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No. 25: “Aliens” (1986)

“Get away from her, you bitch!”
~~Ripley

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.