Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Fifty-seven years after escaping the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley is found in cryogenic sleep. She tries to rebuild a normal life on earth, but soon has to return to LV-426, the planet from the first film…
The cast: Sigourney Weaver is the only actor from film one. Of the team of soldiers, Bill Paxton as the sarcastic Private Hudson and Michael Biehn as the laconic Corporal Hicks stand out – but each one is memorable and distinctive, which really helps. They have in-jokes and crude banter, but aren’t mindless drones. They get scared and feel like real people. Paul Reiser (one of the dads from My Two Dads) plays company man Burke. It’s an apt-sounding name for the character if you know your Cockney rhyming slang. Resier plays both sides of the man – a seemingly likeable buffoon and a ruthless corporate twat – really well. When Ripley and the military guys head for LV-426, we meet Bishop, an android played by Lance Henriksen. He’s a wonderful creation: just off-kilter enough to be robotic, but still likeable and interesting. (He also does a trick with a knife that surely a lot of kids cut themselves while copying.) Meanwhile, Carrie Henn – a nine-year-old girl who had no acting experience and therefore no Disney-like conditioning – plays Newt and is tremendous. The first line of dialogue in the film is said by future Jonathan Creek star Stuart Milligan (playing the man who finds Ripley’s spacepod floating in space). Paxton, Biehn and Henriksen had all been in The Terminator, director James Cameron’s previous film.
The best scene: There are dozens of potentials for this category: enormous action scenes, telling character moments, chilling scares, great sci-fi ideas… Let’s pick one of the most understated. Near the climax, the group has been whittled down to just a handful and they’re being chasing by aliens. Two of the secondary characters – jobsworth Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) and takes-no-shit Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) – get cornered and know they’re about to die. They’ve not been best buddies or anything, but as the end approaches there’s a tender moment of understanding. “You always were an asshole, Gorman,” Vasquez says, not unkindly. He then takes out and activates a grenade. The pair both hold onto it, knowing they’ll take some aliens with them… On a side note, the music in this scene is terrific, as it is throughout the film. James Horner’s score includes some action cues that have been reused on trailers galore and copied again and again in other films.
Alternative version: James Cameron later revised the film for home video. Aliens: Special Edition was released on Laserdisc in 1991 and VHS the following year. At 16 minutes longer, it’s a *significantly* different movie so I’ll review it separately at a later date.
Review: A Vietnam-war movie set in space, this is bigger, more complex, more political and more adrenalin-packed than the Ridley Scott original. You were scared shitless by one alien? Well, here’s fucking hundreds of them! It’s not about it being better or worse; it’s *different*, often the most pleasing way for a sequel to go. It was written and directed by James Cameron, hot from The Terminator, and is a full-on, edge-of-your-seat action movie. In fact, I can think of only Die Hard and Cameron’s Terminator 2 as its equals in that category. Aliens is muscular and intense, especially during the action-heavy second half. Vitally, though, the action is always about the characters’ situations – not the explosions or guns. And there’s an amazing sheen to the whole thing, with production design, cinematography and editing on point at all times. There are also a lot of old-school production techniques on show – miniatures, rear-projection screens – which make you ache for films to made like this again. No lightweight CGI nonsense here: this world feels solid and real. James Cameron knows that watching a movie should be a ‘transportative’ experience (well, before he made Avatar anyway). You want to get lost in the world and the story and the characters. Aliens *absolutely* achieves that, no matter how often you see it. As it begins, the opening few scenes recap the story so far in a really neat way. In fact, I actually saw Aliens first and, while I was aware it was a sequel, I just accepted the talk of Kane and the M-class star-frieghter as backstory. It soon becomes apparent that the film is overtly more feminist than Alien was. Ellen Ripley was a decent character in 1979: strong, resourceful and calm under pressure. But it’s here that Ripley the icon is formed. As the story progresses, she becomes more and more active. It’s *her* story and she is astonishing. No wonder Sigourney Weaver was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. (She lost out to Marlee Matlin.) A third of the way in, Ripley meets Newt, a young girl who’s been stranded alone on the planet, and forms a touching and underplayed mother-daughter bond. This kind of emotional subtext was absent from Alien, and is one of the reasons why this sequel is – by a facehugger’s arm’s width – the better film.
Ten clouds of vapour the size of Nebraska out of 10
Next time: “Get to da choppa!”