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Dissecting the Classics – Aliens

May 19, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Alien Predator Ellen Ripley

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

I’ve been in a bit of a limbo after the requested name change, but will be settling on Thursdays for this column’s new home. An increase in schedule at my real job has necessitated dropping my comics column for the sake of work-life balance, but you may still see some stuff on an occasional basis.


Wide Release Date: July 18, 1986
Directed By: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron (with David Giler and Walter Hill)
Produced By: Gale Anne Hurd
Cinematography By: Adrian Biddle
Edited By: Ray Lovejoy
Music By: James Horner
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley
Michael Biehn as Corporal Dwayne Hicks
Paul Reiser as Carter J. Burke
Lance Henriksen as Bishop
Jenette Goldstein as Private Vasquez
Bill Paxton as Private Hudson

What Do We All Know?
Ridley Scott’s Alien was a virtually perfect movie, deftly combining science fiction and creature horror to make something new, fresh, and as it would turn out, quite timeless. How do you follow that up? By getting the man behind The Terminator to use the original building blocks and build something new with it. The result is one of the greatest science fiction action films ever, and arguably the zenith of James Cameron’s impressive career.

Aliens was a huge blockbuster success in 1986; the crowd-pleasing action film brought more visibility to the xenomorphs and established Sigourney Weaver and her character Ellen Ripley as pop culture icons. Quotable, action packed and thrilling, the film is a landmark in science fiction and many consider it to be superior to the original Alien. What do I think of it?

What Went Right?

In my view, the single best thing that happened for the Alien sequel was that it took most of a decade to happen. It wasn’t rushed, and getting James Cameron was a huge deal. Cameron isn’t my favorite filmmaker, but the guy had genuine vision. He was already a fan of Alien when he was presented the opportunity to direct the sequel, but also knew how to make things his own. Aliens is unquestionably a sequel to the original, but James Cameron’s sensibilities are pretty far from the claustrophobic horror film’s presentation.

Aliens works on the simple principle of “more is better”. If one xenomorph could wreck a whole space crew and leave one survivor, what would a colony of H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creation do against a small army of marines with futuristic technology? As it turns out, much of the same. Inspired by the Vietnam War, the plot of Aliens focuses on an overconfident band of marines with superior technology getting their asses handed to them by more savage enemies who know the territory. The weapons, vehicles and the banter is all meant to channel the war, something that was very fresh in viewers’ minds in 1986.

But the main character is still Ellen Ripley. While Sigourney Weaver played an almost incidental hero in the first film, her survival and experience with the xenomorph makes her the centerpiece in this one. She has to deal with everyone ignoring her warnings, a serious frustration. But the most important part of her story is how she comes to care for Newt, another lone survivor of xenomorph attacks. Their bond gives Ripley strength, and is the motivating force behind the film’s awesome climax. Ripley getting into a construction robot suit to do battle with the alien queen is a perfect finale, an example of how Aliens and its hero have evolved since the first film.

Weaver is backed up by another impressive group of character actors, and the summer action movie presentation probably makes for a more memorable group. The late Bill Paxton is outstanding as Hudson, providing many memorable quotes and diffusing tension with humor. Vasquez, Bishop, Hicks and Burke also standout. I’m especially fond of Bishop and how it plays off of Ripley’s history with androids. It adds another layer of story to the ending that I really appreciate.

What Went Wrong?

Alright, just a disclaimer for those who may have not read any of these columns before; Aliens is a classic, an A+ or at the very least an A by any objective standard. Even things as silly as the xenomorphs not killing Newt don’t really detract too much. But for me, this is as good a place as any to state the main reason I prefer Alien to its sequel. I couldn’t put my finger on it the first time, but I think what it boils down to is that the xenomorphs just aren’t as terrifying this go round. With dozens being mowed down by guns and flamethrowers every twenty minutes or so, they can’t be as scary as the single alien from the first film. That movie made a big impact on me, and Aliens took away just a little too much from the fear factor.

What Went Really Right?

Aliens is easily one of the best sequels ever made. It is a rare example of “going bigger” with a concept actually worked. James Cameron’s sensibilities are decidedly different from Ridley Scott, and seeing the two films is like watching two master sculptors make two unique creations from the same clay. In Cameron’s hands Ripley becomes an iconic action hero, the xenomorphs become an army of monsters, and a hapless crew of researchers becomes an endearing band of soldiers. Taking bold new steps without losing the DNA that made the first one work, Aliens works both as a follow up and on its own merit.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future
Taxi Driver
The Matrix
Batman (1989)
King Kong (1933)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Dark Crystal
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Godfather
The Godfather, Part II
The Silence of the Lambs

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, we got wrapped up in Disney’s Tangled. This week, we are going full bore into summer blockbuster mode with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include The Terminator (also by James Cameron) as well as Alien 3, a rather disappointing dip for the series.