Aliens (1986): James Cameron
Aliens picks up where Alien left off, at least for Ellen Ripley, who wakes up 57 years later. Aside from the main character and the location, about everything else differs between the two movies.
First off, the director. For some reason or another (scheduling, conflicting ideas, offended spouses?), producers chose not to bring Ridley Scott back to the franchise. They went with hot director of The Terminator James Cameron.
From Scott to Cameron, from horror to action, from small cast to large, from ship setting to terrestrial setting, Aliens is about as different from its predecessor as a sequel gets. Does it work?
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Ellen Ripley returns to fight the aliens that nearly killed her on a distant world called LV 426, this time with plenty of firepower and a host of marines.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is a goddamn force of nature. Goddamn. “Goddamn” is Ripley’s favorite word, and she tosses it around plenty in Aliens, the shoot-em-up sequel to 1979’s haunt-fest Alien.
Ripley starts the movie waking up in a hospital 57 years after freezing herself and escaping an alien menace. She and the ship’s cat, Jonesy, are back among people, and Ripley is suffering for it. Her only friend is some numbnuts suit working for Weyland-Yutani and prodding her about telling her story to a goddamn corporate board. He also delivers the news that Ripley’s daughter is not only older than she, in a manner of speaking, but is dead. Hang on to that cat, kiddo.
This board Ripley is beholden to doesn’t believe her story about the alien. They want to know where it is. “I blew it out of the goddamn airlock,” she says. Despite that act of bravery and heroism, Ripley is stripped of her flying license, unless…unless she’d accompany a troop of marines checking out the space colony that’s gone incommunicado on, of all places, LV 426. Can you believe it? There very place where Ripley said her ship went and her life went to hell.
Ripley, who’s suffering from night terrors, reluctantly agrees to journey to LV 426 with a squad of badass marines. These marines don’t take her seriously because they believe, like many movie marines, not even God can strike them down.
Of course, once they land on LV 426, God doesn’t strike down the marines. A plethora of acid-bleeding aliens do that. God knows that Hell and LV 426 are about the same, so He doesn’t need to do all the work.
The marines spend plenty of time investigating the compound, devoid of humans as we would know them. Once the aliens finally kill all but three of them, Ripley comes into her own.
Ripley was a hero of accident in Alien, but in Aliens she rockets into superstardom and heroic immortality. It is Weaver’s performance in this movie that landed Ripley at #8 on AFI’s list of top 50 heroes.
Lack of military training does not prevent Ripley from seizing the initiative. She plans the defense of the compound, organizes the surviving troops, and plays surrogate mother to the colony’s only survivor, a girl named Newt (Carrie Henn).
During the initial alien attack that kills most of the heavily armed marines, Ripley watches the carnage wrought by the aliens and is the only person to act, driving the armored personnel carrier into the fray to save the few survivors. The marines’ commander couldn’t do it; he buckled under the pressure.
It helps that Ripley knows what’s happening to the colonists and the surviving marines. “They’re being cocooned, just like the others,” she says. That knowledge sends one of the survivors into a tailspin. Ripley tells him, “I’m sick of your bullshit.”
Ripley’s cool is more impressive because she knows what the aliens are and what they are capable of. What they do is terrify. Ripley’s seen what one can do to a half dozen humans; now dozens of the creatures are hunting them.
As the survivors are funneled into a final stand against the aliens, Ripley fights as hard as they do, with minimal weapons training, and a little girl to look after. It’s Newt’s kidnapping that changes Ripley from crafty, hard-nosed survivor into a vengeful killing machine.
A long sequence follows Ripley as she delves into the depths of the aliens’ crib. One of my favorite scenes in action history shows Ripley duct-taping a machine gun and a flamethrower together. As if she’s watched Moe Szlack, that’s how you turn one gun into two guns.
Ripley’s giant double gun nearly dwarfs her person, evoking how outmatched she should be taking on aliens by herself. If a squad of marines couldn’t stop them, what can one woman do?
Well, she can do everything, as she had for the duration of the mission. Ripley was the leader of the troops before they knew she was, before she knew. She’s the moral and psychological compass for the shoot-first marines. She finds time to nurture a child while planning defenses. She knows when one gun won’t be enough. She knows how to handle a power loader. Finally, she knows that one life is worth fighting for, as long as it’s a human life.
One queen alien directs all the traffic in Aliens, though we don’t see her for most of the movie. Nonetheless, she is the villain, the clear leader of all the attacking, marauding males menacing the marines.
It’s a long, long time before we catch a glimpse of Queen. She lives deep in the warm recesses of the nuclear reactor powering and endangering the colonists’ terraforming compound on LV 426. We meet her when Ripley does, in a marvelous panning establishing shot of Queen’s set up.
The camera starts from Queen’s back end, expunging a facehugger pod on the metal floor. The camera pans along the translucent, pulsing birth canal, so to speak, housing dozens more pods, until it reveals the full width and breadth of a xenomorph large enough to eat a ship.
Queen’s head resembles a pipe organ in its expansiveness, but this organ will chill your core. It does Ripley’s, which is why she’s glad she brought a flamethrower. Another reason she brought the flamethrower: to burn shit up.
Ripley, having rescued Newt from being cocooned, finds herself in a field of facehugger pods recently opened. She slowly turns and greets Queen with not even a gulp, so chill is Ripley. Queen awakens and dislikes the intruders in her lair. She calls two of her goons to attack Ripley, but Ripley knows how to frighten Queen.
Ripley gives a blast of the flamethrower and aims it at a pod. Queen is smart; she calls off her goons. Ripley and Newt slowly back out of the pod room. Just as they are at the edge, one pods opens. Did Queen do this, or was it automatic? Hard to say. Ripley cocks her head at Queen with a look like “Really?” and turns on the burners, charring every last pod in the room. She grenades Queen’s fallopian tubes for good measure and books it out of there.
Queen does not like this, and we get to see her intelligence in action. Queen breaks from her pod tube and starts moving. Ripley makes it to the dual elevators that will whisk from sub level 3 to the surface, where an escape ship awaits, and she calls both because they are slow in descending.
Ripley gets on one elevator and flames Queen through the grated door, who is close behind. When the other elevator door opens, Queen has deduced its nature and boards. This is a smart customer.
We’ll get more into Queen’s final moves, but we’ve seen enough to know that this alien might be as smart, tactically, as a human. She deduces in one second what an elevator is and how it can help her kill Ripley. She’s vengeful–look at what she does to Bishop–and is a pod-laying machine. Boss.
The marines spend much of the second act exploring the deserted compound. It’s a long time, I mean a long time, before they find some aliens. Let’s head down to sub level 3 and meet the survivors of the terraforming colony.
Ripley figures out that the humans they’ve located on a screen are housed in the compound’s nuclear reactor, and any shooting could turn the whole place into a fusioned flame ball.
Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) orders Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews) to collect pulse rifle rounds, without telling them why. That’s good leadership right there. Sure, they would agree with not being vaporized. But don’t tell them about that. Smart thinking. So, of course, the marines have hidden reserves that they load up. They’re about to need them.
They stumble into a room full of gloop and the barely alive human bodies and several opened pods. One of those human bodies, ashen-faced, begs to be killed. It’s not a pretty sight. It gets worse, when that same human has an alien burst from her chest. The marines flame it to death.
That heat attracts the aliens, that’s right, aliens plural. Remember the burst pods. Let’s get the party started. One marine flame throwing burns another, who falls over a rail. Rounds burn and explode.
Private Vazquez (Jenette Goldstein) cranks up her gun and sprays rounds like seeds in a garden. The aliens creep across the ceiling, flicking their razor tails and hissing. Gorman has lost his cool back in the tank. Ripley grabs the controls and barrels through the compound as close to sub level 3 as she can get.
The surviving marines retreat quickly and loudly to the ground level, covering for each other. Vazquez kills one and the acid blood sprays out and burns a guy who flames the inside of the truck while he collapses into it. While trying to close the door, another alien grasps the doors. Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) knows what to do–he blasts it in the face with his shotgun.
Ripley drives the tank away, and after driving over another alien, she bursts the tank onto the planet’s surface. Hicks, Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), and Vazquez are the only survivors of the attack.
This brief sequence punctuates the long tension built as the marines searched the compound. We haven’t seen any aliens, even a hint of one, for nearly an hour, and suddenly dozens of them are crawling on the walls and sticking their faces into the camera. Their appearance is as startling to the viewer as it is to the characters.
Movies never have enough flamethrowers. I commend their usage in Aliens.
Ripley leads a team of marines into an alien-infested hellscape and barely gets any thanks for bringing them out. Well, some of them. Er, make that one of them.
Michael Biehn plays Corporal Hicks, the coolest-headed marine this side of the galaxy. Placed into the lead after most of his team is turned into acid soup or alien cocoon, Hicks doesn’t let that get to him. He, like Ripley, knows that only the calm will survive this mess, and he’s not about to let that go to shit.
Hicks is every bit Ripley’s equal in calm, and he teaches her basic weapons handling. He calls his machine gun with dual grenade launcher a close personal friend, and he and his friend are willing to follow Ripley across the compound, even after Newt is snatched by the aliens.
Hicks is the lone surviving marine, and for that he receives a burned-out eye. Biehn plays Hicks with the same doomed certainty that he brought to his previous movie role, Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Aliens and The Terminator back to back. What a time to be Michael Biehn.
Private Hudson starts his mission as “the ultimate badass.” He’s ready to kick the tires and light the fires. He’s ready to fuck anything that moves. Yeah, he’s that asshole.
Well, the alien blood, fire, and acid bath rattles Hudson’s brain and nerve loose. I’m talking, “We’re gonna die very soon and poorly!” kind of loose. He’s the guy to whom Ripley says, “I’m sick of your bullshit.” Poor Hudson, he gets dragged through the floor.
Props also to Private Vazquez for being hard as shit. She has the movie’s best joke. When Hudson asks her, “Hey Vazquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”, Vazquez answers, “No, have you?” Vazquez also carries a tremendous crank-arm machine gun strapped to her back. This gun is so large that it can’t possibly work except as part of team. On her own she’d be screwed. It wears her rather than she wears it.
There’s also an android on the mission. Lance Henriksen plays Bishop, an upgrade from the android that sold out the humans aboard the Nostromo. Bishop claims that his model cannot possibly harm a human. Nevertheless, Ripley tells him to stay the hell away from her.
Bishop proves himself worthy of Ripley’s respect, as he is the one who pilots the drop ship that saves Ripley, Newt, and Hicks, despite the losing his life to the queen.
The male aliens menace the marines for the second half of the movie. These army aliens, to carry an insect analogy forward, are relentless. Once the marines figure out their best method of defense against them, we get to see what they’ll do.
The marines have four robotic machine guns carrying more than 1,000 rounds total. These guns stand sentry at key passages approaching the habitation rooms where the humans dig in. In one sequence the aliens try to breach these guns.
Hicks narrates the bullet counters on these guns as they expend all but 10 rounds to kill dozens of aliens. Queen sends these aliens, to be sure, but they are loyal to her and run into certain death, perhaps expecting to die, perhaps hoping to die.
Lethal, loyal, acidic, moist: the male aliens are dangerous to humans even as they die, perhaps more so as they die. One was enough to kill everyone on the Nostromo but Ripley. A platoon of them wiped out the colony on LV 426 and most of the marines trained and armed to destroy much more powerful forces.
Most of the humans are on LV 426 to eradicate the aliens. There is one exception, Weylan-Yutani representative Burke (Paul Reiser). The first time we meet Burke is in one of Ripley’s nightmares, which is interesting because it forces us to judge him entirely through Ripley’s interpretation. He calls himself “an OK guy,” which always means the speaker is not an OK guy. Ripley notices that if she doesn’t internalize it.
Off the bat we mistrust Burke, and his real-world actions lend much to that theory. Most importantly, he wears a sleeveless vest. Unless a guy is sanding wood, vest-wearing connotes shady character. Should have been a red flag to all parties on the expedition.
Burke enjoys calling Ripley “Kiddo,” which you likely wouldn’t do to someone who appears your age, as Ripley does, and certainly not to someone who is at least 57 years your senior, unless you thought that person a fool, as Burke does.
Burke pretends to be an OK guy right up until the moment he tries to kill Ripley and Newt. Catching them asleep, he releases two facehuggers into their locked room, taking Ripley’s gun from her. Burke knew it was the only way to import the aliens to the settled worlds, and that he would earn mining-ship-loads of cash for the effort. He also knew the two women would die, but that hardly bothered him. When his plan is foiled and he’s confronted with the evidence against him, he calls everyone paranoid for their accusations.
Turns out Burke started the whole snafu when he ordered terraformers to check out Ripley’s coordinates. They were the first infected by the facehuggers, and they led to the entire colony going missing.
Burke’s final moments involve him running from an alien attack and locking all the doors behind him, hoping to slow both the humans and aliens, as if he could survive. Did he have a plan to survive the attack? No. He only reacted as any weasel would and died for it.
Ripley’s fight with the alien queen is detailed below, but it deserves more mention. More than 30 years on, the fight between the two females, one protecting a child and the other avenging hers, still exceeds countless other CGI battles.
According to an oral history, Queen was operated by three or four men, two of them inside the enormous Queen outfit. They wore black trash bags. One stunt man stood behind the puppet (hard to call a 15-foot creature a “puppet,” but we’re doing it) and used fishing line to make the tail whip.
They didn’t want a robot because such devices weren’t good enough, and of course computers couldn’t do the job either. The result is the gigantic puppet that seethes power and rage.
Sigourney Weaver, for her part, refused any part in the puppet’s construction. She wanted only to see the finished thing, and feel its menace. Her terror is onscreen. Surprisingly, Weaver was not operating the loader’s arms. That job belonged to stunt men as well, who choreographed the arms with Weaver’s movements and with Queen.
Well, you don’t need me to tell you that their efforts worked. Combined with stellar framing, Ripley in that loader looks every bit the equal and opposite force of the queen. Both menace in their own way.
We’ll start after Ripley, Newt, Bishop, and an unconscious Hicks have safely arrived onboard the ship orbiting LV 426. That’s right, after the action is over.
Or so you thought. This is an Alien movie, so you didn’t think Ripley would arrive on another ship and be safe from the alien menace, did you?
Well, she’s not, and we know that thanks to a spiky black tail protruding from Bishop’s gut. Ripley and Newt stand beside Bishop, talking to him, as Queen attacks from under the drop ship. These aliens can withstand the vacuum of space, you’ll recall.
Queen impales Bishop, who chokes out white fluid, and lifts him and rips his body in half. It’s an awesome display of power, contempt, and hate. Bishop’s top half falls to the floor and he milks out.
Ripley distracts Queen long enough for Newt to scamper into a safe space. Ripley runs behind a large cargo door, closing it. Queen hops from the drop ship and head butts the cargo door.
With Ripley gone, Queen antagonizes Newt. Newt slides along the floor beneath several grates which are, unfortunately, removable. Queen removes them one-by-one, snatching at Newt each time with her long fingers.
Suddenly the cargo door opens to reveal Ripley inside the yellow cargo loader we saw her work earlier in the movie. She steps out as the camera zooms on her face. “Get away from her you BITCH,” she shouts. IT’S. FUCKING. ON.
Queen is slow to adjust to her new, mechanized opponent. Ripley delivers a left slap and a right slap that force Queen to keel over. Queen hisses in anger. Ripley begs her to come on. With one mechanical hand Ripley grips Queen’s head with what functions as the loader’s fingers, but the grip is not enough to crush the head.
Queen attacks with her enormous tail, whipping it against the cage surrounding Ripley. The sound offers amazing whips, lashes, and mechanical whirs and nothing else. It’s a classic battle of raw biological power matched against humankind’s mechanical ingenuity.
Ripley throws two punches that both miss. Queen is wise to the machine now, and she’s much faster than it, though less powerful. Speed always has the advantage on power. Only wise tactics can overcome that. Muhammed Ali proved this for all time defeating George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.
Ripley uses a tactic. She opens the doors leading to an outer door, hoping to suck Queen outside as she killed the alien after the events of the first film. She gets Queen in a choke hold, but that backfires when Queen sticks out her mouth-within-a-mouth that Ripley barely dodges.
Speaking of fire, Ripley has some on her loader, enough to break the stalemate. Ripley directs Queen to the hole in the floor leading to the outer door, but Queen reacts quickly and pulls the loader down into the cavity with her. It’s the best she could do, though the heavy loader is now atop Queen, pressing her to the outer door.
Ripley escapes the loader and climbs the ladder. She knows what she must do. As she reaches a lever to pull, Queen’s tail whips out and wraps around Ripley’s leg. Ripley opens the outer door as she locks her elbow onto the ladder. Queen is sucked into space.
Problem is, everything is sucking out too, including Newt and Bishop’s upper half. Bishop grabs Newt and a hole in the floor to prevent space sucking, and Ripley climbs the ladder and shuts the door.
Bishop, with his final words, says to Ripley, “Not bad, for a human.”
I already mentioned the Vazquez-Hudson joke. That was enough for a point.
LV 426 is a blue-lit wasteland that’s been 20 years under the caring world-building of Weyland-Yutani. Hadley’s Hope, population 158, is home to some cranky colonists and their children. One family is dispatched to the wrecked alien ship and comes back with a facehugger, starting the events of the movie.
You won’t see the phenomenal, artistic, horrifying sets from Alien. Instead we see a functional, metallic warehouse levels and clean dormitories of a terrestrial habitat. Plenty of rain pours on the habitat, giving it a drearier feel. The marines spend ample time exploring these sets. They did not skimp on them.
I enjoyed the camera’s exploration of the orbiting ship’s hangar and all its weaponized glory. Two drop ships hang ready. There’s an armored personnel carrier, which I have called a tank for the sake of brevity. And, as any cool set must have, chains dangle. Chains should always be dangling in places like these.
Murderous aliens intent on laying young in our bodies are bad creatures, from our point of view.
Ripley is about the wokest action hero that’s ever been.
- They still have Reeboks in the future.
- (1) The static thump-thump of the motion trackers still gives me chills.
Summary (54/68): 79%
Aliens finished 1986 seventh at the box office, out-earning hits like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Color of Money. It also received seven Oscar nominations, alongside Best Picture winners like The Silence of the Lambs nd friggin’ Hamlet.
Sigourney Weaver received a nomination for best actress, which is as shocking as it might sound.