This Time It’s More.
In 1983 a young director by the name of James Cameron, who at the time having learned his trade with B-movie maestro, Roger Corman and with only the disastrous Piranha II: The Spawning to his name, had a sit-down meeting with Alien producers, David Giler and Walter Hill. Alien had been a big hit for Giler and Hill and having been impressed by Cameron’s screenplay for The Terminator, a film he’d yet to actually make, they wanted to see if he was up to the task of directing for them. Whilst they weren’t taken by any of the ideas he put forward, they liked him, and as the meeting was drawing to a close the subject of a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien came up and Cameron expressed his excitement at the idea. Using ideas from a screenplay of his called Mother, Cameron explained to the producing duo the direction in which he’d like to take the proposed follow-up. Giler and Hill were sold and so it was that two years later, after Cameron had finalised his script for “Alien 2” and filmed The Terminator, that the film we now know went into production.
This second iteration of the Alien saga was certainly to be a different beast to that of its forebear in many ways. Firstly the visionary H.R. Giger was not involved in the design process, Cameron instead favouring Stan Winston with whom he’d worked on The Terminator.
The film finally went into production in the latter half of 1985 at Pinewood Studios, England with an $18 million budget. The 10 month shoot was far from smooth. The English crew were said to have had a work ethic that Cameron was less than impressed with. The Canadian director is well known for his perfectionist approach and the exacting demands he places on those working for him. The British crew would expect regular tea breaks and were averse to working on past the standard eight hour working day. Needless to say there were reports of near mutiny amongst the crew and tensions ran high. At one point many of the crew actually did walk out after Cameron fired the original director of photography, Dick Bush, who was later replaced by Adrian Biddle.
This friction between crew members and director would be something that Cameron would face again in his career but out of such adversity great works come and the final film would be worth the efforts of all involved. Aliens would make back ten times it’s original budget and would also bag two Oscars out of seven nominations with Weaver also being nominated for Best Actress, something unheard of at the time for a science fiction film.
Again, Aliens is in many ways a different beast to its predecessor. The two directors, Scott and Cameron, have their own unique and very strong visual styles. Where Scott favoured creating atmosphere and building tension like a horror film, Cameron’s film was an all-out war film and had a firm allegorical through-line with its none too subtle commentary on the Vietnam War.
Much in the way that T2 is the perfect sequel to The Terminator so Aliens pays similar respects to the first film whilst also being refreshingly different. Both films almost perfectly complement one another barring one or two minor stylistic deviations that Aliens takes from the original. Cameron decided to alter the design of the Alien Warrior by omitting the translucent dome at the top of the creature’s head, exposing the bony structure beneath. This was due to the practicalities of the fragile dome cracking on the numerous stunt suits as they got knocked around.
The opening act of Aliens follows on perfectly from the first film with Ripley being found as we left her, in hyper-sleep and adrift in space on the Narcissus, albeit 57 years have now passed. The hearing that follows where Ripley is questioned as to why she blew up the Nostromo and its valuable haul has that ship’s crew’s images on screen in the background as Ripley justifies her actions in the first film. It’s all the connective material we need to both remind us of how dangerous just one of these creatures is before Ripley is coerced into returning to LV-426 where she’ll be facing an entire horde of them. It also shows that Cameron had paid enough respect to the original and was tying his film closely to Scott’s. His intention was never to do a remake but to take elements of Scott’s film that he liked that could be carried over into a worthy sequel that would, at the same time, take the story in a new direction.
Having at least some idea as to what they’re facing, the company sends Ripley in as an advisor with a group of Colonial Marines. Even though they pack considerable firepower they’re an arrogant and overconfident military force who will find themselves bested by a more primitive but far more capable enemy. This allegory of the US’ attitude going into the Vietnam conflict gives an added layer to Aliens and at times the group comes across as almost comically macho. Part of Aliens‘ allure comes from the characters that form this unit. Slightly over the top and far from subtle, they are certainly memorable and hardly the cookie cutter characters of later films in the series. The sheer camaraderie they exude is palpable and this is enhanced by their arrogant dismissal of outsiders to their unit, in particular their new CO, Lt. Gorman and also Ripley herself.
The casting of Aliens, much like the first film, is uniformly superb. Weaver has probably never been better and was more than worthy of her Best Actress Oscar Nomination. Not only does she play the hardened yet clearly traumatised survivor, but she also plays the caring surrogate mother to Newt with perfect balance and is eminently likeable. Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, Carrie Henn, Al Matthews and Mark Rolston all deliver. Comedian, Paul Reiser puts in a superb performance playing against type as the slimy company man Carter Burke. Lance Henriksen plays the film’s token android, Bishop, and is every bit as nuanced and jittery as Ian Holm was in the first film.
The film would be built on the foundations of a similarly strong design ethic to Alien with Blade Runner‘s “Visual Futurist” Syd Mead and Alien‘s Ron Cobb on design duties. The resultant sets, models, miniatures and locations are at times epic in scope but still retain the used yet futuristically functional look that Ridley Scott favoured in the first film. Director of photography Adrian Biddle would bathe those same sets in the steely blue hues that have become a Cameron trademark.
With Giger not involved it was to Stan Winston that Cameron would give the job of creature design and he was more than up to the job. Winston would create not just a new yet familiar take on the Alien Warrior but also the magnificent and terrifying Alien Queen who would be built full size and would be the final vital link in the Xenomorph’s life cycle. To combat these monsters our marines were given some of the most memorable weapons in movie history. Guns made specifically for the film such as the M41A Pulse Rifle, the steady-cam mounted Smart Gun, the Remote Sentry Guns and flamethrowers would perfectly fit in with the militaristic approach Cameron took and would give the cast at least a fighting chance against the Alien horde.
While Aliens is in essence a war film in space, it still has some of the same horror elements that worked so well in Alien. Cameron’s sublime melding of terror and action is none more apparent than in the scene where Ripley and what’s left of her companions barricade themselves in the med-lab section. Believing they’ve cut off the alien’s only way in and with their ammo dwindling and motion trackers set, they watch as the creatures approach the perimeter and then move towards the last of the sealed pressure doors. Hudson counts down the distance as the readout tells him that their unwanted visitors are right outside but the blurred blue dots keep moving forward to the utter bewilderment of our survivors. “That’s inside the room!” we hear as the camera shows Ripley’s and our own moment of terrifying realisation as she looks up, Hudson exclaims how we are feeling as Hicks nudges open the ceiling panel and all hell breaks lose. It’s a stunningly tense build up to the group’s last stand and lesser films would have wound things to a close with Ripley, Hicks and Newt getting to the drop-ship and flying to safety with Bishop but Cameron and Stan Winston still had their trump card to play.
In 1992 James Cameron released an extended cut of Aliens referred to as the Aliens: Special Edition restoring 17 minutes of footage not in the theatrical version. This cut came about after the 1989 CBS television debut where the film’s running time was extended with the addition of several deleted scenes. The positive reception of this version prompted Cameron to properly re-edit and restore the deleted footage for home video release on both VHS and Laserdisc and all subsequent home video formats. The director has proclaimed this longer version to be his preferred cut of the film and it began the trend of Director’s Cuts along with the release of the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner the same year. The longer cut is certainly a more enriching viewing experience and personally I haven’t wanted to watch the theatrical cut since seeing the longer version.
Ripley’s arc throughout Aliens is that of a failed mother finding redemption in the surrogacy of an orphaned girl. Much of this arc is expanded upon by the additional footage in the Special Edition. This maternal through-line begins with Ripley being told that her daughter passed away two years prior to the end of Ripley’s 57 year slumber. She never got home for her 11th birthday and will have to live with that guilt. When she meets the orphaned Newt she sees an opportunity to make amends for abandoning her own daughter. These elements are likely the basis of the “Mother” treatment that Cameron originally pitched to Walter Hill and David Giler but there’s another motherly aspect to Cameron’s film that he left until the finale.
After Ripley and Hicks lose Newt to an Alien Warrior, Ripley leaves the injured Hicks with Bishop before fully tooling up and making her way back into the Alien’s nest to rescue the girl. What she finds there is the stage in the Xenomorph’s evolution that, up until now, we haven’t seen, the Alien Queen. The mother element peaks as Ripley destroys the clutch of eggs that the Queen has been nurturing. The resultant fight on the Sulaco between the Queen and Ripley, encased in the Power Loader is iconic and superbly staged. The film has built to this climax and every bit of it feels earned and it’s a hugely satisfying and tense conclusion.
Aliens ends on a similar note to the first film except this time Ripley enters hyper-sleep with her new found family. Her character arc throughout this stunningly crafted sequel is hugely satisfying. Cameron has created a film that frequently features on top ten lists of the best sequels and is a textbook example of how to follow up a classic film. More than just adding an ‘s’ to the title of the first film (which is genius in its simplicity) he paid suitable respect to the original but also gave the audience something new and thrilling. Cameron maintains a tone that, whilst different to that of Alien, still feels very much like it belongs in the same continuity. Cameron’s technical brilliance as a director is plain to see here and he would go on to make the two highest grossing films of all time with Titanic and Avatar, but for this particular writer it’s his run of four films from 1984 with The Terminator through to 1991 with T2 that represents his pinnacle. Aliens, the second of those four films, is cinematic brilliance in its purest form, a near flawless sequel that was every bit deserving of the accolades bestowed upon it and gets my absolute highest recommendation.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 10/10