Was 'Aliens' the Best Science Fiction Sequel Ever?

By Michael Simpson

"There Are Some Places In The Universe You Don't Go Alone."

So said the tag line advertising the main feature at London's Odeon Leicester Square in August 1986. The film on show was Aliens, the eagerly anticipated sequel to the 1979 sci-fi horror movie Alien. Fans of the first film had waited a long time to see what new horrors would be inflicted on Alien's heroine, Ellen Ripley, and her beloved cat. Some feared the cat might be the unfortunate host of writer and director James Cameron's new generation of stomach-bursting beasts. The young Canadian director was keeping the truth close to his chest, though.

Despite the secrecy, moviegoers and critics were optimistic that they would get something good from the man who had thrilled them with The Terminator. As one of them, I went to the Odeon Leicester Square to see Aliens one week after it went on general release in the UK (I'd wanted to go on opening day, but I slept though my alarm and missed the train). Yet, contrary to my expectations, I left the theater feeling slightly disappointed. It was only when I saw the film on VHS for the first time that I began to appreciate its excellence. Since then I have come to believe that Aliens may be the best science fiction action movie and the best sequel ever made.

Thanks to the franchise is spawned, Ridley Scott's Alien is now seen as a critical and commercial success. In the early 1980s, however, sequels to adult-oriented horror movies were not guaranteed. Consequently Alien II (as Aliens was initially and unimaginatively known) took a while to gestate. Part of the blame for that could rest with the producers of Alien. The story goes that Cameron initially met with two of them, Walter Hill and David Giler, to discuss another project that they had in mind. That project didn't interest him, but his ears pricked up when they mentioned a sequel to Alien. Cameron 's accounts of those meetings suggest, however, that they weren't enthusiastic about revisiting Ripley's nemesis.

"I felt like he was digging out an old bone in the backyard, dragging out something no one had been thinking much about," Cameron said in a 1986 issue of Time Magazine.

Thankfully, Cameron was a fan of Ridley Scott's film and was inspired by Hill and Giler to develop a treatment for Alien II. According to EOFFtv, he already had a concept for another project involving "predatory aliens tangling with highly armed space marines" that he had titled "Mother". Hill and Giler were supposedly also thinking of having soldiers in the sequel, so it seems likely that the two ideas fed Cameron's imagination.

Enlisting Cameron to develop Alien II was initially a bit of a gamble. He was relatively unknown in Hollywood when he first met Hill and Giler. He had directed Piranha II: The Spawning, a silly 1981 sequel to Joe Dante's Piranha, but had no major work for a big studio to his name. Between first meeting Hill and Giler and the start of production on Aliens, though, he scored big with The Terminator and his screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II (although he has said that the final script for the latter differed significantly from his own). These successes gave him the credibility he needed to take the best elements of Alien and use them as the basis for a story that referenced the original but (in the modern parlance) partially rebooted it.

With the benefit of hindsight, Cameron actually looks like the perfect fit for Aliens. The terrifying creature introduced in Alien was similar in its single minded determination and ferocity to Arnie's Terminator or the relentless war veteran John Rambo. Cameron also wanted to make a different kind of film from the one Ridley Scott had helmed. The scenes of future warfare in The Terminator introduced the conservative directing style and dour military-industrial design sensibilities that Cameron would carry over into Aliens. At that time he also reveled in action. This mixture of qualities meant that Aliens would have a different vibe from the slow pace and artistic imagery that characterized Alien. The result was a stylistic and thematic distance between Alien and Aliens that ensured the sequel was no inferior retread of the original.

Bearing in mind Cameron's different visual style, it was an inspired move on his part to set Aliens 57 years after its predecessor. It implicitly justified the different look of his film and meant he wasn't bound by expectations about the level of technology that humans had reached in Alien. For example, in Scott's film the crew of the Nostromo had to wear space suits when they landed on the moon where the alien was found. This led to one of that film's most memorable scenes (when Kane's mask is removed to reveal the face-hugger). However, it also slowed down the action because the suits were an encumbrance to the wearers. Cameron avoided this problem by populating LV-426 with terraformers. The result of their work was breathable air, which negated the need for suits. The changed climate also allowed for rain, which gave the outdoor scenes in Aliens a claustrophobic and chilling atmosphere that complemented other sources of tension. Meanwhile, the terraformers — men, women and children, alike — gave the aliens the means by which to multiply.

While the success of Aliens owes much to Cameron's directorial vision, the contribution of Sigourney Weaver cannot be underestimated. The script allowed Weaver to expand on the minimal characterization Ripley was afforded in Alien and bring the character through a process of maturation. Whereas Ripley quivered with fear at the end of Alien, she had grown into a strong, courageous, uncompromising heroine by the climax of Aliens. Along the way she was also able to show a caring, compassionate side that made her a fully-rounded personality to which the audience could relate. Weaver's performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1987.

One of Cameron's biggest difficulties in the script was finding a convincing reason why Ripley should agree to another face off with a creature that had terrorized her once already. He eventually settled on something suggesting catharsis and conscience; Ripley returned to LV-426 to destroy the aliens and help an investigation into the disappearance of the terraformers. She was also supposed to be under the protection of highly trained space Marines. The Marine's cocksure did not save her from another round of trauma, however. Instead they got the royal ass-whooping that provided the film with much of its action. This element of the plot also echoed Cameron's earlier works in that it was a vague reference to the United States' military adventures in south-east Asia. In an interview on the film's DVD release Cameron admits that Aliens was, in a minor way, meant to be a Vietnam movie in outer space.

To populate Ripley's military support, Cameron called on some past acquaintances. The character of sensible Marine Corporal Hicks was given to Michael Biehn, who had played someone similar (Kyle Reese), in The Terminator (Biehn would work again with Cameron on The Abyss). Cameron also drafted in another Terminator alumnus, Bill Paxton, to play a cocky and foul-mouthed Marine called Hudson. Paxton had played a minor role in The Terminator as one of the bikers accosted by a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger early in the film (and would work again with Cameron on Titanic). Rounding out the better known members of the cast were Lance Henriksen (Piranha II) as the android Bishop and comedian and writer Paul Reiser (Mad About You) as slimy company man Carter Burke. Canadian viewers may also recognize a young Daniel Kash (Due South, The Line) as the ill-fated Private Spunkmeyer.

Aside from Ripley and the Marines, the other principal character in Aliens was the little girl known as Newt. She was played by Carrie Henn and that role was to be Henn's first and only part. She left acting thereafter and went on to earn a degree in liberal studies and child development from California State University.

While Cameron may have got much of what he wanted with Aliens, the studio left its mark before the film's release. The theatrical cut was substantially shortened, resulting in the removal of some important character scenes and a sequence showing how the colonists initially become infected. In terms of the coherence of the plot, Aliens fared better from such editing than did Cameron's next film, The Abyss. Nonetheless, the restoration of missing scenes for the DVD release, amounting to an extra 17 minutes, was a welcome event.

The writers and directors of the sci-fi blockbusters Hollywood puts out today could take several lessons from Aliens. It proved that action films needn't be preposterous and over-the-top; that a successful sequel can be stylistically and thematically different from the original; and that suspense is a better buttress for action scenes than big explosions.

That said, Aliens is not without its faults. It starts slowly (especially the extended version) and the finale is both contrived and too similar to that in Alien. It also suffers from a false climax that is more stirring than the real one. Nonetheless, over 20 years after it was made, it remains one of the best action films to come out of Hollywood. It is a rollercoaster ride, comprising one memorable sequence after another, backed up by James Horner's fabulous score. Furthermore, the build-up to that aforementioned false climax is fantastic. The introduction of the now iconic alien queen was a masterstroke and the scenes in the nest were more macabre than any amount of gore.

Almost 23 years after my trip to the Odeon, I am intrigued to read that Ridley Scott will direct a prequel to Alien. It is a fascinating prospect. To pull it off, though, Scott faces an unusual challenge. His new film must not only match the quality of his own original work, it must also be a prequel that is as good as the sequel. James Cameron raised the bar with Aliens and no subsequent film in the franchise has reached it. I hope Scott succeeds and that the release of his film can be celebrated by viewing the hi-def remastering of Aliens that is overdue. Both would be fitting tributes to one of filmland's finest monster movies and what must surely be the best sequel ever made.


"For my money, the film is still as intense as ever - it still rocks over 20 years later as non-stop pure adrenaline sci-fi action!"

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