Clearly, after re-watching Alien (1979) I had to do the same with Aliens, the 1986 film directed by James Cameron! But what can I say about Aliens apart from “it’s THE perfect movie”? I will try to explain why, but I feel that any word will be superfluous.
In 1986 the young James Cameron had (practically) “only” made the masterpiece that is The Terminator, so he wasn’t an established director back then. He was entrusted with this ambitious project with a not-particularly-high budget, and luckily the producers (including the great Walter Hill) left him full freedom over writing and direction. And it was a great choice! Everything works perfectly in Aliens. EVERYTHING!
The actors are all credible and extremely talented and the result is that all the characters are memorable, and it’s not easy when there are at least a dozen of them! Sigourney Weaver returned as Hellen Ripley for a sensational performance. Michael Biehn, who had already worked with Cameron in The Terminator two years earlier, hired at the last moment as a replacement for James Remar, interpreted Hicks, a character virtually as iconic as Ripley herself. Bill Paxton gave us one of his best interpretations as Hudson, a badass marine who, terrified by the first encounter with the aliens, still manages to die like a hero to save his comrades. Lance Henriksen, also in The Terminator, seems born to interpret an android in an impeccable and at the same time emotional way (I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid!). The chameleonic Janette Goldstein really looks like a no-bullshit Latino woman, and it’s unbelievable to see her as the shy adoptive mother of John Connor in Terminator 2 (1991). Al Matthews is the perfect sergeant, thanks to his previous experience in the US military. And even the kid, Carrie Henn, is perfect for the part!!! I could go on, but I think that I made myself clear.
The plot and the screenplay are brilliant material, something that we can only dream of in today’s blockbuster movies. Aliens is the sequel to a masterpiece like Alien, and despite Cameron moving the saga to his action-SCIFI terrain, it’s the perfect follow-up to Ridley Scott’s horror-SCIFI which came out seven years earlier. Everything fits perfectly with what we saw in the previous film, and even the novelties added to the Alien lore/mithology, such as the alien queen, do not feel out of place. Cameron comes out with a convincing motivation for Ripley’s return to the planet where she and her crew met the alien wreck with the eggs inside. And not only that! He develops the theme of her daughter’s loss on several levels, both with the relationship between Ripley and Newt, and with the relationship between Ripley and the alien queen, mother of her monsters with acid for blood. In addition to that, the story flows flawlessly, with an entire hour of build-up of tension and then an action-packed run for survival after the first encounter with the aliens responsible for the massacre of the colony of Hadleys Hope. All the typical themes of Cameron appear in this film: technology against nature, the thirst for profit leading to destruction, militarist stupidity… I challenge anyone to lose interest in watching a movie like Aliens!
Cameron’s direction is splendid. He manages to get the most out of the budget at his disposal using practical special effects, projections, models, people in alien suits… were you able to understand that the production only had at its disposal six suits in total? Cameron’s skills create the impression that we are witnessing is a real infestation! And the aliens’ movements… they really look like creatures from another world! This movie succeeds where the first Alien had failed: at no time do the aliens look like people in alien suits. And Cameron does that avoiding the use of CGI, which would now look horrendous and dated. Rather, he does it by having the stuntmen hanging by wires, with shots from improbable angles or played backwards (in the scene of the face-hugger attack on Ripley and Newt, for example), with closeups… related to that, I recommend watching Superior firepower: The Making of Aliens, a three-hour 2003 documentary on how Aliens was made. It will leave you speechless!
The soundtrack by James Horner is brilliant. Horner decides to use military themes underlined by snare drums and marches along with disturbing and scary noises, perfect both to create tension and atmosphere, and to accompany the numerous action scenes of the film. And the sets, the lights, the photography, the colors…EVERYTHING IS PERFECT! Oops, sorry, I let myself get excited once again.
Maybe it’s better if I try to conclude… even though Aliens is done with professionalism and craftsmanship, the enthusiasm of all those involved in the project is tangible: the actors, the director, the set designers… I think that this is one of the few examples in which everything worked perfectly: skills, enthusiasm, brilliant ideas, the perfect moment in time (a few years later and the use of CGI would have ruined everything, a few years before and all those actors perfect for their parts could not be in the movie)… I feel lucky every time I watch Aliens. And it never bores me!
PS: I could bore you for hours with anecdotes about Bill Paxton apologizing to Carrie Henn for the swear words he was saying in their scenes together, or about the references to Asimov (the laws of robotics mentioned by Bishop) and Conrad (the name Sulaco is taken from the novel by Conrad titled Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard – Nostromo was the name of Ripley’s spaceship in Alien) … but imdb and the documentary that I mentioned above will provide you with plenty of those!