Movie Review Movies

On the Road to Prometheus – Aliens (1986)

On the Road to Prometheus is a series of retrospectives on the Alien franchise, in anticipation for Prometheus, which arrives in theaters on June 8th.

In tone, pacing, and emotional impact, James Cameron’s 1986 action flick Aliens bears almost no resemblance to its predecessor. Sure, there are familiar faces (Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, now fully transformed into an action superstar), creatures (the alien “xenomorphs”, their eggs, and the facehuggers), and locations (the planet, now named LV-426 and looking very little like the enigmatic rock of the original), but it’s a wild departure from the previous entry in the series. The slow, creeping horror film tone of Alien is supplanted by big explosions, big guns, and even bigger personalities, bombarding us with not one but dozens (hundreds?) of bloodthirsty aliens filling the screen in each gruesome action set piece.

So why does Aliens seem to sit so neatly next to the much more restrained Alien? Is it simply because it’s a much better made movie than parts 3 and 4, and so we forgive its differences more readily? Or is it because it’s become so iconic in its own right? (“Let go of her you bitch!” might not be the chestburster dinner scene, but it’s certainly more quotable) It’s not due to the presence of any aforementioned familiar elements, as Ripley is in all 4 movies and there are no shortage of aliens in any of them. And yet, while Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection feel so out of place next to the others (and, to be honest, each other), Aliens seems right at home next to the 1979 original.

My suspicion is that the later sequels focused too heavily on Ripley’s personal battle against the xenomorphs, missing many of the less obvious qualities that made the first two films great. Part 2 rightly distilled themes from the original, put them through a meat grinder, and then blew them up with a rocket launcher. While the original film shows how helpless the under-equipped crew is in the face of an unknown terror, the sequel shows how a fully-equipped military force can be overwhelmed despite superior technology. The original hinted at how devestating these creatures would be if exposed to society, and the sequel gives us a taste of how quickly this devestation would spread. Even Ellen Ripley, in a vastly different performance, is portrayed in a way that puts a twist on previously suggested traits. Her caretaking of the Nostromo housecat is taken to the next level with her compulsive mothering over lost little girl Newt. Her quiet mistrust of corporate interests becomes fanatic paranoia in the sequel, played in a overdramatic but nevertheless effective manner in her encounters with Burke. And it goes without saying that her transformation from resourceful survivor to ass-kicking warrior has surprising appeal; in the first film we watch as she struggles to be heard in a male-dominated world, and here we see her finally triumph over those who have tried to silence her.

The rest of the cast is essentially a crew of cardboard cutouts, perfectly suited to be blown up or maimed: the duplicitous corporate lackey, the nonhuman of questionable motives, the little girl who needs constant rescuing, and marines of every stereotypical size and shape. They make up a sufficient (if uninspiring) motley crew, mostly existing as colorful back up for Ellen Ripley. This is, after all, her movie, even moreso than the final two films, which use her passionate crusade against the aliens more obviously as their backbone. While she’s more than compelling all on her own, you can’t help but wish they added a little less flash and a little more depth to the supporting cast. Some do stand out, most memorably the android Bishop, who defies our expectations about where his loyalties lie right up to the end.
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We can credit this film, along with James Cameron’s two Terminator films, for essentially creating the formula of the Big Hollywood Blockbuster, a formula that hasn’t changed much in the past 26 years. Would Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich be making movies had there not been an Aliens? While films of this genre generally border on terrible (and James Cameron certainly has his detractors), genre films can often surprise us with the amount of depth they offer. In the same way that some of the best films of all time are westerns, gangster films, or courtroom dramas, a great film rises above the cliches of its setting and transcends our expectations. It just so happens that Aliens did this before the formula had even been set.
Score: 9.0 out of 10

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