With the recent release of Prometheus – a kinda-sorta prequel to the Alien series, my wife and I began watching the original movies, just so we can know the full story. When deciding last night whether we should embark upon James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens, I initially had my doubts. Having been so immersed in the series already, I felt that it might be beneficial to take a break before jumping in again. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was already in the alien mindset, so it’s better to ride this thing as long as I can. That was when I still thought that Aliens was a sequel to Ridley Scott’s original – in fact, the movies could hardly be any more dissimilar.
Oh sure, Cameron’s film starts off right where Scott’s left off… or rather, 57 years after Scott’s left off, and the plot follows Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the only survivor of the mayhem of the previous film, being coerced into returning in an effort to eradicate the species before they infect any other planet. In that way, this is ostensibly a continuation of the story begun years prior, but this is where the similarities end. There are often movies created by different filmmakers which exist within the same universe and yet sport radically different looks – compare Christopher Columbus’ Harry Potter films against Alfonso Cuarón’s, for example. Cuarón’s vision is darker, the layout and atmosphere of the setting markedly different, yet there’s no question that both stories were born of the same cloth; though they look different, they feel connected. No such connection is present here, and the best analogy I could come up with is this: Aliens is to Alien what Open Water is to Deep Blue Sea. One is a slow-burning horror film, the other is a balls-to-the-wall action flick. They can hardly be compared at all.
Almost immediately, the bombastic score sets the film apart from its predecessor, whose ethereal noises matched its unsettling atmosphere. Here, Ripley is an action hero and she is ready to go back to the planet LV-426 with guns blazing. It is no mistake that she is accompanied on this mission by a group of Marines – when the soldiers die off one by one and Ripley is left standing, the message is clear: she is far tougher than a mere Marine. It could be said that this broad characterization is somewhat simplistic. This matches the one-dimensional Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a businessman who thinks of nothing but business. It also aligns with the grating foreshadowing in dialogue, as when a character ominously states, “I have a bad feeling about this mission.”
But these complaints can be forgotten, or assuaged slightly, as a result of Cameron’s expert staging. Many scenes are bathed in harsh red lighting or have bright white beams emanating from behind the characters so that the foreground is obscured. The sets drip and ooze, and danger lurks around every corner. Where the crew in Alien watched their peer suffer with a face-hugging alien attached to his skin, uncertain how to react to the situation, here we have the face-huggers in glass cylinders and we the audience are on the edge of our seats waiting for one of them to begin thrashing suddenly. When the protagonists walk through the corridors where a nest of aliens are hidden, they bring along an electronic device to track movement – the machine makes low-pitched throbbing noises, like a heart pumping blood. It seemed intentionally disorienting, and I found myself making comparisons to Gaspar Noe, who famously included nauseating pulses in the first act of his Irreversible. Unlike the cold, mechanical space vessel which housed all the horrors of the original film, Aliens takes place largely in the creatures’ warm nest, the walls covered in slimy scales – drawing comparisons to the work of David Cronenberg as well.
Perhaps even more important, in historical terms, Aliens begins the branding of the evil for the first time. In Scott’s film, the titular creature appears in brief glimpses, a swift terror that lies just outside of our field of vision so that we can never fully witness it. Here, the aliens walk into the shot, they rise menacingly from waist-deep water, they crawl in packs along the ventilation ducts. They are very much a part of the film, a concrete enemy from which to run away or else to drive toward with weaponry. There’s very little time spent sitting down, wondering what to do. This is not to say that there is a paucity of dialogue, or scenes where the human characters interact normally, but they’re all done with reference to the ultimate goal, always to remind us of what’s at stake. Regardless, no matter how complex the political posturing that Burke references or how sickly sentimental the motherly bond Ripley shares with an orphaned child named “Newt”, it falls by the wayside in favor of Alien queens and super-sized explosions.
In a pivotal scene, Ripley faces off against one of the aliens with the aid of a robotic suit of armor. The rich score curiously drops out of the scene, the sound of metal and flesh smacking against one another taking center stage, the grunts of our heroine and the screeching growl of the creature the only other sound. It’s shot in close-ups on the swinging blows of these opposing forces, the whipping tail of the alien, the gritted teeth of Ripley. It’s the most purely action-oriented moment in the film: more than a chase sequence, more than an exchange of gunfire, more than a character stalking the halls with a weapon looking for prey. It’s a classic battle sequence, an unadulterated fistfight. And it’s thoroughly engaging.
So though it’s tempting, it’s useless to try to compare Aliens with its predecessor. Though they share some elements, the two works are better taken on their own. For what it is – an adenaline-soaked action blockbuster – I think Aliens largely succeeds. It’s chilling, electrifying, simply entertaining. There are some moments where things grow too broadly typical (e.g. the squadron leader who admits to have been part of “38 missions… simulated”) or grossly sentimental. Like, I understand that Newt helps develop the terror and urgency by virtue of being a child in danger, but using a child in this way also feels like kind of an easy device for manufacturing those feelings. But overall, the film takes itself fairly seriously and, more than anything, is a lot of fun.
If pressed, I would probably say that I prefer Scott’s film over Cameron’s, but such a choice is like comparing aliens to oranges.