So many things didn’t sound right. For one, the original film’s director Ridley Scott had nothing to do with it. Secondly, the plot would involve the sole survivor of Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), to be somehow convinced to return to the alien planet. Still, my butt was in the seat opening day 25 years ago on July 18, 1986, when Aliens opened — a rare sequel that in many ways (though it may be sacrilege to say) surpasses the original.
It was in 1983 when James Cameron met with Alien producer David Giler to discuss possibilities for a sequel. Giler had been impressed with Cameron’s screenplay for The Terminator, which had come across his desk. Cameron, about to complete pre-production on The Terminator, began writing a treatment for Alien II. A scheduling conflict with Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger caused a production delay, affording Cameron the time to begin writing his screenplay. Although he wasn’t able to complete the script, it was enough to impress the heads at 20th Century Fox — so much so that they actually waited until Cameron was available again and told him he could direct the Alien sequel if The Terminator (1984) turned out well.
When Ripley is rescued after 57 years of hypersleep, her account of events on the Nostromo is met with extreme skepticism and she looses her space flight status as a result. She is also informed that colonization has already begun on LV-426, the very planet where her ship’s crew had first encountered the face huggers, only one of which managed to wipe out everyone on board.
Later, when contact is lost with the colony on LV-426, Ripley is visited by corporate suit Carter Burke, played to slimy perfection by comedian Paul Reiser. The company wants to send a team of marines to investigate, with Ripley along as an adviser — and if she agrees to go, Burke says he will restore her flight status.
The tension established by Cameron the director is a very high level that few films achieve, a major factor of which is the fact that each marine is outfitted with a helmet camera that Cameron and editor Ray Lovejoy can cut to whenever they want to demonstrate just how claustrophobic and dire the situation is.
But more important is the suspense created by Cameron the writer by focusing more on the human elements, notably the relationship between Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who is the only colonist that managed to survive. The most terrifying moment in the movie, at least for me, occurs later in the film when Ripley hears Newt faintly screaming from somewhere inside the complex and we all know that Ripley is left with no choice whatsoever other than to go after her. Compare this to the original film in which no less than three times, someone goes off looking for Jones the cat. Now don’t get me wrong, I love cats and I love the original Alien, but to be used as a plot device three times is a bit weak. By having a little girl in danger, one that we know Ripley feels responsible for, Cameron elicits gasps from the audience, not groans.
The film is perfectly cast with great actors like Terminator co-star Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks (who gives a perfect non-enthustiastic acknowledgement of leadership when it’s pointed out that he is now the man in charge), Jenette Goldstein as the badass Vasquez, and of course Bill “Why don’t you put her in charge?” Paxton as Hudson.
Lance Henriksen portrays Bishop with a perfect balance of android and humanity. There’s a great moment in the film when Bishop volunteers to go through a claustrophobic pipe, saying “Believe me, I’d prefer not to. I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid.” Another great Bishop moment comes when he’s being sealed into the pipe and he cautious the others, “Watch your fingers.” Also the character is wonderfully written with an arc that is a very fitting juxtaposition to Ash, the android character from the original film played by Ian Holm.
Sigourney Weaver received a Best Actress nomination for this film, which is an astounding feat considering the Academy generally doesn’t acknowledge acting in genre films. But here we have a sci-fi horror action film that also happens to be a sequel — that’s a lot going against her and yet the Academy couldn’t ignore this amazing performance.
Composer James Horner certainly had a challenging task, considering he was following in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote a score for the original that many film music fans (including myself) hold in very high regard. Horner ended up writing a score that has become an action staple of its own — one particular cue called “Bishop’s Countdown” was used in just about every single action film trailer for a couple of years. It’s interesting that Cameron ended up playing around so much with Horner’s score that there’s very little music in the film that was actually written specifically for the moment it’s being used. Yet still, Horner also ended up getting an Oscar nomination.
As great as the theatrical release is, an even superior “Special Edition” version was released on laserdisc in 1992, featuring several great additional character moments, notably the revelation that Ripley had a daughter who had died by the time she had returned to earth from her hypersleep, making Ripley’s bonding with Newt all the more compelling. Fortunately, the Special Edition has made its way to various DVD releases and is also on the latest Blu-ray — and this is the version you need to watch tonight, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it. In the meantime, enjoy the trailer.