Aliens (1986, James Cameron)

Thirty-six years after its release, recreating the original Aliens (albeit on home media) experience is difficult. Not only has there been a direct sequel, there have been multiple reboot sequels, and the extended, “special edition” version has been readily available for nineteen years now. I’m not ready for an Aliens canon deep-dive, but when did a much later sequel, they did it with details from the special edition.

So it’s entirely possible to watch Aliens, the theatrical version—running a spry 137 minutes (the extended edition adds seventeen minutes)–in the context of what’s changed for the franchise since it was the traditional version of Aliens. Probably starting with thinking of Aliens as a franchise entry, not a sequel. I should also preface—I’ve seen Aliens a dozen times; I’ve seen the theatrical version thrice, including this time. “My” version is the special edition version.

And I was worried it’d be hard to watch Aliens without that perspective getting in the way.

Luckily, Aliens is not a vacillating memory, it’s a movie; once I stopped thinking about how the film works as a proto-old [man or woman] franchise—like Sigourney Weaver as a (mentally) more mature action hero, I was able to just let it play. Because Aliens is less about Weaver’s arc than I remembered. There’s one big missing character motivator in the theatrical version and it only changes the impact. Instead of Aliens leaning in on the motherhood allegory in the theatrical version, it’s about Weaver proving herself in an entirely different context than before. She’s still got a great arc with Carrie Henn, it’s just less the focus of the film. The focus is, of course, survival in extremely hostile, constantly worsening conditions.

Aliens starts with an Alien epilogue. Weaver gets in trouble for blowing up her spaceship; they fire her. She ends up back on Earth in a shitty apartment, hanging out with the cat (the only other returning character), working a crap (compared to her previous position) job, and smoking too many cigarettes. She can’t convince the Company stooges to investigate her story, though she’s got an ally in self-described “okay guy” Company man Paul Reiser. Writer and director Cameron and Weaver do a very quick job setting up Weaver’s character, post-resolution. They start the development arc once Weaver wakes up—almost sixty years after she expected—when it’s unclear she’s going to get scapegoated, which runs one character development arc under another, not letting the subtle one through until the plot requires it.

Then one day, Reiser shows up at Weaver’s door with a Marine lieutenant, William Hope. That planet no one believed Weaver about? They’ve lost contact with the colony. Reiser wants Weaver to come with him and Hope (and Hope’s Marines); just an observer, though. The Marines will have it. After some cajoling (and because otherwise it’s a very different movie), Weaver agrees and now Aliens proper is underway.

For most of the runtime, Aliens never looks, sounds, or feels like an Alien sequel. Not in terms of the filmmaking. If it weren’t for the three hyper sleep scenes, it wouldn’t at all. There’s the opening, where Weaver—asleep in her pod—gets rescued. Then there’s the Marines waking up from their hyper sleep, which goes from feeling vaguely Alien to being very much Aliens. And then there’s another hyper sleep sequence where Cameron ties it back to the original even more. Though, stylistically—even when he’s doing the Alien reference—he often adds something to it. Something more akin to a 2001 reference, actually. There are a number of 2001 homages in the first act, but also Cameron doing something of his own. Aliens is a very thoughtful, thorough film. A verisimilitude achievement, requiring a lot of subtleties to navigate the film’s constraints. Even if the budget had been bigger, for instance, there were technological limits as far as creating the omnipresent special effects; Aliens is a special effects bonanza. And it’s all from scratch.

The film occasionally will let Weaver’s observations determine a scene’s narrative distance. She’s seeing it new, the audience is seeing it new, also now the characters (the Marines) who are not seeing it new… they then get othered enough to become subjects. It’s one of Cameron’s neat narrative moves. He has a number of them, in addition to his neat directorial moves. The film’s chockfull of good moves.

Aliens proper is the story of the Marines mission. They wake up, they banter and bicker, they find out in a briefing it’s an Alien sequel, then it’s basically down to the planet and the film never takes a break until the denouement. Aliens’s biggest chunk of runtime has a present action of maybe twenty-four hours, and short segues between the contiguous scenes. The film introduces ten supporting characters at the same time and requires you track them for the next two hours. It’s rushed but they’re rushed too. Got to get down to the planet.

Once they’re on the planet and at the colony, the film changes gears again. Cameron’s done his take on Alien-style space travel, he’s done a back to Earth bit, but the colony’s something again. It’s a little bit of a Western, just one where they’re in high tech future rooms instead of an Old West town with a false front. And they’re on an alien world, which gives the characters no pause. With one exception—the space station in the first act—Cameron’s utterly devoid of wonderment when musing about the future and its strange new worlds. He never forces it to be grim and gritty though; it’s simply unimaginable it could be any other way.

There’s some more setup in the second act with Weaver, Reiser, and the Marines finding out what’s going on with the aliens. They’ve also got to pick up Henn—a little girl who survives for weeks, hiding from the monsters in the vents. Aliens is all about the vents. Henn’s character started the still strong entertainment trope of lone survivor kid showing up to give some necessary exposition—the not-always Feral Kid—but Cameron isn’t craven here. He never treats Henn as functional, because he never makes any bad moves in the script. It’s such a good script.

The Marines. There’s Hope as the lieutenant, but he’s new and doesn’t have any combat experience. One of the “funny” things about Aliens is realizing, even with third act twists, most of the problems are because Hope’s bad at his job. Al Matthews plays the sergeant. He’s more likable and memorable than good, but also he doesn’t have much he’s got to do. When he does have bigger moments, it’s usually to support someone else’s character development, like Michael Biehn. Biehn’s the corporal, he’s succinct not laconic, and kind of a Western hero. Biehn’s got the most interesting performance in the film because he’s the only one who defaults to trusting Weaver’s judgment. The movie’s often about the two of them problem-solving.

In between shooting at alien monsters with acid blood.

There are nine more Marines, but Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein are the most important ones. Paxton’s the wiseass who breaks under pressure and Goldstein’s the badass who doesn’t. Cameron’s got a really interesting approach with Paxton—he makes the other characters rein him in when he spirals and turns it into character development for all involved. It’s really effective.

Of the Marines, only Biehn and Hope really get arcs. Paxton’s panicking always plays out in active scenes. Goldstein gets a little more character work than most but it’s about thirty seconds worth. Aliens is an action movie, after all.

There aren’t any bad performances. Paxton gets the most tiring (but just imagine being under siege by aliens and stuck with him), but it’s never bad. Best performances are Weaver, Biehn, Reiser, Henn, and Lance Henriksen. Henriksen is the ship android who Weaver doesn’t trust because of the last movie. Cameron’s very obvious about their arc, which is the least of Weaver’s four character relationship arcs—Henn, Reiser, Biehn, then Henriksen–and makes sure every scene is excellent. The scenes are good showcases for Henriksen too.

The whole movie’s a showcase for Weaver. Going back and fighting the monsters from her nightmare strips her to the id. It’s a great performance in what’s really just an action hero part. Weaver and Cameron make it seem like more, but it’s the performance and the direction.

Lots of technical greats. James Horner’s music, Ray Lovejoy’s cutting, Peter Lamont’s production design, Emma Porteous’s costume design. Adrian Biddle’s photography is successful, competent, and good, but when Aliens betrays itself as a very grim, very gritty Flash Gordon serial, it’s usually because of Biddle’s lighting.

The special effects are usually outstanding. There’s one bad composite shot—though Cameron directs the heck out of it—and some of the alien planet exteriors look too soundstage (Biddle’s lights). Otherwise, the effects are stellar. Including the slimy aliens, which is the most important part. Stan Winston does a singular job with the aliens.

After the first act, Cameron’s direction tries to be more functional than flashy. It works. He asks a lot from the actors and they always deliver; it’s masterful action suspense.

Thanks to Cameron, Weaver, and everyone else, Aliens is a resounding success. Special edition or theatrical version, it’s always spectacular.