Fifty-seven years after Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) last thwarted the xenomorph she’s found alive floating through space. But her nightmare is only just beginning as she discovers her daughter is dead and she’s blamed for the destruction of the Nostromo.
A challenge for this film is how you get Ripley to return to the place of her worst nightmares without it being totally unconvincing (see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). To make this plausible Ripley only agrees to return after losing everything and failing to find closure for her experience. The mysterious planet LV-426 is now home to a colony of Wrath of Khan style terra-formers, but when contact is lost, a team of marines is sent to investigate, with Ripley on board as an alien consultant.
Much like the Terminator franchise, Alien has only two really good installments, followed by endless pisspoor sequels, prequels and reboots. And much like Terminator 2, Aliens demonstrates that James Cameron is master of the sequel, furthering the themes of the original, developing the main character in a satisfying way, and substantially increasing the scope.
He builds from the icy silence of space in the opening to the oppressive noise and heat of the finale, giving it a real sense of progression. Very few films manage to maintain such a consistent level of threat, which is helped by the fact every character feels genuinely terrified. Ripley is traumatised by her experiences in the first film and Newt (Carrie Henn), the young girl she finds in the ruined colony, is visibly broken after seeing her family killed by the creatures. The band of marines provide some levity, but are soon just as petrified themselves.
It’s anchored by a never better Weaver, as well as excellent performances from Michal Biehn and Jenette Goldstein as likable marines Hicks and Vasquez, and Lance Henriksen, who finally gets to play a robot after being passed over for the role of the Terminator. With the success of this and Terminator 2, it’s not clear why there haven’t been more action movies with authentic, fully dressed female leads, or why people acted like Wonder Woman was groundbreaking.
In the first film Ripley was a survivor, but here she becomes a fighter, discovering new reserves of strength and stamina without ever detracting from her character or the nurturing motherly role she gains. But while Ripley is known as a brilliant female hero, she’s also a working class hero. A flight officer in the first film, she’s exploited by the company she works for, forced to return to the site with no regard for her safety and given false pretenses for doing so by company suit Burke (Paul Reiser).
There’s a huge amount of talent involved, particularly Stan Winston delivering the gold standard of pre-CGI special effects, even on a relatively low $18m budget. Highlights include a shuttle crash, the alien queen and the iconic loadlifter exosuit. And the need to economise creates one of my favourite scenes, in which Ripley and co set up automatic turrets outside their compound to keep the aliens at bay. They watch on a screen as the ammo counter goes down and unseen aliens are blasted apart. Cameron manages to create a suspenseful action scene with little more than some numbers on a screen.
And while the film enjoys some impressive distinctions, it’s also the first film Dan and I ever watched together way back in 2010, so you could say it started it all. It was a good choice, because it’s perfectly written, brought to life with impeccable special effects, superb performances and second-to-none direction. A true masterpiece.