directed by James Cameron
(20th Century Fox, 1986)

Alien was about suspense. The horror was real because the audience never knew what to expect.

When the sequel, Aliens, was released, the mystery was already gone. We knew what the bugger looked like, so quick flashes of indistinct movement weren't going to cut it this time. Fortunately, director James Cameron ran with the concept of Ridley Scott's Alien and gave us a whole new ballgame.

In the process, he turned Sigourney Weaver into a full-fledged, kick-butt action hero.

The movie begins when Ripley (Weaver), the sole survivor of the first Alien encounter, is found drifting in deep space, where she has remained in cryogenic sleep for more than 50 years. Returned to Earth, she learns that the lifeless planet where her former crew found the alien nest is now colonized -- and the ubiquitous Company has just lost contact with its people there. So Ripley is reluctantly recruited to return to the planet with a troop of crack bug-huntin' Marines to mount a rescue.

But the planet is dead when they get there. The only person left from the colony is Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who eluded the alien hordes while her family and the rest of the colonists were killed or implanted with alien embryos. As for the aliens, they see the brash young Marines as grade-A hosts for their parasitic hatchlings. And once the action starts, it doesn't let up. It's relentless, and first-time viewers can expected to be exhausted by the end.

Speaking of aliens, the lone, rubber-suited creature from the first movie held up so well because we didn't catch many glimpses of it to spoil the illusion. Well, the illusion is intact because designer H.R. Giger's vision has been fully realized here. Smooth edges and hard ridges are rolled together with multiple sets of teeth, angry claws, vicious tails and buckets of icky alien drool. These babies look dangerous. These babies look real.

Where Ridley Scott gave us tension, James Cameron gives us in-your-face action, matching countless aliens against big guns, grenades and flamethrowers. It works, making Aliens a distinctly different movie than its predecessor. The clash of titans at the end of the film is an excellent, unexpected action sequence that provides a top-notch cap to the film.

Besides Ripley, the rescue team includes the inexperienced Lt. Gorman (William Hope), gung-ho Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), steely Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), brash (but panicky) Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton) and the steady Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn). Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is the standard issue android on board, now set to extra mild. Company man Burke (a smarmy Paul Reiser) is also along for the ride to protect his investments. But it's Ripley who dominates the picture from beginning to end, and Weaver is a pleasure to watch -- tormented by dreams, terrified, tough as nails in a crisis.

All told, Aliens stands up to repeated viewings better than the original because suspense is hard to maintain once you know what's coming. Unfortunately, the sci-fi magic of Aliens was not to be repeated in subsequent sequels.

A more recent special edition of the film includes additional footage that, by and large, should have remained on the cutting-room floor. In particular, scenes of the colony's discovery of the alien hive destroy what little suspense there is.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 23 November 2002

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