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No. 25: “Aliens” (1986)

“Get away from her, you bitch!”

Struggling to name a female action hero for the ages? Well, look no further than “Aliens,” James Cameron’s full-throttle follow-up to 1979’s “Alien.” Though Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t the first woman to kick ass and take names, she’s certainly one of the memorable, and maybe one of the best. Cameron wrote Ripley that way, no doubt, but Weaver takes her to another level. She’s not afraid to show the strength alongside the weakness, and she reveals the very real emotional toll of so much violence and stress. In Ripley Sigourney Weaver does more than create a first-rate action hero; she provides “Aliens” with an emotional center potent enough to push this tense sci-fi/action juggernaut from “very good” into “exceptional.” 

Cameron illustrates early on the tremendous faith he’s placed in Weaver’s talent, as “Aliens” opens and closes with Ripley’s image. She is the only survivor of an expedition 57 years before (the plot of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” more a horror film than “Aliens” is), where the crew members of space freighter Nostromo battled hostile aliens on a mystery planet. Ripley awakens from hypersleep inside a salvage ship headed to the same planet, LV-426, to find out why contact’s been lost with the terracolony there. Knowing what she knows, Ripley’s violently opposed to the mission, but agrees on one condition: Burke (a very scummy Paul Reiser), who works for the company that finances the colony, assures her they’ll every last alien. Seeing as he’s a corporate type well schooled in the art of spin, what he really means is he’s positive he can turn those creatures into some mighty effective weapons. The crew, composed of Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton, functioning as the comic relief), trigger-happy Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an android, don’t like Burke any more than Ripley does, but a mission is a mission.

When the ship docks on LV-426, “Aliens” kicks into action overdrive. Every last colonist has vanished, seemingly dead, but one child, a girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), has survived. She and Ripley bond out of emotional necessity, and their relationship becomes crucial to Ripley’s character and to the film’s plot. The silence and emptiness is creepy, but not half as creepy as the sense that the aliens are there, hiding in ceilings or lurking in corners. It isn’t long before the crew discovers what Ripley knew all along: that the aliens have taken over, snatching the colonists and using them as hosts for alien eggs. That realization ushers in a veritable explosion of nonstop action, a series of crew/alien battles so unrelentingly tense and savage and frightening that “Aliens” actually becomes difficult to watch. The final half hour is a testament to Cameron’s technical skill as a director. These scenes are all build-up and no release; “Aliens” sucks us in, then slams us, squirming and struggling, to the floor, pins us down and refuses to let up. The alien queen’s final attack on Ripley — an impressive melding of fight choreography and effects — merits recognition as one of the most thrilling action sequences ever filmed.

From a technical standpoint, “Aliens” merits high marks across the board. James Horner’s dynamic musical score moves in unpredictable ways, heightening our unease and providing an excellent backdrop for the action. Visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak ascend to new heights in costuming with their conception of the alien suits worn by stunt artists, gymnasts and dancers. The alien queen, a combination of puppetry, hydraulics and more, is a work of art. Never before has an alien creature appeared so terrifyingly real; never before has what we see on screen surpassed what our imaginations could dream up. In the simplest terms, “Aliens” achieves what we viewers never thought possible.

And somehow, in all the explosions and the machine gun fire and the flames and draining violence, Sigourney Weaver stands out. She’s in the frey and manages to rise above it. Weaver’s Ripley is a testament to something most action films hide: She isn’t a hero because she’s invincible, but because she isn’t.

24 Responses

  1. Love this one. After seeing Sigourney in Avatar I need to watch this one again.

    • “Aliens” gets a lot of play on TV, and somehow I never get tired of it. It’s only slightly less tense on the 32nd viewing than it was on the first.

  2. Sigourney Weaver really paved the way for female leads. Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale to name a few, owe her big time.

    That said, it took James Cameron’s imagination to turn “Alien” into more than just a remake of “The Thing From Outer Space”.

    • Agreed. Every one of those leading ladies probably ought to cut her a check for all roads she paved for them. Everything about Cameron’s approach to “Aliens” amazes me, particularly the costuming and the action sequences. And what I wrote is what I feel — it’s not often I see movies where what the creature actually looks like is SCARIER than what my imagination thinks it looks like. That right there is a huge achievement in my book!

  3. Great movie with an unmatched claustrophobic tension in virtually every scene. I love Ridley Scott’s Alien but Aliens is very close behind it.

    • “Alien” and “Aliens” are such different movies, but both are very effective in what they do — “Alien” as a horror film and “Aliens” as sci-fi/action/suspense. It’s the ones that came after that got progressively worse.

  4. Excellent review M. Carter of one of my all time favourite movies. Aliens has always been one of the finest films – let alone the fact it is a sequel which makes it even more impressive – because of its claustrophobic tension, brilliant visual impact (thanks largely to Cameron’s keen eye for detail), and Sigourney Weaver’s performance.

    • So many reviews I’ve read peg “Aliens” as a that urban legend — you know, the one about the sequel that surpasses the original. I’m not quite sure I agree with that statement because like I said above, both are very different movies, and both are very good individually. It’s almost hard to compare the two.

      • Definitely. They are both very different – like you say Alien is more a traditional horror movie, Aliens a dark, action film, but both are essentially monster movies in space.

        But Aliens is a sequel to Alien and thus is going to be compared to it. Many people prefer Aliens, the same as Godfather Part 2 over part 1, and Empire Strkes Back over Star Wars.

        What I think makes Alien and Aliens stand out is that Aliens was made many years after the original film and thus took on a life of its own. Many of the sequels we’ve seen in the past and certainly more recently, were conceived as parts of an on-going franchise. Aliens could quite happily exist without any other Alien film. And, unlike Star Wars/Godfather/LOTR/Harry Potter – Aliens had a completely different creative team and a director given free reign to do what he wanted with the story. You don’t see that anymore.

      • I don’t know – I think Aliens is the only real non-superhero or non-Godfather generally-accepted example of a sequel surpassing the original. I think that’s a huge compliment, particularly since almost everybody also loves the original. They are different – Scott and Cameron are as different as night and day – but I think that Aliens manage to walk the fine line for a sequel which features a hugely different cast and crew (Weaver’s really the only common thread… apart from the, well, alien): it’s not too slavish to the original, but it’s also not different for the sake of being different.

        Very tough balance, but Cameron pulls it off while making it seem like he isn’t even trying.

  5. You might have heard that this is my favorite movie of all time and Ripley my second favorite fictional character of all time. 😉

    As incredible as all the elements are in Aliens, what makes it so engaging is the character Ripley. She isn’t a superhero with superpowers. She is a normal person thrown in extraordinary circumstances. The realism mixed in with so many fantasy, action, and science fiction was insane, but also I think is a feat that hasn’t been repeated half as well since.

    I’m with you though M. Carter. I’ve easily seen this movie two hundred times and it never loses any of it’s tension or entertainment value.

    The irony is my parents let me watch this when I was a kid because they thought it would scare me out of my desires to watch scary movies. It immediately became my favorite and only distressed them further. I even have pictures of my own kids with “face huggers” when they were babies. 😉

    • Hee hee … when I have kids, I hope I have the good sense to follow in your parenting footsteps!

      I have seen great action flicks and great action heroes, but none that impressed me quite as much as Ripley because 1) she’s a woman and 2) she’s such a well-rounded character. Some of that’s in the script I bet, but the other 95% comes from Sigourney Weaver being just. that. good. This is the movie that made her one of my favorite actresses.

      • I agree 100% with you there. And Sigourney is my favorite. Everything she does she does well.

        It is sad that there aren’t as many noteworthy female character’s. Hopefully things start to change, and maybe one day we’ll start to see as many great roles written for women as men.

    • It’s funny how those films that scared the life out of us as children end up being our favourite movies. That happened to me with so many of my favourites: Alien, Aliens, An American Werewolf In London, The Omen, The Exorcist.

      • Same with “The Wizard of Oz.” The Wicked Witch of the West scared the bejeezus outta me as a kid, but now I love it.

      • …yeah and those flying monkeys….it’s strange how scary Wizard of Oz is for youngsters!

  6. Thank you for the quote at the top. It reminded me why I felt an incredible deja vu at the ending of “Orphan.”

    • To me, that line is THE line from the entire movie — love the delivery, love the fight scene with alien queen after it.

  7. […] my full review of Aliens HERE Discover more: M. Carter @ The Movies reviews Aliens | Movie Mobsters review Aliens | Cinefantastique reviews […]

  8. One of the greatest sequels ever made!!!

  9. The question that always rolls around in my head as far as lead females in more action oriented roles reads as follows, “Do I prefer Sigourney in Aliens or Linda in Terminator 2?’ At the end of the day I don’t think I have an answer as I adore both performances and both films, but the one thing they have in common is Mr. Cameron.

    People can focus all they want on the amount of money his films bring in, but what they often forget is that he is a Hollywood God because not only does he make the most financially successful films, he makes movies that people love and movies that stand the test of time. Aliens is one such movie, and you are right, now matter how many times I see it I never tire of Ripley, Hicks and the gang.

  10. […] Top Posts Desert Island DVDs: The Big 810 disturbing movie scenesNo. 18: "On the Waterfront" (1954)No. 25: "Aliens" (1986) […]

  11. I gotta say, I like the original better. While the James Cameron treatment is fun, “Alien” is haunting from its sheer simplicity. And totally classic.

  12. […] “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female […]

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