It is Alien Day 2017, and theaters across the globe are gearing up for the imminent release of #AlienCovenant by celebrating the films that came before. Few sequels match the quality of the original the way #JamesCameron's #Aliens did. When granted the opportunity to follow up the classic Ridley Scott film #Alien, Cameron sought not to merely remake the first, and instead crafted a cinematic experience that's less a haunted house and more a roller coaster. Some consider this too much of a departure from the original, but like the first, Aliens is much more than it appears on the surface.
Aliens picks up some 57 years after the original. Sole survivor Ellen Ripley uncovers a colony has been erected on the planet where the Nostromo found the derelict craft containing the alien eggs. After contact with the colony is lost, Ripley joins a squad of Colonial Marines to investigate and finds not one, but over a 150 of the acid-bleeding terrors. Though they boast superior firepower, the Marines quickly find their enemy is much more determined and deadly than they ever imagined. Aliens may be a much louder film than Alien, but it's first and foremost a horror film. It just seeks to scare audiences in a whole new way.
From Slasher To Siege
From the first encounter the Marines find themselves locked in the colony with an endless swath of monsters out for blood. Like Alien, once the monster first shows up, the audience is given little relief. The first film, however, was about characters trapped inside a tight space with the creature. The sequel was about the heroes trying to keep them out.
While Alien was more of a slasher film, Aliens follows more of a siege formula. This formula has been popular in Hollywood since the days of silent films, and is particularly well suited for the horror and thriller genres. Films like Night Of The Living Dead and the original Assault On Precinct 13 fit the formula, and both may have served as possible inspirations for this sequel.
The film uses the setting itself to remind us how real the threat is. The colony of Hadley's Hope is divided into two parts — a residential complex and an atmosphere processor. The processor is a titanic structure that towers over the rest of the colony, and it is this part of the colony the aliens control. The station becomes a recurring motif in the film, looming over the residential complex as a monument to just how much the alien has conquered, and forever reminding us that the heroes are next.
In spite of these changes to the formula, Aliens still contains much of what made the original a classic. The lighting is dark and moody, particularly during the arrival at the deserted colony and the search through the alien nest. It also places its characters in incredibly confined spaces like small cluttered rooms and ventilation ducts. This forces them into close quarters with the monsters, making the sequences less awe inspiring and more tense. The characters may now be armed, but the claustrophobic feel of the original is still here.
The characters of Aliens don't have it easy by any definition of the word. They are desperate in the face of a relentless and resourceful foe. Their battle can best be summed up by Newt's answer to Ripley's attempt to reassure her the soldiers will protect them:
"It won't make any difference."
Emasculation Of The Military
The Colonial Marines are among the most fondly remembered traits of this sequel, and have since continued to be carried over into various comics, novels and video games. Sadly, those storytellers seemed to have missed the point of Cameron's film, misremembering Aliens as a film about an awesome squad of macho soldiers effortlessly mowing down hoards of dumb space bugs. The exact opposite is true.
Aliens cleverly tricks its audience into feeling at ease by repeatedly showing images of weapons and other heavy artillery. With soldiers and vehicles armed to the teeth, we feel more protected than we did in the original. During the first encounter with the creatures however, each of these luxuries is stripped away. The film's most impressive weapons, such as the dropship and smartgun, are either emptied or destroyed, and the squad of 13 is quickly reduced to five. Their ammo reduced, every shot becomes precious, for without their weapons they're as good as naked.
Looking at the characters of Hicks and Hudson, one can see the film maliciously punish false bravado while rewarding caution. Hudson is shown to be cocky and self assured, boasting of both prowess and weaponry and not taking Ripley's briefing on the alien seriously. Hicks, by contrast, shows more interest, and listens to Ripley's story to better prepare himself. Hudson's false bravado dissolves upon first encountering the alien, rendering him this film's equivalent of the character Lambert from the original. Hudson is reduced to a nervous wreck in the face of an enemy he once laughed at, while Hicks, who took the enemy seriously, is able to keep his wits about him and proves an effective leader in the face of adversity.
Expansion Of The Alien
Some of the most interesting expansions in Aliens are what it reveals about the creature. While Alien showed an individual, Aliens attempted to show a civilization and how it functioned. In this film the hoard itself became the character, much like the aforementioned Night Of The Living Dead or Assault On Precinct 13. The movie also attempts to expand on Alien intelligence, showing the creatures using simple technology like opening doors, and committing acts of sabotage such as when they cut the power to gain access to the humans.
By far the most influential change to the alien was the inclusion of the alien Queen, the creature responsible for laying the eggs seen in the first film. Originally the creature was somehow able to morph its prey into an egg, but this scene was cut from the original. The Queen was designed by James Cameron himself, and even earned praise from original creature designer H.R. Giger. The Queen, like the Marines, has become an icon of the series, and has enjoyed regular exposure in the sequels and expanded universe stories. The inclusion of The Queen alien also enhances some of the film's underlying themes, and gave Ripley a much more personal foe to battle in the final act.
Cameron's intentions were sadly misread by many, as is evident in numerous comics and video games which often portrayed the Alien as a dumb "space bug." Some also felt the inclusion of The Queen rendered the previously unclassifiable creature too similar to an insect, but that's an article for another day. Regardless if this sequel's take on the alien was misread, Aliens' true intentions were to further reveal the creature as something methodical and determined, with a capability for intelligence of still unknown reach. Most would say it succeeded.
Every bit as iconic as the Alien itself, sole survivor Ellen Ripley was also similarly developed in this sequel. Initially hesitant to return, Weaver was interested in Cameron's take on the character that further explored Ripley's humanity, courage, even her womanhood itself. Ripley in Aliens is both terrified and angry. After her story is discredited and her warnings not heeded, she joins the Marine mission in an effort to destroy the creature that continues to haunt her.
Perhaps the biggest theme of Aliens is one of motherhood. Ripley quickly develops a strong bond with the character of Newt, a girl suffering the same trauma as her after her family and friends have been killed. Their bond is further explored in the director's cut of the film, where it's revealed Ripley had a daughter named Amanda who passed away from old age in between films. This gives Ripley and Newt a much deeper relationship as they've both been orphaned by the alien, and in each other they may have a second chance.
Ripley's loss of her daughter also creates a much stronger rivalry between her and The Queen. Ripley, to avenge the death of her own daughter, torches The Queen's nest, sending the towering beast into a rage that Ripley is already all too familiar with. Now that both have lost their children, the pair are thrust into one final confrontation that has since become the stuff of cinematic legend. Ripley's fight against the first alien was an impersonal struggle for survival. With Ripley and The Queen, you can feel the hate they share.
Though all references to Ripley's daughter were originally cut from the film, they were eventually re-instated in Cameron's director's cut. Most fans consider them canon, and they were even used as the premise for the video game #AlienIsolation.
Of course, motherhood is but one of Ripley's characteristics. To say she's simply reduced to a "super mom" diminishes the countless other skills she brings to the table. Ripley quickly takes on the role of leader, something she proves far more effective at than the incompetent Gorman. She rescues the besieged squad when Gorman fails to, and it's she, not the soldiers, who hatches the plan to keep the aliens out of the colony while they await rescue. Even when one of the other survivors attempts to harm her and Newt, she decides against having that person executed on sight.
Another interesting trait of the Ripley character is her mistrust of Bishop, the ship's android. After her bad experience in the original, Ripley believes Bishop may be programmed to turn on the crew to protect the alien, putting the pair at odds. In many ways, the relationship between Ripley and Bishop is the precursor to Sarah Conner and the T-800 in Terminator 2. Like in Terminator 2, Ripley grows to trust Bishop as a capable member of the team, and fights just as hard to save him as she does everyone else.
So impressive was Sigourney Weaver's work that she was nominated for the coveted Best Actress Oscar for her role. Though she didn't win, to even be nominated for a science fiction/horror film is a testament to Weaver's stunning work, not only with this film, but the Ripley character as a whole.
Aliens was a massive hit and an instant pop culture sensation when it was released, it's impact on par with the original. It was nominated for six additional Oscars, including Best Score, and took home wins for Sound Editing and Visual Effects, the latter of which was also won by the first. Though it does depart from the original, Aliens has continued to enjoy success over 30 years after its initial release. It took the series from a slasher to a siege, seeking to scare its audience in new ways and show how military hardware was worthless against a more tenacious foe. It also gave the spotlight back to both the beast that continues to terrify and fascinate audiences, and the one person who acts as our last line of defense.
Aliens also proved the success of the original was more than a fluke. It showed this series potential to go on, and it has gone on for almost 40 years. Next month, the alien will return to screens with Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, and Ripley herself may grace the silver screen once more should #Alien5 ever see the light of day. Though the series has taken its lumps, it will unlikely ever end. Perhaps sometime in the future another sequel will come along that will prove just as surprising as this one did back in 1986, when this fight for survival became a war.
What did you love most about Aliens?