In 1986 James Cameron was given an impossible task, how could one follow up 1979’s Alien? A film that redefined genres and launched careers. What he managed, however, was superb. Although the film perhaps hasn’t dated as well as its big brother, Cameron achieved a film every bit as impressive but for entirely different reasons. Eschewing the claustrophobic foreboding of Alien, Cameron takes all the anxieties and fears that had been built in the original and refracts it through his action movie sensibilities, still riding high after The Terminator in 1984, to create a smart action thriller.
Opening with Ellen Ripley having escaped LV-426 and in the care of Weyland-Yutani, they don’t believe her explanations and stories of the xenomorphs on the planet. When they lose contact with a colony established there, however, they start to take her warnings more seriously and she reluctantly returns to LV-426 with a band of wise-cracking, gun-toting space marines.
Although the focus is very much on the action in Aliens, there are several narrative additions that make this more than a meat-headed actioner. The relationship between Ripley and the young girl, Newt, becomes a narrative foundation on which Ripley’s motivations are built. Additionally, further corporate mistrust is bred through the actions of Weyland-Yutani, which first arose through the duplicitous Ian Holm in the original. At its core, you can see obvious thematic consistency with Sarah Conner’s son and Cyberdyne Systems in the film that Cameron made his name with.
Although the whole cast put in a decent performance, some of the undiluted machismo amongst the marines perhaps dates the film more than any other aspect. Although the action, effects and the additions to the production design all blend aesthetically with Alien to great effect, some dialogue sections scream ‘1980s action film’. However, the intensity with which Aliens proceeds is remarkable, and although the Ripley character was well established in the 1979 original, it was here that she became an icon.
Unfortunately, the franchise would go downhill from here, but in crafting a film that retains the core elements of the original, fitting them into a very different type of movie, Cameron made a rare thing – a sequel that is the equal of its progenitor. For my money, the original just noses it, but as a pair Alien and Aliens are the classics before bungled studio decisions and dollar signs started to bugger the whole thing up.