Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
Just when she thought she was out (and it appeared the studio may have given up after a long seven years gone by from Ridley Scott’s original), James Cameron pulls her back in! The producers behind the original chose wisely when they handed the reigns to the sequel over to the more crazily ambitious (in that mass consumer Bigger is Better way that can be really fun and exciting when done right), action-minded director Cameron to make a huge splash in that go-for-broke 80’s box office way. In bringing Ripley back to face off against this time a slew of aliens, followed by some gung-ho but really dense and naive space marines (with the Corporal of the group played by Michael Biehn who has those second-tier leading man looks that make you just KNOW it’s gonna be down to him and the Ripster at some point) and a smarmy corporate CEO (played by Paul Reiser in a way that makes us again just KNOW he’s gonna die — and the audience is gonna applaud).
Cameron is one of those filmmakers who (used to, anyway, back in the 80’s) manage to make the obvious commercial trope character set-ups work (perhaps in a big part because of a good eye for character casting and the inclusion of really fun and nicely delivered dialogue — Bill Paxton with his delivery of “It’s game over, man. Game over!” is just one of the many memorable character lines) and, heck, there are some really breathtakingly created moments – ranging from dark and scary (such as the initial introduction of the aliens in their dark lair as they ‘unfold’ from their camouflaged hiding places to descend upon the hapless marines which manages to perfectly capture how the aliens operate) to full scale operatic (like the inevitable big battle between the head Bitches on the block, the Alien Queen and the Ripster).
I also always appreciate how the real overriding enemy to Ripley and humanity behind the Alien franchise (which I’m finding plays out in even more insidiously dark ways in the Dark Horse comic series) isn’t really the aliens, who are just doing their thing to thrive and survive like any other life form (they just happen to be really nasty to humans about it), it’s the corporate powers working behind the scenes, seeing anyone and everyone as entirely expendable to their mission of contacting with and gathering aliens as possible weapon for control and domination. Based upon how the corporate/big business powers in the real world are hastening us towards the Planet Earth’s sixth major extinction in every imaginable way (that is if, you know, you believe in what just about every one of those pesky scientists alive today not on an oil company payroll is telling us), is there any doubt that’s exactly how the discovery of these aggressive, near invincible aliens would play out? I didn’t even mind so much those ‘lines delivered for audience reaction’ that so many 80’s action movies of that time employed, as they’re done sparingly enough and usually delivered with a certain amount of cleverness and panache (unlike, for instance, the far inferior Predator which I also recently watched and cringed every time Arnold stiffly said something like ‘Suck on this!’ and whatever else he says in that one).
The action is non-stop and masterfully done, with impressively executed set-pieces, all managing to distract me away from how commercially formulaic it all is. And, of course, there’s Ripley herself, a nice feminist representation of female survival in the first one, exploded into iconic full-on power chick in this one (without Cameron yet taking her into the sinewy muscularity of the ultra-ripped hard-ass Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 a few years later). I’m not sure I buy Cameron’s conceit that the plight of the marines in the film is his commentary on the futility of the US soldiers traipsing around lost in the jungle during the Vietnam War. Actually, I don’t buy it at all, no matter how much I’m sure he believes he’s being truthful (in that deluded self-serving Hollywood faux liberal kinda way). The film worships muscular gun play as much as any 80’s action film. Just look at that poster (which, in this case, is entirely indicative of the film) — it’s basically saying the film is Alien — only with Ripley fighting a lot more aliens… and with bigger guns!
There is no doubt that Aliens is superior (and ambitious) action entertainment (with a lot of horror thrown in). Yet, push come to shove, I will always prefer the quieter, more thoughtful existential horrors of the original.