space (a technologically superior force is mauled by unseen savages in a hostile foreign territory), while the bombed-out skeleton of Battersea Power Station provides a perfect battleground environment.
Still, Aliens works so well as a sequel because it stays true to the original whilst also moving things on, providing a perfect model for anyone looking to follow up a classic first instalment. Cameron wisely retains many of Alien‘s key ingredients (H.R. Geiger’s alien design, the battered future tech, flame throwers, motion-trackers) while expanding the central themes (particularly motherhood) and continuing the story in a logical, organic fashion (finding a credible reason for Ridley’s return, expanding the alien ‘society’, giving “The Company” more mentions). It’s all very well handled. Again, the alien creatures are largely only seen in fleeting glimpses thanks to quick cuts and clever editing, although J-Cam cuts loose with plenty of well-realised reveals for the big final battle.
And of course, Aliens is very James Cameron. A strong female lead. Science fiction. Technology porn. Big weapons. Even bigger weapons. Pump-action shotguns. Pilots with reflective sunglasses. Mankind taking on an alien culture. The colour blue. Even the cast is made of up Cameron favourites (Michael Biehn, BIll Paxton, Lance Henriksen) while Sigourney Weaver ascends to one of cinema’s great action heroines (getting an Oscar nod in the process) and stand-up comedian Paul Reiser is memorable as the corporate slimeball.
Both one of the best sequels and action movies of all time, Aliens is a perfect follow-up which stays loyal to Ridley Scott’s original while moving things forward. A pumped-up masterclass of building tension. Essential cinema.