When James Cameron’s classic Aliens was releases 30 years ago, it was instantly regarded as one of the best sci-fi films of all time. It is a fantastic blend of action, futuristic war, as well as a followup to another genre favorite, Ridley Scott’s Alien. The strengths of this sequel comes in many forms.
First is the continuation of having many interesting and iconic characters that inhabit this universe. The most famous is of course the only returning character from the first film, Ellen Ripley played to perfection by Sigourney Weaver. Her portrayal of Ripley as strong and reliable is balanced by her affection for the little girl Newt who is the only survivor of a distant colony overrun by the horrific Xenomorph aliens. Michael Biehn from Terminator fame plays the stoic colonial marine Corporal Hicks, and is a great counterpart to Ripley. The strong cast also includes Bill Paxton as the brash but somewhat bumbling Hudson, Paul Reiser as the slimy company man Burke and Lance Hendriksen as the android Bishop, someone Ripley hates and distrusts at first but later comes to see as an ally. This group of loud and tough space marines contrasts to Ripley’s apprehension and fear of what is coming when they travel to the colony Hadley’s Hope to investigate why contact was lost. Cameron’s depiction of futuristic soldiers was highly influential and has resulted in countless imitations in movies and video games that continues to this day. Everything from Doom to Halo and the film version of Starship Troopers all owe some debt to this film.
Another brilliant aspect of the film is its perfect blend of action and horror. While Aliens is much more action packed when compared to its predecessor, it still has moments of tension and fear, especially when the marines first land on the colony and try to find any signs of life. The audience (as well as Ripley) already know what happened to everyone there, and the anticipation of finally seeing the deadly creatures definitely raises the tension level. When the aliens do make their appearance, an all out battle ensues with the marines suffering greatly despite their enormous firepower. The movie can go from quiet and nervous to chaotic and hectic in a flash, and yet it all works. Later in the film after another big battle between the marines and aliens, the film suddenly takes on another scary tone when Newt is kidnapped and Ripley has to journey into the Alien Queen’s lair to rescue her. This foreshadows the epic climax when she fights the Alien Queen in a souped-up power armor/construction device while onboard the ship after the colony is vaporized after a pulse pounding countdown to its destruction. Ripley’s victory against the creature helped to cement her as one of sci-fi’s best heroines and added to her characterization as the ultimate survivor and great example of human ingenuity succeeding despite all odds. The quiet note on which the film ends again parallels the first movie and seemed to set up future adventures with Ripley and her new surrogate family of Newt and Hicks. Unfortunately this didn’t happen with the next film taking on a different direction.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the fascinating Alien universe that has kept audiences coming back and not just in films. Many books, games and comics have explored this world and perhaps the star attraction of it all is the alien creature itself. H.R. Giger’s unparalleled design that is both disgusting and captivating has kept fans always anticipating new adventures set in this universe. A universe of bleak distant worlds, corporate intrigue, and insidious alien beings that are perhaps the most deadly ever seen on film. Aliens was the first time that so many of these creatures were seen at once. Dozens of them swarming all over the place was terrifying and a sight to behold. The design of the Alien Queen was also new and the size of it was simply staggering. None of the subsequent films in the franchise have yet attained the level set by Aliens, but with a new Alien film by Neill Blomkamp on the horizon that is supposed to be a direct followup, hopefully another sci-fi epic will continue the story of Ripley, Hicks and Newt. Regardless, Aliens will always be seen as an absolute high point of the genre, one of James Cameron’s best films, and will be well remembered even 30 years from now.