Throughout the history of the film industry, few sequels have been worthy of bearing their source’s name, and even fewer have matched their predecessor in quality. In 1986, Aliens delivered an exhilarating and extremely entertaining experience which was markedly different from the horror offered by Alien but just as effective in its own right. In the same way that Ridley Scott made Alien the face of the science-fiction horror genre, so too did James Cameron establish Aliens as the face of the sci-fi action genre. Rather than recycling the structure and narrative style of the original film, the director of Aliens opted to take another approach that retained the essence of the series’ appeal, humans surviving an extraterrestial threat, while significantly enlarging the story’s scope, altering its tone, and exploring new themes.
Aliens picks up on Ripley’s 57th year in hypersleep, during which her escape vessel finally makes its way back to the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Ripley’s efforts to convince her employers of her ordeal fall mostly on deaf ears, but her story intrigues a man named Burke (played by Paul Reiser), who masks his true motives with an unconvincing display of benevolence. When the company loses contact with a terraforming colony on LV-426, the same barren planet from the first film, Burke organizes a team of U.S. Colonial Marines to investigate the scene and persuades Ripley to accompany them as an advisor, with the promise that they’re “going to destroy them, not to study”. Upon arriving at the colony, the marines find it deserted save for a frightened, young girl who was recently orphaned by xenomorphs and has been hiding in the center’s ducts ever since. The girl, Newt, soon draws close to Ripley, who tries in vain to reassure the child and herself of their safety. “These men are soldiers,” she says, but Newt grimly observes that “it won’t make any difference.” The rest of the movie basically serves to fulfill the young girl’s prediction, showing us the marines shift from offense to defense to panic and flight as their advanced technology is quickly nullified by the hive’s overwhelming strength of numbers and intelligence; the most fortunate victims are incinerated, crushed, or impaled by xeno jaws, while the least are dragged off to be cocooned and forcefully impregnated in the alien nest, presided over by the vicious and towering queen. Aliens is arguably a more intense movie than the first installment, not because it has more violence but because the stakes are higher for its central characters than they were beforehand. In Alien, Ripley had only to save her own skin, but the conflict in Aliens forces her to become a protector as well as a survivor, to sacrifice her own safety at times to rescue a girl whom she loves as a mother does her child. Newt represents the daughter that Ripley bore but lost in her decades of absence; her presence exposes aspects of Ripley’s character that the first film never had the opportunity to explore, and through her we learn that Ripley’s strength and determination are equaled by her compassion and unfaltering loyalty.
Grade rating: A, as in “Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events, but that Predator just got its A__ kicked, pal!”