Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Alien Month: Aliens (1986)

After the success of Alien, released in 1979, one has to wonder how somebody could create a sequel that manages to be as good as the original, enter director James Cameron.  Two years prior to the release of Aliens, James Cameron directed a little known movie called The Terminator.  The success of that movie allowed Cameron to direct this sequel that takes some risks but ends up proving to be a strong follow-up to the original.  One of those risks is the switch between genres; whereas Alien was a science fiction-horror film, Aliens is a science fiction-action movie, and as the title suggests, this time instead of there being one Alien, now there are dozens of Aliens for a squad of marines and Ellen Ripley to confront on the planet LV-426.

It should be noted that this review is based off of the extended cut of the movie.  The biggest difference between the theatrical cut and the extended cut is that there are some added scenes that show Ripley learning about what happened to her daughter during the time she was drifting in space, plus a scene set on Hadley's Hope, showing the start of the colony's infestation.

After she escaped the Nostromo, which Ripley primed to self destruct, as well as kill the Alien that killed the crew members of the Nostromo, except her, she put herself and Jones, the ship's cat, into hypersleep on the ship's emergency shuttle, with the hopes that the ship's signals would get picked up by somebody.  Unfortunately, that doesn't happen, and the ship drifts around aimlessly in space, until a salvage crew stumbles upon it, fifty-seven years later.  She's taken to a space station orbiting Earth, and while she's there, Ripley learns that her daughter, Amanda Ripley, passed away while she was drifting in space.  To make matters worse, Weyland-Yutani, the company she worked for, has pressed charges against Ripley for blowing up the Nostromo, and they doubt her claims about the Alien. 

After a meeting with executives from the Company, she learns from one of them that a colony has been set up on LV-426, the planet where the crashed ship was found, containing those eggs, and it isn't before long that a Company representative, Burke, comes to her with news that they've lost contact with the colony.  He tries to convince her to go back to the planet, as a squad of marines is getting sent to the planet to check things out.  She says no, but after having another nightmare involving the Alien, she decides that it's best that she face her fears and go with the marines to LV-426.

She acts as an advisor for the marines, but they're too confident about the mission, thinking that it will be a simple search and rescue operation and that the Alien Ripley tells them about won't be so much of a problem, considering the firepower they have.  The marines, Ripley, Burke, and Bishop, the ship's android, arrive on LV-426 and the squad splits up to check the colony for any survivors.  They investigate the operations building, which shows signs that a fight had taken place inside the building, but they don't find any survivors or casualties while searching.  Eventually, they do find one survivor, Newt, who tries to flee from them, but Ripley gives chase and grabs her before she can get any further.  Newt doesn't respond to any of their questions, as she is in a state of shock and can't speak.

Meanwhile, it's discovered that apparently, all of the civilians are at the atmospheric processor, due to tracking chips that were implanted into them.  Everyone heads over to the processor, with Ripley, Newt, Burke, and Lieutenant Gorman staying behind in the APC, while the marines head into the processor to find the civilians.  As they get deeper into the processor, they discover what looks like a hive and the civilians, who are all dead, having been cocooned up to serve as hosts for the eggs.  Soon, the marines are attacked by the xenomorphs, and Ripley commandeers the APC to save them after Gorman fails to give the marines direct orders during the ambush, which results in a large chunk of the squad to be killed by the Aliens.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Aliens switches genres, shifting from a focus on horro to a focus on action, but the pacing of Aliens is also not as slow as the pacing of the first movie.  Even though this movie has a strong focus on action, it does a great job at building up momentum before unleashing on the action in certain sections of the movie, such as when the marines investigate the atmospheric processor and enter the area that has been turned into a hive.  It also has a couple of suspenseful moments as well, including a scene where Ripley and Newt are trapped in a room with two facehuggers running loose, and they have to find a way to get the attention of Hicks, who is keeping watch of the monitors, yet he doesn't notice them flailing their arms on the camera to get his attention.

The first movie introduced Ellen Ripley, a woman who was willing to do anything to get rid of the Alien killing the Nostromo's crew members.  At the start of Aliens, she's having nightmares due to the events of the previous movie, similar to a war veteran who's constantly having bad dreams regarding the war they fought in.  By the end of the movie, however, she regains her confidence and she isn't afraid to confront the xenomorph infestation head-on.  The previous movie touched upon a motherly side she had in scenes with her and the cat, Jones.  This aspect of her personality is more fully explored here with the introduction of Newt.  Since her own daughter passed away while she was in space, she wasn't able to be with Amanda throughout the years she was alive.  Yet, when Newt is discovered, she fills in the missing void in Ripley's life, and like a mother, Ripley is willing to do anything to protect Newt, as signified when later on in the movie, Newt is grabbed by a xenomorph and Ripley decides to go and rescue her, even though things aren't holding up on Hadley's Hope.

Besides Ripley, the other characters in Aliens are also memorable.  The marines, in particular, stand out as the best of the bunch.  The writing and performances from the actors and actresses who play the marines do a great job at making these characters feel like they've been a team for some time.  The most memorable marines of the squad include Vasquez, played by Jeanette Goldstein, a hard as nails marine who doesn't mind some of the remarks the male marines make at her.  There's also Hudson, played by Bill Paxton, who's essentially the jokester of the squad, making various quips and smart remarks about the situation currently happening.  The last one worth mentioning is Hicks, played by Michael Biehn, who at first, seems a lot like the other marines, but when things get dire later on in the movie, he inadvertently finds himself leading the remaining marines and ensuring everyone's survival.

In fact, I would say that in Aliens, the iconic element of this movie has to be the colonial marines.  Weapons in their arsenal, such as the pulse rifle and the smartgun, are recognized by many as two of the most iconic weapons in film history.  Also, out of all the movies in the franchise, this one has had the strongest influence on video games.  Certain franchises such as Contra, Halo, Metroid, and Gears of War, have lifted certain concepts and character archetypes from Aliens and used them as a base of inspiration for their franchises. 

Aliens also further explores the xenomorph creatures, revealing more of their motivations and functions.  For starters, the creatures have a hind mind mentality.  As revealed later in the movie, there's a Queen who lays all of the eggs, and the xenomorphs are drones who help the Queen by finding new hosts for the eggs she lays.  Additionally, the xenomorphs in Aliens are more agile and faster than the xenomorph in Alien, and are able to use the environment to their advantage by blending in with their surroundings, thus allowing themselves to get the drop on the marines when they investigate the hive during the movie.

The special effects of Aliens are top notch, with excellent practical effects that feature a mixture of miniature, suit, animatronic, and stunt work.  The creature effects were handled by the late Stan Winston, and the highlight of his work on the movie is the Queen Alien, which involved the efforts of multiple puppeteers, control rods, and cables in order for it to function, and it's an impressive technical achievement.  Besides that, the music, composed by James Horner, is great; it borrows from the style of the first movie's music, but also adds in a strong military element to the score as well.

I first saw Aliens on TV at about the age of twelve, after reading about it in a couple of different film books that I owned.  The movie blew me away back then and today, I still think it's a great movie, due to its story, which raises the stakes, its memorable characters, and tension building action sequences.  Not only that, this movie is also a great follow-up to the original and a case example of taking risks that result in a successful payoff.

Final Score: 9/10

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