Thirty-five years ago, James Cameron’s Aliens opened in theaters, stunning audiences and surprising even the most jaded critics. Here was a much belated sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster that was seven years old—and at a time when sequels were synonymous with soulless cash grabs. Yet in so many ways, Cameron’s follow-up took the ideas introduced by Ridley Scott and company in Alien and ran with them. More than just an added “s” in the title, Aliens marked an entire shift in tone and even genre. Rather than horror, we were now in the realm of action; instead of hiding in the shadows, the sequel overwhelmed audiences with spectacle. Like the poster said, “This time, it’s war.”
With near universal praise, Aliens even earned an Oscar nomination for star Sigourney Weaver in a role she’d already played once back in 1979. Hence many fans have spent years and decades arguing which is the actual better movie: the Ridley Scott chiller that started it all or the James Cameron thriller that blew the concept into the stratosphere? Well, sit back because Den of Geek movies section editor David Crow and west coast correspondent Don Kaye are going to settle this debate once and for all.
Horror or Action
David Crow: For more years than I’d care to remember, I’ve heard science fiction fans and genre aficionados say James Cameron’s Aliens is one of the rare sequels that is better than the original. That action heavy clichés are, somehow, an improvement over probing, immersive horror that lingers in the mind like a waking nightmare. To this day it is baffling.
For all of Aliens’ undeniably high-octane thrills, it lacks a fraction of the existential dread and infinite mystery which makes Alien one of the best science fiction films ever made. Originally engineered by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon as a “haunted house movie in space,” director Ridley Scott and a legion of collaborators elevated the concept into something unwaveringly oppressive in its nihilism. The Nostromo spaceship at the center of the film might be “haunted” by an alien organism, but so is the film itself. Half of the movie’s design was dreamed up by concept artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, who evoked a grungy, dilapidated vision of our future among the stars that still feels real in its sweatiness, and the rest was masterminded by H.R. Giger, who designed the now iconic “Alien” creature as well as the derelict “Space Jockey” ship that the organism’s egg is found on. The intentionally disparate sensibilities creates a genuine culture shock in the film that remains unsettling long after you know what John Hurt’s last meal looks like.
In the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, the film’s heroes have ventured into the unknown or forbidden, discovering a beast truly alien in nature and beyond our comprehension. To know a fragment of its mystique, and a bit about its bizarre life cycle, is to be violated—figuratively and literally as a facehugger shoves itself down your mouth. It is perverse and intentionally unnatural. And unlike any of its sequels, this movie succeeds in tapping into our primal abstract fear of the unknown, and the implicit anxiety that comes with discovery. It transcends genre and remains the lone masterpiece in the franchise.
Don Kaye: Right from the start, I will say I agree with much of what my esteemed colleague David Crow says. Alien is an undisputed masterpiece that hits the sci-fi/horror sweet spot in a way that most of the films which have come in its wake have failed to do. And yes, the film is extremely Lovecraftian in its incredibly atmospheric evocation of the existential dread and terror of both deep space and the alien organism itself.
But if there had to be a sequel to Alien (and the laws of Hollywood dictated that there must), it couldn’t just be a repeat of basically the same story. What James Cameron did so brilliantly with Aliens was take the initial tale told by Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon and expand upon it while preserving most of the mystery surrounding the title menace itself. Cameron did formally jump genres from “haunted house in space” to “military sci-fi,” but he retained enough of the brooding horror of the original to make it not just a worthy successor, but a fuller, more epic film in many ways (he did much of the same with his own Terminator—making a far superior sequel in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which is surely a debate for another day).
In Aliens, Cameron expands the mythology just enough to give us more tantalizing details about the xenomorph without over-explaining it or shredding the mystery around the species entirely (ironically, it would be Ridley Scott himself who did that in the awful Prometheus and Alien: Covenant years later). He also expands wonderfully upon the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), making her the center of the story while adding a slew of colorful new cast members who in many cases are more memorable than the crew members of the first film’s doomed Nostromo. While both films are genuine classics, in the end Aliens has held up over the years as the more satisfying experience.
The Most Expendable Crew
David: Don, I’ll agree that Aliens is a worthy sequel. But as a sequel it can only ever be a copy—an extension of the original genius. And while Aliens is certainly more epic, I would hardly call it more satisfying. For starters, there are the characters you mistakenly claim are more memorable than the original crew. I’ll grant you that Aliens’ ensemble is colorful, but in the same way stock characters on a Saturday morning cartoon can be colorful. As is often the case in Cameron screenplays, the characters are broadly drawn archetypes who speak almost entirely in on-the-nose dialogue with all the subtlety of a villain waving a gun on the Titanic as it sinks.
The effect is definitely thrilling the first few times you watch Aliens, but after viewing the film more than twice, my mind is left to drift over the triteness of these haplessness “marines.” That’s probably why my favorite of the bunch is Bill Paxton’s Hudson, a caricature in cowardice who still always lands the laugh. He also sums up the surface level appeal of this entertaining spectacle: “We’re on the express elevator to Hell, going down!”
Conversely, the cast of characters in Alien feel painfully real. Created during the tailend of New Hollywood’s golden age of ‘70s cinema, there is nothing false or showy about any of these performances. They’re all underplayed to a degree, even talking over each other, but that is by design. Going into Alien in 1979, you wouldn’t know who the “hero” of the story is and might very well assume it is Tom Skerritt since he’s the captain and had appeared in popular ’70s TV shows. By contrast, Weaver was a complete unknown when she played Ripley, a survivor who persevered before “final girls” became a convention unto themselves. However, she is only a survivor in the first movie, not an action hero. She’s even-handed and levelheaded, and a woman from the jump who appears to be the most astute and thoughtful of the crew.
Still, right down to the legitimate grievances between this group’s “upstairs and downstairs” dynamic, with Yaphet Kotto’s Parker and Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett complaining about the bonus situation, there is a much more tactile conflict among the cast that makes this a fuller ensemble and thereby more immersive. They may not be marines, but they are tragically human in their reactions to the unbelievable—and that is not even getting into the brilliance of Ian Holm’s Ash, who might be the best representation of the insidious implementation of capitalistic control over labor ever put to screen. The traitor in these blue collars’ ranks is an honest to God robot who is literally there to divide them for conquest and the company’s bottom line.
Don: I’ll concede the more realistic development of the characters in Alien, but I enjoy the camaraderie and banter among the Colonial Marines. While it’s true that some of them really don’t amount to much more than cannon fodder (or is it xenomorph fodder?) I feel like there’s more going on there than Cameron might get credit for. I also do like the ensemble feel of it all, and the fact that these characters all go into this situation having no idea of what’s ahead of them, with most of them meeting it courageously (with notable exceptions, of course). There’s something about seeing characters in a film charge headlong into an impossible situation that always pulls at this viewer.
Some of the secondary characters go on little journeys of their own too, from Gorman (William Hope) to Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), and even Hudson has a moment or two to shine as he finally finds his courage toward the end of the film. Watching Aliens, it feels like most of the major or secondary characters get some kind of payoff. If there’s one major flaw I find with Alien, it’s that the second half of the movie basically just mows everyone down, one after the other, which is, I suppose, suitable for the overall tone of despair and nihilism but makes for a less satisfactory film in some ways.
And I agree with you wholeheartedly about the brilliance of Ash, which is why I’m glad that Cameron went in a different direction with Bishop (Lance Henriksen). The character is just ambiguous enough to keep one guessing throughout the film whether he is true to his word that he cannot harm humans or whether it’s all an act—a nice twist on the evolution of Ash in the first film.
The More Perfect Organism
David: You are right, Don: Vasquez is a wonderfully badass character, and so are most of the Aliens troupe. In fact, it’s hard to overlook just how badass Weaver’s Ripley became in the film, beginning as a woman suffering from trauma and ending with the cinematic embodiment of Mama Bear ferocity. “Get away from her you bitch!” had to be why Weaver got an Oscar nomination for an action movie sequel, right?
Yet for all the quotables like that, as well as those of the aforementioned poor doomed Hudson and precocious Newt (Carrie Henn), I much prefer the messiness of Alien; Veronica Cartweight’s Lambert simply shutting down as the Alien tears Parker apart before inevitably coming back for her; Skerritt’s Dallas meekly resigning himself to his fate as he reluctantly goes into the vents; and of course Ripley who shows cool cunning and irresistible command while under pressure, but who’s only act of heroism is the quirk of going back in a deteriorating spaceship for a cat.
But if we’re discussing characters, I think we’re both glossing over a big one: the Alien itself or “xenomorph.” You fairly dinged Scott for offering unsatisfying explanations for his and Giger’s nightmares in the prequels, but Cameron did it first in Aliens, right down to dubbing the creatures xenomorphs. In the first film, it’s really unknowable how intelligent the Star-Beast is. Is the creature just a feral animal hunting the characters on instinct or is it a dispassionate predator who understands its prey and their inadequate technology? And what exactly are its designs for its victims who vanish without a trace (at least in the theatrical cut)?
Cameron literally turns them into insects in Aliens, repeatedly calling the marines’ mission a “bug hunt.” The unstoppable creature in the first movie turns out to simply be a drone, a literal worker bee or ant in a colony of xenomorphs with a single Queen and countless simple-minded minions. Scott and Giger’s Alien is almost godlike (or perhaps demonic given its sexual undertones), and is described as a “perfect organism.” Aliens removes that mystique, turning the monster into a giant cockroach that can be mowed down in large numbers if you have big enough guns.
Don: I have to say I like Ripley’s evolution in Aliens, and even more so in the director’s cut where the information about her having a daughter gives a whole other layer to her quest to save Newt in the film. But to be fair, I suppose we’re talking about the original theatrical cuts; even there, Ripley starts out in a completely different and much darker place, not really interested in helping anyone, but her basic compassion towards her fellow humans finally comes to the surface. She stands as the one beacon of decent humanity in an otherwise very hostile universe.
I’ll again agree that there is something majestic and horrifying about the mystique of the Alien in the original film, but I don’t think that Cameron completely removes all the mystery from it. Those eggs did have to come from somewhere, after all. Why not a Queen? And even if we see the species as more of a hive culture, it doesn’t take away from their predatory nature or what appears to be their exceptional intelligence. And it still leaves the ultimate nature and purpose of the aliens unexplained—meeting the Queen in Aliens doesn’t necessarily undercut the fact that we still don’t know at the end of the film what their agenda is (nor should we).
Aliens actually reemphasizes the remarkable adaptability and cleverness of this deadly race. The organism in the original film made quick work out of the crew of the Nostromo; when confronted with first the colonists and then the space marines, the creatures analyze the situation and ascertain that their new victims or enemies must be met with overwhelming force in lieu of having weapons themselves (although their entire body could be considered a weapon, for sure). They are predators and part of a hive culture, but they think, they strategize. That gives them a different spin, for sure, but one that is just as terrifying as the godlike creature in Alien.
The Best of the Alien Franchise
David: I respect that, and for the type of movie that Cameron wanted to make, it worked perfectly. There is little argument that Cameron pinpointed the likely best way to expand (and conclude) this story. After all, the mystery of the creature’s gruesome lifecycle is lost after the first film. David Fincher attempted to return to Scott’s aesthetic with Alien 3 to dire results, and Scott himself struggled with his decades-later prequels. Thus it’s hard to knock Cameron’s action-heavy alternative too much.
Nonetheless, I prefer the, as you say, majesty of Alien and the sensation that you’re watching something grotesque, invasive, and strangely beautiful in its fatalism. I’d also point out that the creature and its world never looked more grimly evocative than in Giger and Scott’s hands. There’s a reason the “last supper” scene with Hurt’s Kane remains the most famous scene in any of these movies. Still, both films are obviously better than what came afterward, though I must admit to having a soft spot for Prometheus. The ideas introduced to explain where the xenomorph and Space Jockey came from in that movie are fascinating, and the visuals and cast were mostly top notch. Alas, the screenplay threatened to derail it all. It’s still a very interesting mess, however (as opposed to the utter failure of Alien: Covenant and the other movies).
I’ll leave it then on this: If you really like the deleted subplot of Amanda Ripley—Ellen’s daughter mentioned to have grown up and died during her mother’s cryofreeze in Aliens—might I recommend the video game Alien: Isolation? More so than Scott’s own prequels, it is able to conjure up the dread of being hunted in a confined space by such a creature. It’s the best Alien anything in the last 35 years… and it was all about evoking that original, perfect organism of a film.
Don: To address your last point first, I don’t play video games so I’ll have to pass on Alien: Isolation—but it’s interesting how sometimes these properties have more success in extending themselves through other media besides movies or TV (I imagine there’s a really good novel out there that takes place in the Alien universe—do you know of any, David?)
I think we’ve come around to where we started, in that we both recognize the inherent high quality of what Scott and Cameron achieved with these two films. And I do think that Aliens did conclude this story, just as Terminator 2 ended that story as well—and Cameron’s elegant endings only point out just how difficult it was for later filmmakers to try and continue both in various failed sequels. For the record, I was soooo excited about Prometheus initially, and there were some fascinating ideas contained in that film. But the execution of them was a major letdown.
My last argument would be that Alien is a concept-driven film and Aliens is a character-driven film (as we said earlier, making it truly Ripley’s story). The emotional payoff of Ripley’s journey in Aliens makes that the more enjoyable of the two movies for me in the long run. But there’s no question that no movie I can think of offhand, not even Cameron’s masterful sequel, quite captures the ice cold, existential horror of Alien. While we may differ on which of the two films is better, I think we can probably agree that Alien may accidentally be the best H.P. Lovecraft film ever made!
*Editor’s Note: David does not know of any good Alien novels but is aware the Scott film is better than any official Lovecraft adaptation.