Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien” is a renowned classic, and remains one of the greatest sci-fi horror flicks to date, alongside Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Event Horizon.” Although sequels rarely match, much less surpass, their predecessors, the 1986 James Cameron-directed sequel “Aliens” stands as a sci-fi tour de force. “Aliens” benefits from an ensemble cast, action-oriented plot, fantastic effects, and marvelous score.
“Aliens” resumes 57 years after the events of “Alien.” Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is discovered drifting through space, and still in stasis. Her employers, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, interrogate Ripley over destruction of the USCSS Nostromo. Initially, Weyland-Yutani Corporation representatives appear skeptical over her assertion that an alien (the Xenomorph) wiped out the entire crew, forcing her to destroy the Nostromo.
Ripley learns that LV-426, the planet where the ill-fated Nostromo landed to investigate a supposed SOS signal, is currently home to a terraforming colony. It’s a venture financed by the Weyland Corp. When the Weyland Corp. loses contact with the colony, Weyland-Yutani dispatches a Colonial Marine unit to investigate. Company representative Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) joins, as well as the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen). Burke convinces Ripley to join himself and the marines on their journey to LV-426. Ripley agrees, mostly driven by a desire to see the Xenomorph destroyed.
Whereas Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien” is essentially the Ripley show, “Aliens” expands the cast considerably. That’s not to minimize the importance of the supporting cast in “Alien.” Notably, John Hurt puts in an inspired, unforgettable performance as Kane. That iconic scene where the Xenomorph bursts through Kane’s chest remains utterly gripping and convincing. Veronica Cartwright lent her talents as Lambert, garnering her a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress.
But “Aliens” further bolsters the cast. Bill Paxton features many of the most memorable lines as the wisecracking Private Hudson, a role which landed Paxton a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor. Yet for all his bravado, when things completely go to shit, Hudson completely falls apart. Within his witty sarcasm and machismo there’s a surprising depth and complexity. Michael Biehn (who previously collaborated with Cameron on “The Terminator,”) portrays Corporal Dwayne Hicks, a calm and collected marine. Jenette Goldstein plays the tough marine Vasquez, earning a Saturn for Best Supporting Actress. The legendary Lance Henriksen brings to life the android executive officer Bishop.
Further differing from “Alien,” “Aliens” assumes a sci-fi action narrative while “Alien” is a sci-fi horror romp. Ridley Scott’s 1979 film ushered the slasher genre into bold new territory: outer space. It’s a plodding, slow burn that’s built on suspense. “Aliens” however is a hellish voyage of pure carnage. It’s still suspenseful, but in a tense means. One Xenomorph wreaked havoc on the crew of the Nostromo, and as the title implies, “Aliens” ups the Xenomorph count. Its hyper-violence and bleak setting play a major part in fostering tension that lasts even on subsequent viewings.
But it’s the emotional aspects that make “Aliens” a masterpiece. There’s a solid exploration of Ellen Ripley’s character in the wake of her traumatic Nostromo experience. She’s simultaneously hardened, as well as, understandably, paranoid. Ripley is distrusting of androids after dealing with Ashe (Ian Holm) in “Alien,” and remains skeptical of the Weyland-Yutani corporation. Ripley, ever the badass, even forms a close friendship with Hicks.
Ripley’s relationship with the lone colony survivor, a child named Newt (Carrie Henn), that adds further depth to the character of Ripley. At the onset of “Aliens,” Ripley learns that her daughter passed away while Ripley floated in stasis. Thus, Newt is something of a reminder to Ripley of what she lost. Additionally, putting a child in danger creates an incredibly tense atmosphere.
It’s impossible to discuss “Aliens” without touching on James Horner’s exquisite score. Horner’s “Aliens” soundtrack diverges from Jerry Goldsmith’s “Alien” score with its increased action onus. James Horner peppers his score with strings and percussion which match the onscreen onslaught while staying superbly listenable. There are echoes of Horner’s 1981 “Wolfen” soundtrack as well sprinkled throughout.
Ultimately, the 1986 “Aliens” remains one of the greatest sequels, and sci-fi films, in the cinema canon. It’s a marvelous technical masterpiece with fantastic acting, set design, and score. I appreciate its differences from “Alien,” many of which aid “Aliens” in matching, and arguably surpassing, its excellent predecessor.