Year of Release: 1986
Date Viewed: November 18th, 2010
MPAA Rating: R
How do you make a story about a dangerous alien even more exciting? Add more aliens, of course.
James Cameron takes over directing duties from Ridley Scott in this sequel to the blockbuster hit Alien. Instead of slapping on a tacky catchphrase title to differentiate itself from the original, they simply added an "s". That's all the foreshadowing you need. Brilliant.
This story takes place fifty-seven years after the events of the first film. But in the mind of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), it is tomorrow. The sole survivor of the Nostromo spaceship incident, Ripley awakens from cryogenic sleep to an unfamiliar world. The world doesn't know what to make of her either. When questioned about the incident, Ripley explains the outrageous truth to the company that had employed her. Nobody is convinced because all evidence of the alien stowaway that killed her comrades was destroyed along with the ship. Furthermore, the planet that was inhabited by the alien species (now known as LV-426) had been undergoing colonization for the past thirty years. No alien activity had ever been reported. Deemed as mentally unstable and unfit for her former job of piloting, Ripley is relegated to working with forklifts aboard Gateway Station, the space facility that had rescued her.
She soon receives an unexpected visit from Marine representatives. Communication with the LV-426 colony had been lost. Fearing that a tragedy had occurred, Ripley is offered the opportunity to accompany a military squad to investigate the planet. She agrees to act as a consultant for the mission in return for the reinstatement of her prior duties. Successful completion could also mean some much needed peace to the reoccurring nightmares from past trauma.
Ripley's new comrades may have bigger weapons, but they have smaller brains. They act more like new recruits showing off for their college fraternity instead of soldiers. I guess the idea was for us to grow annoyed enough with their immaturity that we don't mind so much when they are inevitably killed off. Two things are wrong with that. It's the opposite direction taken by the original Alien, where every human casualty was a felt loss. Also, the characters are too obnoxious for the viewer. Since all the soldiers are given the same personality, I didn't care enough to see them live or hate anyone enough to want them dead.
On the flip side, there are two superbly written characters here. Ripley and franchise newcomer Rebecca "Newt" Jorden (Carrie Henn in her only acting role). The movie's greatest pleasure is witnessing Ripley's transition from cookie-cutter damsel in distress to a full fledged selfless hero. The much ballyhooed alien foes actually take a backseat to this character development drama. When Ripley's finest moment happens during the movie's final act, I was more than ready to cheer her on. The story reason for the evolution is Ripley's relationship to Newt. Newt is an eleven year old girl and part of a family that lived on the LV-426 colony before the aliens wiped everyone out. She is the sole survivor of a traumatic event with no family left in her life, the same situation Ripley is struggling with. This story angle is believable in both its inception and execution.
A franchise like this cannot afford to deviate from its ironclad humans versus aliens set up. To make the film his own, James Cameron followed the "bigger is better" philosophy. The production values increased and so did the body count. Cameron is less interested in frightening his audience as he is with merely thrilling them. He does this with ease. Yet it was the little things that made Ridley Scott's Alien truly memorable. Sure, it's fun to see slimy aliens get blasted away from high-tech gunfire. But it comes at the cost of the added mystery of the enemies' whereabouts. Rather than having self-standing drama, this movie turns to the perilous situations for the drama. It's a change that has divided opinion over which offering is preferable.
The part that doesn't deserve much debate is the rewarding conclusion. By this time, Ripley earns self respect, Newt has a new reason for hope and the alien creatures have one last adrenaline rush to unleash upon the audience. It's the sort of stuff that Cameron prides himself on, as he should.
Aliens was perfect for its time. And based on other written reactions, it's still perfect for a lot of people. Although I found the writing to be inconsistent in quality, the rest hits the bullseye. I can't imagine anyone except for the most snobbish of critics to entirely denounce this movie.