In the middle of 1983, James Cameron suddenly found himself unexpectedly busy. He had rewrites to do on The Terminator, a project that was supposed to start filming that summer but wound up being pushed back due to its star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s other work commitments. At the same time, he also had two other scripts to write: a Rambo sequel for Carolco and an Alien sequel for 20th Century Fox.
Seemingly unfazed, Cameron simply worked out how many pages he had to write, divided the number by the amount of time he had (about four months) and got down to work. Three of the most successful action movies of the 1980s therefore had their creative genesis at roughly the same time, as Cameron spent those four months hopping between three desks, writing scenes at a furious rate.
That all three films – The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Aliens – were such big hits is a testament to both Cameron’s creativity as a storyteller and his extraordinary energy levels. Sylvester Stallone wound up rewriting considerable chunks of the Rambo sequel, removing much of Cameron’s emphasis on a traumatized soldier in enemy territory and forging instead an action fantasy where Rambo single-handedly wins an entire war. But by the time First Blood Part II had come out in 1985 and made a huge $300 million worldwide, Cameron had already broken through with a hit of his own; The Terminator, made for a fraction of the cost of the Rambo sequel, had made nearly $80 million.
The strength of The Terminator‘s direction and its unexpected popularity convinced Fox that Cameron should direct as well as write Aliens. The resulting movie was one of the greatest sequels ever – far from a mere cash-grab, Aliens provided a satisfying expansion of the world Ridley Scott had so powerfully established in 1979’s Alien.
Five years after Aliens, Cameron did it again with Terminator 2: Judgment Day – another classic sequel, this time to his 1984 sci-fi thriller. So how did Cameron do it? What makes Aliens and T2 so effective when other sequels fade from the memory? Here’s a look at the storytelling techniques that make them such perfect sequels.
Most sequels are content to ply audiences with more of the same. Friday The 13th Part 2 rushed into cinemas a year after the 1980 original became a hit, serving up another group of campers to be slaughtered by a barely seen killer. In less imaginative hands, a sequel to Alien could have followed suit: another ship, a new group of astronauts and another toothsome Starbeast waiting in the wings.
Instead, Cameron was confident enough to not only dream up a sequel that continued Ripley’s story but also shift it into a different genre. Where Alien was pure horror, Aliens was first and foremost an action thriller; the movie’s tagline, “This time it’s war” was a clear indication that Cameron’s movie was anything but a straight retread.
Cameron also found a compelling way to develop Ripley’s character through Aliens‘ story. Waking up 57 years after the events of Alien, Ripley’s a traumatized, isolated survivor: in the Special Edition cut of Aliens, we learn that her daughter has long since died. Ripley’s plagued by a recurring nightmare where a chestburster erupts from her torso. When Ripley’s invited to return to LV-426, the planetoid where the crew of the Nostromo first stumbled on the deadly alien, it offers a chance for her to find completion. She’s forced to confront her fears head-on; over the course of the story, she shifts from survivor to warrior while also reconnecting with her maternal, nurturing side through Newt, the little girl who’s found hiding away on the planet’s alien-ridden colony.
Terminator 2 provides a similarly effective continuation of Sarah Connor’s arc. The first film saw her character shift from an ordinary waitress to a survivor who, like Ripley, stared death in the face and survived through sheer force of will. The twist in Terminator 2 is that she’s become such a hardened warrior – all in preparation for the rise of the machines she knows is on the horizon – that she’s in danger of losing touch with her humanity.
While the focus of Terminator 2 is on Sarah’s son John, the target of Robert Patrick’s faster, more cunning T-1000, it’s Sarah and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 that have the most defined character arcs. The T-800, through its contact with John, learns the value of human life and, over the course of the movie, becomes the closest thing the boy has to a normal father figure. Similarly, Sarah comes to the realization that, without empathy, humans can be just as cold-blooded and lethal as the cyborg assassins Skynet keeps sending from the future.
(In both Aliens and T2, compassion and parenthood are recurring themes; look at how Ripley’s maternal affection for Newt contrasts with the Queen’s cold guardianship of her alien brood, or how the T-800’s fatherly protection of John contrasts with the murderous T-1000, who chooses to disguise himself as an ordinary, upstanding cop.)
In short, James Cameron’s sequels work because he comes up with new ways for his characters to evolve and progress, rather than merely react to a series of events set before them. The Ripley we see at the start of Aliens is different from the one who goes back into cryosleep at its end. Aliens and T2 may have dazzling action sequences, but it’s these story and character progressions that make them so dramatically satisfying.
It’s a well-worn cliché that a sequel has to be bigger, faster, and louder. Yet Cameron finds satisfying, logical ways of escalating and enlarging the stories set out in Alien and The Terminator. Gothic tension is replaced by a siege-like sense of peril in Aliens as a squad of Colonial Marines finds its firepower ineffective against an army of ant-like xenomorphs. The creature introduced in Alien, we eventually realize, is but a rank-and-file soldier subservient to the bigger, more intelligent Queen.
A higher bodycount, more action and bigger monsters may be a requisite in a sequel, but Cameron makes all these things feel organic and natural. He’s capable of hiding plot devices in plain sight; from a mechanical, storytelling perspective, Newt is a replacement for Jones the cat in Alien – a vulnerable innocent who has to be protected from the alien threat. But by adding the point that Ripley is a bereaved mother, Cameron establishes a connection between her and Newt that is emotional rather than mechanical.
The escalation in Terminator 2 is rather more straightforward – better special effects, bigger action set-pieces and so on – but its marriage to a cleverly-conceived plot makes the action feel like a natural consequence of the characters’ actions. The T-1000 is more cunning, faster and nimbler than the T-800, so it follows that the action will be more hectic and plentiful, the collateral damage greater and more eye-popping.
In both Aliens and T2, Cameron also flips certain plot points around for dramatic effect. Alien‘s duplicitous android Ash is replaced by the wide-eyed “artificial person” Bishop – a character who Ripley (quite understandably) is physically repelled by. That Bishop is revealed to be entirely benign is one of Aliens‘ most subtle and intriguing story details since it runs counter to both Ripley and the audience’s expectations. In Aliens, it’s Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) who’s revealed to be the heartless corporate stooge, and not the android.
In T2, a cyborg killing machine has a similar switch of allegiance. Captured by the future John Connor, reprogrammed and sent into the past to protect his younger self, the T-800 becomes a stoic protector. Sarah Connor, who has as much reason to fear AIs as Ripley does, eventually overcomes her initial fear of the T-800, and learns that not all machines are bad – they’re just programmed that way.
One of the best things about Cameron’s sequels could be regarded as bad news for other filmmakers: Aliens and T2 provide such complete resolutions for their characters that further exploration almost feels redundant. Aliens brings Ripley’s story of alien impregnations, molecular acid, and death to an upbeat close by taking away the fear and isolation that plagued her since the end of Alien. As the lid closes on Ripley’s cryo-tube, we realize that she’s found the companionship and peace she deserves.
Similarly, Terminator 2 sees the nightmare future of Judgment Day averted. The T-800 may have sacrificed himself to protect the human race, but the film’s events have allowed Sarah to reconnect with her son and her own compassion. With stories as complete as these, it’s hardly surprising that the filmmakers charged with making Terminator 3 and Alien 3 have struggled to find new directions in which to take them.
In both cases, those second sequels were the opposite of Aliens and T2: they simply felt like “more of the same.” In Alien 3, poor Ripley finds herself in a worse situation than she was at the start of Aliens – her surrogate family is dead, she’s stuck in an all-male prison with an alien running around, and there’s something horrible stirring in her viscera.
Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines was, if anything, even more gloomy. Sarah Connor died between sequels; John Connor’s a lonely drifter, and Judgment Day hasn’t been cancelled – merely postponed. The sense of hope – not to mention Cameron’s motto that “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” – is replaced by the suggestion that annihilation by sentient machines is inescapable. Beyond Ripley and Sarah’s stories in Aliens and T2, filmmakers could find only despair and nihilism.
While there’s plenty to appreciate in both Alien 3 and T3 – not least the strength of David Fincher’s murky vision in Alien 3‘s best moments – they were always going to feel like tacked-on appendages rather than continuations of Cameron’s stories. When characters find fulfilment, their tale is complete.
For the past 10 years and counting, James Cameron’s been working on his first sequel since T2 – his currently untitled follow-up to 2009’s Avatar. In a first for Cameron, however, Avatar 2 is but one in a series of four sequels, shot back-to-back and due out from 2021 onwards. This makes his Avatar saga the longest he’ll have told in his career so far, and right now, we only have vague ideas as to how Cameron will continue the pulp sci-fi fantasy of the original movie. But as Aliens and T2 prove, Cameron is something of a master at taking established stories and escalating them in simple yet unforgettable ways.