Aliens pulls off a unique feat in cinema history: With this sequel, James Cameron delivers a brawny masterwork that completely reorients the franchise, without distracting from the landmark film that preceded it. Ridley Scott’s Alien had been a brilliant mind-screw that somehow delivered claustrophobic horror amidst the boggling expanse of space. Here, we get a souped-up action spectacle for the 80s, replete with grenade launchers and armored tanks. Strangely, both films work equally well, in totally different ways.
After surviving the slaughter of the first film, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) begins this film adrift in deep space. She’s been in cryo-sleep for 57 years when a salvage ship stumbles across her frost-covered escape pod. When Ripley wakes up, she’s regarded as an awkward relic from a tragedy her employers would love to forget. She issues dire warnings about the monster that rampaged aboard her ship, but Ripley’s new bosses turn out to be the same as the old bosses: They puff cigarettes and shoot down everything she says, thus setting the stage for the bloodbath to come.
Those corporate stooges are represented by Burke (Paul Reiser), an amiable young bureaucrat who knows all the right things to say. When his attempts to entice Ripley back to the alien crash site fail, Burke appeals to her unshakable humanity: There are hundreds of innocent people now living on that world, and all communication has suddenly been lost. She knows the carnage those hideous monsters can unleash, and she must see them all destroyed.
Ripley joins a platoon of cocky space Marines on a mission to the doomed planet. They’re all variations of a theme: Macho, smartass, cigar-chomping grunts, totally oblivious to the ferocious enemy they’re about to face. Every soldier gets a WWII B-movie name, such as Hudson (Bill Paxton), Hicks (Michael Biehn), Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), Spunkmeyer (Daniel Kash), etc. As with the corporate lackeys, Ripley tries to convince the Marines of how deadly their new opponent is, to no avail. Most of this movie consists of Ripley being the smartest person in the room.
Once the expedition touches down on the alien planet, the tension cranks up and doesn’t ease for nearly two hours. As the marines disembark, they find a drab, damp world, filled with soot-stained mud and dishwatery rain. The troops enter the battered husk of the colonial base, where certain doom awaits them.
Obviously, things go to hell in a chum bucket, as the Marines stumble upon hundreds of the deadly Xenomorph aliens. Cameron presents the initial massacre via body cam footage, with bursts of machine fire followed with blood-curdling screams and static. It’s at this point that Ripley begins her transformation into an action badass. She hijacks the platoon’s armored car and barrels right into the mouth of danger.
During this rescue mission, the group discovers a lone survivor in the wreckage. Six-year-old Newt (Carrie Henn) has eluded the aliens by using the base’s network of tunnels and shafts. She’s grubby and malnourished, but otherwise okay. Newt’s presence reignites something in Ripley’s soul, and she determines to rescue the little girl at all costs.
What follows is a series of big, propulsive action scenes, wherein Ripley and the Marine survivors attempt to shoot their way out of the complex. Where the first film created an intimate tension with silence and dread, Aliens turns into a blur of explosions and bullets, screams and gore. Hundreds of aliens are shredded by machine gun fire, only to be replaced with hundreds more. The lone monster of Alien has now expanded to a never-ending horde.
Although Cameron would later hitch his legacy to innovative digital effects, Aliens is a masterpiece of practicality. Miniatures, matte work, and forced perspective supply most of the special effects work here, and everything holds up surprisingly well. You’ll never confused Aliens for Titanic or Avatar, but this stands as a high-water mark for old school movie magic. Of particular note is the late, great Stan Winston, who delivers one of the most hideous, nightmare-inducing creations in all of cinema with the alien Queen.
For all its technical wizardry, this movie belongs to Sigourney Weaver. Her Ripley is one of the greatest action heroes committed to film, and Weaver pours every ounce of conviction she has into the role. Aliens is loaded with square-jawed Marines, but it’s Ripley who serves as the emotional, spiritual, and physical core of the movie. It’s no surprise that Weaver snagged a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her work here.
In the first Alien, the withering loneliness of space was practically a character in of itself. This sequel ditches that isolation for a cacophonous onslaught: Not only are we not alone in the universe, but there’s an army of fanged, monstrous killers, and they’re all coming for us. It’s a different kind of nightmare, but every bit as frightening. Even 35 years after its release, Aliens remains a milestone for action, horror, and sci-fi cinema, all at once.
136 min. R. AMC+