Given the task of following up Alien, a lesser director would have simply provided more of the same. Another ship, and another crew to impregnate, stalk and terrorise by an apparently indestructible alien creature.
It’s to James Cameron’s credit that, when he wrote and directed the sequel to Ridley Scott’s hit in the early 80s, he chose to strike out on a different path, creating a film with its own tone, pace and themes.
Where Alien was a comparatively slow horror thriller that prowled like a lion in undergrowth, Aliens was a war film that sped from one set piece to the next, casting slow build up aside for bombastic action.
That Aliens is bigger and louder has led some to suggest that Cameron’s sequel is superior to Scott’s original, while others prefer the latter’s reliance on atmosphere and quiet suspense.
I’d suggest that, rather than either being superior, the two films complement one another in a way seldom seen in cinema.
Alien was about encountering something traumatic that could barely be comprehended until it was too late, a monster that violated as well as killed, that rendered its victims chillingly powerless. Aliens is about facing trauma head on, and gaining closure in the process.
The events of the first film, Cameron establishes, had caused Ripley to lose everything. Her 57-year drift in hypersleep had left her lost in time as well as space. In a bitter moment reinstated in the Special Edition, we learn that Ripley had a daughter, who has since died of cancer.
By returning to the LV-426, the now terraformed planet of Alien, Ripley is able to confront the monsters of her past, in the process gaining a potential love interest and surrogate daughter. In her final battle with the alien queen, the JCB-like cargo-loader gives her the ability to fight on even terms, and at the film’s conclusion, she’s able to take on her nightmares and finally beat them.
It’s also worth noting that, where Alien was cut off from any sense of society (even the Nostromo’s small community of space truckers was split along lines of rank and social class) Aliens‘ narrative gives a greater sense of social order.
We see the ant-like hierarchy of the aliens themselves, with soldier aliens protecting the egg-laying queen. We even learn that the aliens can, in a basic way, be bargained with, as Ripley threatens the queen’s eggs with a flamethrower. With a quiet nod from the queen, the soldier aliens back away.
As a pure action movie, Aliens is as well constructed and paced as any in Hollywood history. Its first hour, where Cameron methodically reintroduces Ripley and the outfit of cocksure Colonial Marines who will accompany her to LV-426, is the setup before almost 90 minutes of sustained threat.
Then there’s Cameron’s endlessly quotable script and broad, memorable characters. Wisecracking space marines have since become a cliché of cinema and videogames. Cameron’s, headed up by Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and Jenette Goldstein, are the original and the best written.
Cameron’s biggest achievement, however, was in creating a film that dovetails so perfectly with the original Alien. Watched back to back, Alien becomes the first act to Cameron’s lengthier story. Ripley encounters the xenomorph and all the horror that comes with it in the first film, and through a mixture of luck and bravery, is able to put those horrors to rest in the second.
This gratifying sense of closure is one reason why the attempt to create a second sequel was always doomed to failure. With Aliens, Cameron had already created an arc for Ripley’s character that was both satisfying and logical, and demonstrated that the aliens themselves, apparently indestructible in Scott’s movie, could be killed after all.
The Alien Anthology Blu-ray is out now. Tomorrow, we look back at David Fincher’s Alien 3.