Sequelthon: Aliens

Last week we opened our sequels series with a review of The Godfather Part II, an almost singular film which accomplished the rare feat of winning the Academy Award for Best Picture despite its sequel status. While Aliens is no Godfather Part II and James Cameron is no Francis Ford Coppola the second film in our Sequelthon also manages to build on the success of its predecessor. The fact that James Cameron stepped in to direct this sequel makes its success even more special. Many series falter when individuals jump in and out of the director’s chair. Think about the upcoming departure of JJ Abrams from both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises and the hesitation about their next films (Star Wars can take it. I’m more worried about Star Trek: Beyond).Aliens ripleyLuckily for the Alien franchise, Cameron was more than capable of taking the reins from creator Ridley Scott. At the start of the film Ellen Ripley (played perfectly by Sigourney Weaver), drifts through space after the events of the first film. She is woken from cryosleep only to find that she had been sleeping for over fifty years, that her daughter had died of old age, and that the company funding her previous journey doubts her story about the original Xenomorph. Rocked by these realizations and suffering from PTSD, Ripley quits the Company and starts working on the docks of Gateway Station using a handy Space Bot. Soon the Company loses contact with Colony LV-426 which is located on the same planet where the events of Alien take place. Fearing the worst, the Company hires Ripley as a “consultant” to accompany a group of Colonial Marines sent to investigate potential Xenomorph activity on the colony. Much like Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park III, Ripley initially resists but is eventually convinced to return where she inevitably comes face to face with the Aliens again.

James Cameron was approached to direct Aliens in the summer of 1983, a full year before his freshman film Terminator was released in theaters [1]. When signing on to the project, Cameron envisioned a very different film from the original. In an interview Cameron explained: “our intention going in, [was] to do a film that was not as scary… it’s scary, but it’s not as scary, but more intense, and I like to use the word, exhilarating. Because I think you get exhilarated by the intensity of the kind of action that’s in this film” [2].  While Ridley’s film dealt more in a horror structure, Cameron elected to explore a war theme paralleling America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Much like the American forces in Vietnam, the Colonial Marines in Aliens storm the colony and face an unseen enemy who beat the crew back despite technical inferiority. Cameron saw Ripley’s return to LV-426 as a metaphor for soldiers who re-enlist and return to the war despite deep “psychological problems” sustained while in “intense combat situations.” For these soldiers and Ripley, the return to war, in Cameron’s view, is a way to “exorcise” inner demons. Aliens emphasizes Ripley’s humanity early in the film as she anguishes with memories of the first film. Juxtaposing Ripley with the over-the-top and macho soldiers highlights Ripley’s vulnerability which makes her later heroics and Space Bot fights all the more impactful.

This shift in focus makes Aliens a much “bigger” and broader movie. While I do enjoy this film’s larger scale and a few of the new characters, I much prefer the original Alien. In the original, a single Xenomorph terrorizes a small crew made up mostly of engineers and scientists. In this sequel a horde of Xenomorphs take on a squad of Marines armed with high tech weapons and equipment. This amplification inadvertently dilutes the threat of each Xenomorph. Dozens are destroyed in any given fight making their threat somewhat less menacing. The inclusion of the Queen Alien towards the end may have been a neccesary byproduct of these raised stakes. After killing maybe hundreds of the warrior types, the movie relied on the big-bad trope to raise the stakes one last time for the finale. But the Queen itself is not nearly as scary as the original Alien Xenomorph and doesn’t appear to pose much more of a threat than the pack of Aliens from earlier in this film.

Take the above negatives with a grain of salt. Unlike most sequels which rehash old ideas, Cameron’s film should be applauded for taking the franchise in a new direction. The shifts especially make sense for a new director coming on to continue a franchise. Many of the movies we’ll explore in the Sequelthon are tired retreads of old ideas. Cameron’s changes are quite appropriate and he retains many of the great aspects of the original, namely the Xenomorph design and the heroic nature of Ellen Ripley both of which have become legendary figures in movie history [4].

Aliens water

Is it better than the original?

Personally, I’d say no. I prefer the greatness of the original to the greatness of the sequel. That being said, I wouldn’t blame anyone for preferring this war-like sequel to the horror-slanted original.

Rating: 9/10

Classic Movie Scale: 7/10


Footnotes:

[1] According to this Los Angeles Times article dated July 24, 1986.

[2] The full 2001 interview transcript can be found here.

[3] The above quote was taken from a James Cameron fan site. I can’t find more sources to back up the quote but here is the full quote as provided: “There are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam, who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again. Because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised. That was a good metaphor for [Ripley’s] character (…) The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent – but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” -James Cameron.

[4] Ellen Ripley is listed at #8 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest Heroes. She is the second highest heroine on the list behing #6 Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs. The Alien (listed from the original Alien) ranks at #14 on the List of 100 Greatest Villains. That is the second highest non-human villain on the list behind HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey who is listed at #13 (we’re counting witches, possessed children, fallen Jedi as humans).

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5 thoughts on “Sequelthon: Aliens

  1. Great review. I appreciate all the research too. I didn’t know how Cameron was approached, for instance. Really interesting stuff. I dig the retrospective approach. “I’ll be back” for more 😉 T2 better be in the Sequelthon hahaha

    Like

    • Thanks! I’m hoping to dig a deeper with these movies. Putting them in some context is interesting to me. I’ve been hoping to do a sort of self-study starting with the old silent movies and moving through the decades so movies are put in better context (its hard to appreciate how old classics are great without knowing how they were different from the other movies from the same time). That strategy has been almost impossible while blogging and keeping up with new releases but doing that with individual franchises is a sort of cheat to accomplish the same idea.

      T2 is definitely on the list. No other bloggers have claimed it yet and if no one does I’ll review it in a month or two.

      Also for the Flashforward, I ended up ranking 34(ish) films I’m most looking forward to in 2016. I’m hoping to publish it later this week or next week. If you want to post lists together let me know!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It sounds like you tackle this art from the right angle – by respecting the art of film.

        It’s so true… we need to know about old movies to understand new ones. Sometimes classics can seem cliched but it’s interesting to see how they actually SET those cliches themselves. Because they were so good everyone else just kinda ripped em off 😉

        I just released a February breakdown recently over at SLIPTHROUGHmovies.com (new address), but I would love to collaborate with you on a 2016 list – as I have yet to do that myself. Let me know what you think about that.

        I’d also be interested in exploring the classics alongside you. While I’ve been to film school, there are still some influential movies I’ve yet to see.

        Keep me posted. You can Message me on Twitter @slipthroughnerd if you like. A nerdy team-up sounds exciting!

        Like

  2. Pingback: Sequelthon: Die Hard: With a Vengeance | Flashback/Backslide

  3. Pingback: Announcing Flashback/Backslide’s Sequelthon: Guest Reviews Wanted! | Flashback/Backslide

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