The Den Of Geek Hall Of Fame: Aliens – The Special Edition

The second entry into our virtual vault of classics, and it's James Cameron's stunning sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. Assholes and elbows, people...

Aliens: The Special Edition

If you take the special edition of James Cameron’s astounding sequel to the classic Alien, it’s a film where you don’t see – save for a facehugger right at the start – a single alien creature until almost an hour has been clocked up.

One full hour.

How incredible is that, particularly contextualised against modern day flicks that never seem to introduce the cat to the bag, let alone let it out? But there’s more to it than that, because Cameron then spends that hour superbly well, managing to ratchet up the tension to quite unbearable levels in the build-up to the inevitable first encounter. In fact, there’s a convincing argument, and this writer would certainly subscribe to it, that the scariest thing in the whole of Aliens is a flashing dot on a screen, accompanied by a beeping noise. Fast forward to playing the Alien vs Predator computer game over a decade later, and that same simple mechanic is just as creepy and unnerving as it always was.

Yet it’s just one strength of a sequel that does what, in theory, every follow-up should do. Not content to rehash the film that came before it – and, let’s face it, Ridley Scott’s original itself is a flat-out classic – Cameron instead took the next logical step. He explored the world that had been created in the first film, and expanded upon it. In this case this meant fleshing out the main character he was left with, and multiplying the threat. Significantly.

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The way that the film so faithfully follows Alien has led it to be called the most faithful passing over of a franchise from one director to another in recent times, and certainly Cameron is keen to pick up and explore the threads that Ridley Scott had put down. The character of Ripley is haunted, in many ways, by her experiences, and there’s no doubting her reluctance to say yes when asked to explore the colonised world of LV-246. Weaver, it should be said, is outstanding here, utterly owning the role of Ripley and snagging a richly deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for the vulnerability yet strength of her central performance.

Yet Cameron gives her plenty to work with, and his decision to spend a lot of time at the start of his film introducing us to and familiarising us with his characters pays off in a way that Alien 3’s bunch of seemingly-nameless alien fodder could only aspire to. By the time Hicks, Hudson, Apone, Burke, Bishop , Vasquez, Gorman and Drake are heading off into battle, you can put names to them, have an idea of their personalities. Plus, heck, you like them too. You care about them. You give a damn (ironic, considering that for us, one of the problems with Cameron’s subsequent Titanic is the lack of convincing characterisation to match the spectacle).

But Cameron isn’t finished. Not content with spending time setting up his characters, he then continues to evolve and work with them. Gorman’s bottling when his key moment comes, Hicks’ ultimate heroism and Hudson’s sacrifice are just some of the potential examples. Yet then there’s the matter of Carter Burke, arguably the most skin-crawling character to infest the Alien movies. How, in a film about ruthless, murderous alien creatures Cameron turns the key villain into a human character is both bold and brilliant, and Paul Reiser’s outstanding portrayal of Burke doesn’t let him down.

And then there’s Ripley. Aliens: The Special Edition covers Ripley’s own family, and the heartbreaking fact that she outlived her daughter. It then pulls the rug again by introducing Carrie Henn’s Newt, a savvy young girl who has survived where the many colonists of LV-246 perished. The relationship between Newt and Ripley, ultimately one of surrogate parent, becomes vital to the film, and adds both to the complexity and grit of Weaver’s character, injecting her with an incredibly strong and real emotional core. That Alien 3 then threw the characters of Newt and Hicks away within a matter of minutes is perhaps that film’s greatest crime.

For all the talk of humans, though, Cameron doesn’t skimp on the aliens either. Their first attack is brutal, panicked and stunningly directed, with bodies of characters you’ve spent time getting to like being ripped apart in double quick time. On his day, there are few directors of action who can come close to matching James Cameron, and here he’s in quite brilliant form. There’s an intensity and genuine feeling of threat when the aliens attack, and – for all the time he spends leading us to them – you’re in little doubt that these are among the most dangerous creatures you’ll ever see on a screen.

Even in the seemingly smaller action sequences, the intensity never drops. Take the moment where Burke locks Ripley and Newt in with the facehugger. Not only is there Burke’s underlying betrayal to deal with, but by that point there’s not a member of the audience who doesn’t understand what’ll happen if that facehugger is successful, and Cameron brilliantly plays on it. At the other end of the scale, the final showdown with Ripley in the lifting mechanism battling the alien queen is a pitch-perfect blockbuster showdown. When Weaver screams “Get away from her you bitch”, you almost want to stand up and applaud.

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There are some minor crumbs of complaint that are occasionally aimed in Aliens’ direction. Does the ending fit the tone of the rest of the film? Is the build-up a little too long? Does it lose some of its grip once the Aliens are out of the bag? These aren’t complaints that this writer, at least, agrees with, but it’s fair nonetheless to mention them.

Yet ultimately Aliens, the second inductee into Den Of Geek’s Hall Of Fame, is an astounding achievement. Not only has there not been a better true sequel – at least outside of the Batman franchise – since, but its mix of action and depth has rarely been matched either.

Let’s not forget too that, for all his achievements with Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic, that Cameron himself hasn’t matched it again either. Certainly his script here, peppered with some brilliant, quotable, dialogue, is better than virtually everything else he’s ever written (matched only, arguably, by the original Terminator). It also goes without saying too that, for the Alien saga, this is also the last time it hit greatness, with the sequels that followed squandering much of the world that Ridley Scott and James Cameron had so expertly built up.

James Cameron himself returns to big blockbuster entertainment next year with his long-awaited Avatar, while a fifth Alien film looks as far away as it’s ever been. Thus it’s fortunate to say, to paraphrase a classic of a different era, that we’ll always have Aliens.

Stay frosty, people…

Aliens: The Special EditionWritten & directed by James CameronStarring: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn,Production budget: $18.5mUS box office take: $77.6m

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Did you know:The set that was used for the alien nest turned up again as Axis Chemicals in Tim Burton’s first Batman film?

Available on DVD. Blu-ray is rumoured, but not confirmed.