1986 | US | Directed by James Cameron
Logline: Ripley, lone survivor of Nostromo, awakens to find herself caught up in a mission to rescue a colony based on the moon she escaped from fifty-seven years earlier.
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was made for $US11m. Seven years later the director of the hugely successful sf-action flick that made Schwarzenegger a megastar, The Terminator (1984), is handed the reins to the plight of Ellen Ripley, and he delivers a $US18m blockbuster, considered by many science fiction and horror fans as one of the greatest sequels ever made. At the time it was regarded as a milestone in special effects and a kick-arse action flick, albeit less of a horror movie than the original movie. So how does it hold up thirty years down the track?
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is awoken from cryogenic sleep fifty-seven years after she escaped from the Nostromo, just before it self-destructed, and has been drifting through space. The Weyland-Yutani company has been terra-forming the moon LV-426, the same on Ellen and her dead crew visited in the first movie. But now communication has been lost with the colony and Ripley reluctantly joins a investigative/rescue mission with a bunch of hung-ho marines. Ripley must confront her worst nightmares.
Aliens is essentially a war movie, with strong ‘Nam undertones. It grossed around $US180m and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, quite unusual for such an intense genre picture. What was less apparent at its time or release has become glaringly obvious thirty years later, and what has dated it, and it many ways harmed its aesthetic appeal, especially when compared to the original Alien movie. Maybe it's unfair to compare it to Alien, since the two movies are so different, but there are undeniable factors at work and play between both movies that must be compared.
Ridley Scott’s original movie employed an aesthetic that George Lucas had pioneered with Star Wars (1977), the weathered universe look, the used hardware, the dirt and grime. Before Star Wars most science fiction movies looked clean and shiny. Scott employed Roger Christian, a brilliant art director, set decorator and props specialist, who had been responsible for much of the Star Wars look. Christian gave Alien a very convincing look. You really felt the Nostromo was a mining ship, the world loved authentic. To compliment the production design and art direction Scott’s cinematographer, Derek Vanlint, captured the movie in an appropriately tenebrous light.
It is Adrian Biddle’s cinematography in Aliens that makes the movie suffer from being lit like a television show or commercial, as it’s flat, especially in the ship interiors. The depth-of-field, so strong and dynamic in Alien, is absent, and the costuming, make-up and hair design are all victims of mid-80s fashion. Cameron also chooses to show more of the Sulaco ship descending through LV-426’s atmosphere, and the dodgy compositing dates the movie terribly. Scott was much wiser in that department, evident in both Alien, but also Blade Runner (1982), which is curious considering Cameron’s background as a special effects technician.
One of Alien’s strongest elements is the almost documentary feel to the visual and performance style. The acting isn’t nearly as convincing as in Alien, and the dialogue reflects this also. Although David Giler and Walter Hill, who had worked on the script for Alien (from an original draft by Dan O’Bannon), had provided the story on Aliens, it was Cameron who wrote the screenplay. Cameron’s approach is more mainstream, appealing more to a younger audience, whereas Alien, although given the same R classification, was always intended for adults, and it’s arty b-movie legacy gives it an intensity and longevity that eludes Aliens.
There’s no denying Stan Winston’s brilliant special effects work in Aliens, and the production design of much of the movie is still amazing, especially the armoured personnel carrier, and, of course, the xenomorph queen. My favourite moment is still Bishop’s unfortunate encounter with the “bitch".
I was genuinely surprised at my somewhat adverse reaction to Aliens, after having not viewed it for many years. I still rate the movie very highly, but the elements that have dated it weigh heavily on my impression now, and have made my love of Alien intensify. Aliens feels much more of a bubblegum movie, not as dark as The Terminator (that Newt cuteness), certainly not as as affecting as Alien (I never felt much for any of Aliens’ victims), but it entertains with gusto, and its legion of hardcore fans will always champion it regardless of its 80s trappings.