Audiences were first introduced to the horrific, biomechanical Xenomorphs in this classic science-fiction horror film in which an unsuspecting cargo crew investigates a beacon on the barren world of LV-426 and, as a result, the 26th of April is widely celebrated as “Alien Day”, a day to celebrate one of the greatest sci-fi/horror franchises ever created.
Released: 1 June 1991
Originally Released: 18 July 1986
Director: James Cameron
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $18.5 million
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, and Lance Henriksen
Having survived an attack by a vicious alien creature (Bolaji Badejo), Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Weaver) is awakened from stasis only to find fifty-seven years have passed her pay, and the desolate world where her doomed crewmates discovered the Xenomorph has been terraformed and colonised by the shady Weyland-Yutani Corporation. However, when the colony stumbles across the derelict alien craft and its gruesome cargo, Ripley is forced to join a crack team of Colonial Marines and confront her worst nightmares by returning to the planet to face the alien menace once more.
In 1979, writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s concept of “Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) in space” was brought to life by director John Carpenter as Alien; the idea of “truckers in space” was injected with the unsettling visuals of Swiss artist H. R. Giger, and the film became a surprise commercial success. Though it was met with mixed reviews at the time, Alien is now widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, and the film’s financial success meant that the studio was eager to produce a sequel, but it would take seven years for the follow-up to come to fruition due to financial concerns and the viability of replicating Alien’s success. After settling a questionable lawsuit, production finally began to pick up steam when James Cameron, hot off the success of The Terminator (ibid, 1984), pitched a potential treatment for the sequel; although others warned him off trying to follow in Carpenter’s footsteps, Cameron pushed onwards and convinced the studio to invest in his idea for a bigger, more action-packed sequel. Though initially reluctant to return to her role as Ripley, star Weaver had to be convinced the sequel wasn’t simply a cheap cash-grab and negotiated an unprecedented $1 million salary to join the production; she was initially set to star alongside James Remar, but was paired up with Cameron’s Terminator star Michael Biehn after Remar was arrested for drug possession. The seventy-five day shoot was made stressful for Cameron as many of the crew were dismissive of him due to his lack of directorial experience; however, he stayed the course and used his familiarity with smaller special-effects studios to secure the services of the legendary Stan Winston. Giger was reportedly unhappy to be left out of the production, but Winston was able to convincingly create the illusion that hoards of Xenomorphs were onscreen despite only twelve practical suits being made, and film’s most impressive effect, the Xenomorph Queen, was realised through a combination of visual effects, puppetry, and complex animatronics. Although the exact figures vary, Aliens proved to be even more successful than its predecessor; it made between $131 and 183 million at the box office, far exceeding Alien’s financial return, and was also received far more favourably upon release. Critics praised the set-pieces and presentation, its intensity and horror, and it was generally regarded as being the most shockingly intense film in years. Thanks to its action scenes, themes of motherhood and the atrocities of war, Aliens has stood the test of time; regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, Aliens forever influenced the cultural and multimedia impact of the franchise, with many of its characters, designs, locations, and themes being evoked in Alien comic books, videogames, and spin-off for decades to come.
Aliens is another of those classic sci-fi/horror films that I grew up watching, and one of a number of sequels that are arguably better than the original; certainly, I struggle sometimes with which of the two I prefer. Aliens, for me, is definitely more watchable in a casual sense; I feel I have to get into a certain mind frame to watch Alien, one where it can’t just mindlessly be on in the background or else I don’t get to experience the full immersion. With Aliens, I could honestly put it on whenever and wherever and know that I’ll be in for a good time regardless of how much attention I pay, but just as Alien wasn’t merely some shlock horror film with a big space monster, so too is Aliens so much more than just a mindless action film. There are some impressively complex themes at work in this movie and it definitely established many of the lore and tropes that would become so synonymous with, and endlessly emulated throughout, the franchise and its subsequent crossovers.
Aliens begins seemingly right where the first film left off, with Ripley and Jones the Cat (Boris) drifting through space in the Nostromo’s shuttle craft, safely dreaming away in hypersleep. When the shuttle is breached by a deep space salvage crew and the two are revived on a Weyland-Yutani space station in Earth orbit, Ripley is at first confused by the station’s presence and then shocked to learn from Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke (Reiser) that fifty-seven years have passed! However, that’s the least of her troubles as she suddenly starts convulsing from a pain in her chest; she writhes and begs the doctors to kill her and is horrified to see a Chestburster emerging from her body! Luckily, for her, this is just the first of many recurring nightmares for her; her experiences with the Xenomorph have left her severely traumatised, to the point where sleep is impossible without such nightmares plaguing her. As distressing as her memories are, however, they’re nothing compared to the heartbreak she feels at learning that her daughter (Elizabeth Inglis) has died during her absence or the betrayal she feels when a Weyland-Yutani committee, led by Van Leuwen (Paul Maxwell), grill her on the destruction of the Nostromo. They force her to retell a truncated version of the events of Alien over and over, forcing her to relive her traumatic experiences and explode in a rage when they continue to imply that she sabotaged and destroy her ship and her crew “for reasons unknown”. They discount her description of the Xenomorph and account of events due to lack of physical evidence and suspend her pilot’s license, but she’s more concerned about the fact that LV-426 is no longer an inhospitable world thanks to the efforts of terraformers.
While the review board doesn’t believe that the Xenomorphs exist since they haven’t discovered any evidence of such a creature on LV-426 or any of the three-hundred-plus worlds mankind has surveyed, Ripley knows better and, wouldn’t you know it, a group of colonists stumble upon the crashed Engineer ship while out on a scouting mission and, before long, Burke is knocking on Ripley’s door with Lieutenant Scott Gorman (Hope). Understandably, Ripley is a boiling pot of emotions when they ask her to accompany a troop of Colonial Marines to investigate LV-426; not only does she feel betrayed by Burke and the Company for framing her as a patsy, she is so traumatised by her experiences with the Xenomorph that she has absolutely no desire to face her fears and believes that she wouldn’t be any use even in an advisory role. However, after suffering another of her nightmares, she begrudgingly agrees to make the trip but only after Burke swears that the purpose isn’t to capture or study the creatures, but to annihilate them. This introduces her to rowdy Sergeant Apone’s (Al Matthews) ragtag group of soldiers: privates Hudson (Paxton), Vasquez (Goldstein), Drake (Mark Rolston), Frost (Ricco Ross), Spunkmeyer (Daniel Kash), Crowe (Tip Tipping), and Wierzbowski (Trevor Steedman); and corporals Dwayne Hicks (Biehn), Dietrich (Cynthia Dale Scott), and Ferro (Colette Hiller). Although many of his troops are loudmouthed cynics or rowdy meatheads, Apone runs a tight ship and doesn’t stand for any nonsense; a proud man who is fully committed to the corps, he demands nothing but absolute focus from his team and for them to follow orders, even ones that don’t make sense to them. The marines are heavily armed and well experienced in a number of combat drops and scenarios, which mean they’re less than impressed with Gorman’s comparative lack of field experience and Ripley’s refusal to sit with “the rest of [the] grunts” in the canteen. However, while they exhibit a lack of distrust and respect for the Company and its representatives, they are a well-oiled team out in the field, sharing a level of trust and banter than brings levity without compromising their integrity.
Obviously, many of these marines are just there to add to the body count once the Xenomorphs start literally emerging from the walls and shadows but, of all the marines, there are three obvious standouts: Vasquez, Hudson, and Hicks. Vasquez is a tough-as-nails soldier who shows nothing but contempt towards Ripley and the orders to holster their weapons to avoid rupturing the colony with their gunfire. Her and Drake have a very close partnership and she is devastated when he is killed during the first skirmish with the aliens. Blaming his death directly on Gorman, she lashes out at the injured lieutenant and remains a hot-headed, explosive member of the survivors; ultimately, she’s forced to rely on Gorman to avoid being impregnated by the aliens, which sadly means them taking their own lives to be spared this fate. While all of the marines provide a measure of comic relief with their biting wit and overly macho behaviour, Hudson takes this to the extreme and beyond; he’s so confidant in his abilities and the superior firepower of his team that he’s aloof and arrogant as a result. Of the all, he’s the one who is most vocal of their bad-assery and the first to succumb to despair when they’re wiped out after being ambushed by the Xenomorphs. With limited resources and manpower and no hope of backup, Hudson’s bravado and resolve don’t just crack, they cave in to hopelessness and Ripley is forced to order him to compartmentalise his issues and get his shit together to help fortify their defences and strengthen their campaign against the aliens. Ultimately, his trigger-happy countenance and desire to strike back against his enemy lead to his downfall, as he’s pulled to his death during a particularly harrowing firefight, but the late, great Pill Paxton definitely stole the show with his performance here.
And then, of course, there’s the calm and composed Corporal Hicks played by the massively under-rated Michael Biehn. Unlike many of his peers, Hicks is a level-headed and respectful soldier; he follows his orders without talking back to his superiors, is prepared enough to be carrying a non-explosive shotgun for “close encounters”, and, while he clearly has no love for corporate interference or figureheads like Burke, he is smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. With Apone lost during the initial encounter with the aliens, Hicks assumes command of the mission and, having witnessed first-hand that Ripley’s tall tales of biomechanical monsters with acid for blood make this more than the standard “bug hunt”, is fully prepared to take her expertise onboard and make preparations to destroy Hadley’s Hope despite Burke’s protests. There’s a bit of a romantic subplot between Ripley and Hicks, one that grows out of this mutual respect and admiration for each other’s ability, intelligence, and resolve; they never really get beyond the flirting stage, and their flirting is done while Hicks teaches Ripley how to handle the marines’ standard-issue Pulse Rifle, but the ease at which he steps into a position of command and supports her really helps to make his leadership qualities shine. Although clearly terrified and feeling the pressure of the situation, Hicks never gives in to despair or allows himself to become unfocused from the primary objective of survival and escape; when he’s injured by the aliens’ acid, he’s forced to take a backseat and cannot help Ripley in the film’s finale beyond ensuring that the dropship is waiting for her when she gets back, meaning that he never oversteps his boundaries to take away from Ripley’s agency as the primary protagonist and is, instead, and incredibly dependable soldier.
Ripley’s relationship with science officer Bishop (Henriksen) is far more antagonistic; immediately revealed to be an “artificial human”, Ripley meets Bishop with a distrust that steps right into hostility based on her experience with a similar android in the first film. Throughout the movie, Ripley either ignores or irritably brushes Bishop off, convinced that he’s either a tool of the Company or a risk to herself and others just like Ash (Ian Holm), but Bishop remains nothing but polite and courteous throughout the entire movie. Having said that, though, he does seem to be as enamoured by the Facehugger and the Xenomorph species as his predecessor, and there are several moments where his intentions are cast into doubt, not least when Ripley finds the dropship missing at the finale and assumes the Bishop has left her to die. In the end, though, Bishop proves to be a trustworthy and reliable ally and earns Ripley’s respect by coming through in the end, which is more than can be said or Burke. It’s not long into the mission to Hadley’s Hope that Burke’s true nature as a corporate pen pusher comes to light; despite his assurances that they’re there to eradicate the Xenomorphs, he’s soon arguing against destroying the colony and trying to sell the survivors on the greater financial and military glory offered by the species. He even goes so far as to try and impregnate Ripley and Rebecca Jorden/Newt (Henn) with a Facehugger in order to get a specimen safely through quarantine and back to Earth, and is only spared being executed by the marines for his betrayal by an alien attack, which sees him get his just desserts.
Speaking of Newt, this resourceful and adorable little girl captures Ripley’s attention, heart, and respect for having not only witnessed the alien’s infestation first-hand but having the wherewithal to use the colony vents to stay safe and undetected. Initially a traumatised, almost animalistic girl traumatised by the horrors she’s seen, Newt proves a valuable resource to the remaining marines thanks to her knowledge of Hadley’s Hope, and Ripley does everything she possibly can to give her a sense of security and normalcy. When Newt is abducted by an alien warrior, Ripley immediately takes up arms to venture into the Xenomorph nest to rescue her before she can be impregnated, and through her finds a sense of redemption and hope thanks to the surrogate family they form alongside Hicks. As for the Xenomorphs themselves, Aliens greatly expands upon their nature, society, and screen time. It still takes about an hour for the first of many Xenomorph drones to appear onscreen, which builds a sense of dread and anticipation, and their appearances are always accompanied by ominous shadows or flashing lights to help keep them horrific creatures. Having overrun Hadley’s Hope, the aliens have not only impregnated and killed many of the colonists but also overtaken the environment with a biomechanical infestation that hides their numbers and allows them to strike undetected. Lacking the smooth, phallic skull of the original creature, and these creatures have a rigid, fearsome headpiece and are seen to be far more aggressive thanks to their superior numbers. The aliens scramble across walls and ceilings, hide in the shadows, and exhibit a great deal of intelligence by literally throwing themselves against the marines’ turrets to exhaust their ammo and getting the drop on the marines by using the vents and narrow passageways to get about. Of course, the most memorable and iconic addition to their species is the presence of a massive Xenomorph Queen; this horrific, disgusting matriarch is revealed to be the source of the eggs seen in the Engineer ship and fundamentally alters the Xenomorph’s nature from a self-sustaining biomechanical lifeform to something more akin to ants.
Although Aliens is a very different movie compared to its predecessor, director James Cameron does a masterful job of maintaining a lot of the same horror elements and atmosphere through his incredibly detailed sets, fantastic use of lighting and shadows, and James Horner’s orchestral score. Both melancholy and rallying, depending on the situation, the score really goes a long way to bolstering both the tension felt when the marines are investigating the aftermath of Hadley’s Hope’s last stand against the aliens and when they’re engaging with their violent enemy with all guns blazing. Additionally, this is the film where the aliens gain their signature death squeal which, like the camaraderie between the marines, would become a staple of the franchise and its spin-offs. The marines are clearly a tight-knit group and have been through a lot together, which means they’re not ashamed to bust each other’s balls or through some shade at each other. Even Apone gets in on the action and has a very close, ground-level relationship with his troops; he easily assumes a position of command when required, and is clearly well respected by his marines, but is also clearly seen to be one of them as he sits and eats with them and is just as incredulous to Gorman’s nonsensical orders and inexperience. Many of the marines echo the anti-authority sentiment of some of the Nostromo’s crewmen; Gorman has little combat experience and is left completely overwhelmed when the aliens first attack as it goes against his by-the-book preparations, and the marines are only too happy to go against the Company’s orders (and Burke’s insistences) in order to better ensure their own survival rather than worrying about financial gain.
Even now, coming up to forty years later, Aliens continues to impress thanks to its impressive sets and practical special effects; a number of tried-and-tested camera and filmmaking techniques and tricks are used to give Hadley’s Hope and the colony a sense of scale beyond what they were actually capable of. Model shots, composite shots, miniatures, and incredibly detailed practical suits are the order of the day here and help give the impression that there are hundreds of aliens scuttling through the colony at once. This is masterfully done during the first skirmish with the aliens, which is a frantic and terrifying experience told mostly through the marines’ head cameras and quick, violent cuts to the marines being picked off one by one by aliens or taken out by their own gunfire. Far more animalistic than their bipedal predecessor, the Xenomorphs are now scrambling, skeletal, hive-like creatures that seek only to cocoon and impregnate others to increase their numbers and to protect their queen. One of the biggest additional scenes added back into the film shows us life on Hadley’s Hope before the aliens infest the colony; here, we get to meet a few new characters, such as colony administrator Al Simpson (Mac McDonald) and Newt’s family, mother Anne (Holly de Jong), father Russ (Jay Benedict), and brother Timmy (Christopher Henn). While there’s a case to be made that the addition of these scenes escalates the timeline of the film somewhat (it’s not entirely clear how long passes between the alien ship being discovered and Ripley being drafted into the marines, but it seems like mere hours), I think it’s great to actually see the colonists alive and well and working away completely oblivious to the danger not far from their little outpost. This also gives Cameron the perfect excuse to recreate the Engineer ship from the first movie, and evoke the feeling of dread its crescent shape inspires in the knowing audience; furthermore, we see that Newt’s family were the ones who not only discovered the ship but also brought the infestation to Hadley’s Hope after her father was attacked by a Facehugger. Perhaps most damning of all is the explicit implication that Simpson was ordered to send the Jorden’s out there by the Company, presumably after hearing Ripley’s testimony during her emotional debriefing, thus framing the subsequent alien infestation as less of an inevitability due to the creatures being on the planet and more of a calculated plot by the Company to breed viable subjects for their bio-weapons division.
Rather than focusing on themes of isolation, dread, and mounting horror, Aliens is the story of one traumatised woman facing her nightmares head on and a disregarded threat proving to be a formidable force. I read somewhere once (I forget exactly where) that someone thought it was amusing and ironic that so many Aliens videogames choose to place players in the role of a Colonial Marine considering that they’re kind of depicted as overconfident, unprepared buffoons who are almost completely wiped out by a superior, far more aggressive force. Some have noted that Aliens is an allegory for the Vietnam War, where a heavily armed and superior force was caught off-guard by a technically inferior native army, and the depiction of the marines definitely lends itself to this reading; all of them, to one degree or extreme, are absolutely confident to the point of arrogance that they have the skills, resources, and firepower to overcome any foe based on their training and previous success in the field. Most of them don’t take Ripley’s account of the alien seriously, which is their first mistake, but they’re left virtually defenceless (or, you could say, impotent) when they’re forced to turn in their grenades and explosive rounds, which means they’re easy prey for the aliens. There’s an argument to be made that Aliens reduced the Xenomorph threat somewhat; it went from being the “perfect organism” that “can’t” be killed to a swarm of insectile-like monsters that can be blasted apart with sustained gunfire, but I’d argue that their threat has never been greater than in this film! Yes, the marines have the weapons to gun down countless numbers of the Xenomorphs, but those weapons are finite, for a start, and continuously shown to do more harm than good thanks to the aliens’ acid blood. In the end, while Ripley may have more weapons and options available to her this time around, the sheer number and aggressiveness of the Xenomorphs makes them a force to be reckoned with and all the bravado and macho bullshit in the world means nothing when one of those ugly bastards is baring down to strike. As before, Ripley is extremely adaptable once backed into a corner; she ends up one of the few survivors thanks to her knowledge and level-headedness despite clearly being traumatised, and all the machoism in the world is nothing compared to her inner strength.
One of the most crucial scenes added to the Special Edition is the revelation that Ripley was a mother this whole time, which adds new layers to her connection with Newt; in the theatrical cut, this is famed as simply a maternal instinct kicking in and it works incredibly well just in that reading but, here, it’s so much more than that. It might have simply been easier for the effects team (and spared Weaver’s modesty) to have her nightmare Chestburster come from her abdomen but it actually ties into these themes of motherhood very well in this context. Ripley’s transformation into a bad-ass action hero is her most basic character arc in the film; faced with the slaughter of the marines and Gorman’s inability to act, Ripley has no choice but to take charge and be proactive and her expertise and survival instinct make her a valuable voice of authority once the survivors are forced to build fortifications against the aliens. Alongside this, she builds a surrogate family with Hicks and Newt, and these arcs converge for the finale; for much of the film, the survivors are concerned with holding out long enough for rescue to arrive but, when Newt is abducted, Ripley’s forced to strap together a flamethrower and a Pulse Rifle to delve into the Alien’s nest and rescue her. This turns Ripley’s final journey into the depths of LV-426 not just into a quest to retrieve her surrogate daughter from the monstrous creatures that have ruined her life, but also into a story of redemption; although she couldn’t have predicted that she’d be stuck in space for nearly sixty years thanks to a biomechanical alpha predator, Ripley is wracked with guilt over having missed out on Amanda’s entire life and determined to atone for this by rescuing Newt. Thus, she comes face-to-face not just with the ultimate manifestation of her trauma and horror but also her thematic parallel: the incredibly impressive and grotesque Xenomorph Queen. Like Ripley, the queen is incredibly protective of her young and seems to understand the threat Ripley poses to her eggs, but she explodes into a rage when Ripley turns her weapons on the eggs, gunning down drones and blasting open the revolting egg sack in a trigger happy fury that would make John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) proud. With the colony on the verge of exploding, Ripley is picked up by Bishop at literally the last second but, just like in the first film, the threat isn’t quite over yet. The queen stows onboard the dropship and makes a dramatic reappearance to rip Bishop in two and hunt down Newt, forcing Ripley to take the controls of a power loader and engage with her foe in one-on-one combat. This is a cathartic moment for Ripley, who was so crippled by her experiences that she had no intention to ever return to LV-426 and is forced to tackle her nightmares head first to overpower and force the queen into an airlock and blast her out into space to finally put her bad dreams to rest…or so it would seem…
For me, Aliens is a similar quandary to the first two Terminator films (Cameron, 1984; 1991) in that it’s hard for me to pick which I prefer out of this one and the first one; both are very different films, with the first focusing more on atmospheric dread and mounting horror and the second being far more action-orientated, but they’re both magnificent sci-fi/horror masterpieces in their own right. If you were to put a gun to my head, though, and make me choose, I would pick Aliens every time; I think Aliens is probably my favourite in the entire franchise as well, even though I have a love of love for many of the films and remain a big fan of the franchise to this day despite the most recent efforts. The action-orientated approach definitely helps with that, especially when I first watched it as a kid; it really helped me to overcome the terror I felt watching the original film to see the Xenomorphs being blasted to shreds and in a more vulnerable light, but the film never positions them as an inferior force and they remain an aggressive and horrifying threat through their sheer tenacity, ferocity, and surprising intelligence. As I got older and more experienced, and turned my focus towards academic studies, my love and appreciate for Aliens only grew; now, the themes of motherhood and family and a technically superior force being overwhelmed because of their ill-preparedness and arrogance make the film just as engaging and impactful as its incredible practical effects. More me, Aliens is a quintessential example of just how powerful and realistic animatronics and suits can be to a film and the techniques on display here have more than stood the test of time to make it just as impressive now as it was back then. Moreover, Aliens forever changed the lore and focus of the franchise; not only would Lance Henricksen be forever associated with the franchise but from this point on, subsequent films, spin-offs, and media would continuously return to the idea of a group of well-armed marines combatting the aliens or utilise the Xenomorph Queen as the final threat and I think, even now, Aliens is probably the main reason why the franchise has had such a long life since it was able to capture a wider audience with its greater focus on action horror.
Are you a fan of Aliens? What did you think to the additional scenes added to the Special Edition? Which of the marines was your favourite and why? What did you think to the addition of the Xenomorph Queen to the lore? Were you a fan of Ripley’s story arc here, her transformation into an action hero and surrogate mother? What did you think to the greater malevolence placed upon the Company? Which of the Alien movies is your favourite and why, and how are you celebrating Alien Day this year? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to sign up and leave them below or drop a comment on my social media. Stay frosty!
Another very informative review! I need to have a marathon of movies you recommend one day! I’ve seen Alien and Aliens before but it’s been a really really long time.
I’d definitely recommend doing that