With all due respect to “The Godfather, Part II,” “Aliens” forever changed the way we looked at sequels. It contains the elements that define the laws of sequel-making – everything is bigger, faster, more elaborate – but the crucial difference with “Aliens” is that the story never takes a back seat to anything. That dedication to telling a good story results in one of the most intense, squirm-inducing movies you’ll see in this or any other genre.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the only Nostradamus crew member to survive the attack from a most hostile alien life form, is found by a remote salvage ship and brought to a corporate space station. She is briefed by Burke (a deliciously sleazy Paul Reiser), who informs her that not only has she been in hypersleep for 57 years, but LV-426, the planet that hosted the eggs of the alien that killed her crew, has been terra-formed, with over 100 families currently living there. The company has lost contact with the mining colony, and they ask Ripley to join a crew of Marines on a reconnaissance mission to find out what happened. The colony, of course, is decimated, with a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) serving as the sole survivor. As Ripley and the Marines battle the aliens, Ripley realizes that the aliens are not the only ones who mean to do her harm.
Writer/director James Cameron has often said that “Aliens” is a Vietnam War movie set in outer space, and it is not hard to see the similarities. A group of soldiers with vastly superior weapons gets blindsided by an enemy whose main advantage is an in-depth knowledge of the lay of the land. The scene where the Marines first encounter the aliens, only to realize that they can’t shoot them (the battle takes place at a fusion reactor, which would blow them sky high if damaged), is as nerve-wracking as it is thrilling. But even that scene pales to the “they should be inside the room” scene, which has one of the greatest reveals in movie history.
Here is another thing to consider about “Aliens”: it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, which is unheard of even today for a sci-fi horror film (that year’s winner, “Platoon,” received eight nominations). Granted, most of them were of the technical variety, but there is no discounting Weaver’s nomination for Best Actress. She is a powerhouse here, a pillar of strength in spite of her emotional fragility. Biehn is the only Marine that seems to know what he’s doing (Bill Paxton’s Hudson is a spastic mess), and Reiser turns in a remarkable performance as the morally ambiguous Burke. It’s a pity that he doesn’t take roles like that more often.
It’s actually scary to think about what the movie landscape would look like had “Aliens” not been the critical and commercial success that it was. Without it, Cameron likely never gets the chance to make “The Abyss,” which denies him the chance to work on the special effects that make “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” so incredible (or worse, “T2” is directed by someone else entirely). “True Lies” and “Titanic,” of course, never get past the pitch session. (Those movies have their detractors, but so does every other movie ever made.) Perhaps the most significant contribution “Aliens” has made to modern moviemaking is that it casts an unpleasant light on every subsequent sequel that didn’t go full bore the way “Aliens” does (which, ironically, includes “Alien³” and “Alien Resurrection”). Indeed, one could argue that “Aliens” became the new first installment of the franchise, with Ridley Scott’s “Alien” relegated to prequel status. That’s perhaps the highest compliment one can pay a sequel, and “Aliens” earns every ounce of praise it has received.(5 / 5)
This originally ran February 2007 on Bullz-Eye.com.