"This Time It's War"
- When we last left Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), she had disposed the alien that had killed her entire crew and was heading back to earth. Aliens (1986) continues the story of Ellen Ripley when, 57 years later, she is found by a deep space salvage team.... it seems as if her shuttle had flown off course. Displaced in time, distrusted by the authorities and altogether deeply disturbed from her encounter with the xenomorph alien, Ripley finds it understandably difficult to re-enter society. But Ripley's account of her dealings with an alien onboard the Nostromo begins to become more believable to the powers that be when a terraforming colony on LV-426 (the planet that the Nostromo discovered the alien) suddenly disappears into radio silence. Enlisting the services of Ripley, a team of elite marines lands on the colony to investigate.
Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) was a brilliant stand-alone film that required no sequel. However, Scott created such a mysterious and fascinating world in Alien that a sequel was certainly possible. Unfortunately, Scott's world was expanded upon by the would-be master of the big and the bloated: James Cameron. Promising that "this time it's war," Aliens builds upon what Ridley Scott and team created in Alien by delivering a bigger, badder but brainless action-packed Alien film.
A good sequel should not be a carbon copy of its original. Like any good sequel, Aliens incorporates much of what audiences enjoyed about the original Alien while also forging new ground. Cameron's most obvious contribution to the Alien series is expanding the xenomorph alien race. The audience is shown more of how the aliens live and behave as a group within the context of the story and the truly fantastic special effects (lead by legendary effects wizard Stan Winston) allow the aliens to move in new ways. The best aspect of the film is how the character of Ripley is explored. The many dynamics that play into Ripley's role in Aliens is quite satisfying, especially the relationship between Ripley and the child "Newt" (played very well by Carrie Henn). Naturally, Sigourney Weaver gives a powerful Oscar-nominated performance of the tough but vulnerable heroine.
While Aliens is a generally high-quality and entertaining movie, a number of potent flaws exist; most of which flow directly from writer/director James Cameron. One can notice the large number of predictable and lame Cameronisms that populate the film's reels immediately from the trailer. The military caricatures, the badass Hispanic female character, Michael Biehn, Pill Paxton, trademark Cameron camera movements, etc. - which is great if you like Cameronisms but awful if you do not. Cameron's trademarks would naturally exist since he directed the film, one might say. I will buy that. However, Cameron's departure from the thriller direction of Ridley Scott is something I cannot embrace.
Nobody wants to watch Alien remade - however, while the direction that Aliens takes could have been great, the execution of Cameron's vision is not. While there are inventive, tense and arguably scary moments in Aliens, Cameron basically crafts an action film out of his Alien picture and the film's general visual style suffers as a result. The visuals are certainly of a professional production quality. However, Aliens focuses on capturing supposed spectacular action scenes while featuring little in the way of interesting style or photography to heighten atmosphere and suspense. The original Alien film was defined by its incredible visual and atmospheric style; its sequel, Aliens, is defined by gunfire and explosions. And what is worse? The gunfire and explosions are not presented on screen with any more excitement or style than any other number of better films.
Cameron also makes the film feel very cheesy at times. Ridley Scott was able to make the characters in Alien compelling without any unnecessary and dishonest tugging of the heart strings - even Jones the cat never descended into such a role. Aliens on the other hand includes many forced emotional moments, especially in the "director's cut" version of the film. Even the most powerful emotional element of the film, regarding the character of Newt, feels forced and inauthentic in certain parts of the film. The cliched nature of the film's dialogue is atrociously cheesy - much of it coming off worse than it was on paper by some truly bad performances. Most of the cast (save for Weaver, Henn, Lance Hendriksen as the android Bishop and Michael Biehn as Cpl. Hicks) are pretty hard to take in. The most egregious thespian offenders are William Hope, who overacts his role to hilarious levels as Lt. Gorman; Paul Reiser, who gives a weak performance as the mischievous Weyland crony; and Bill Paxton, who is infuriating to watch as the loud, irritating and painfully unfunny Pvt. Hudson.
The root of the flaws in Alien comes from its very formulaic nature. Alien was different all-around. The film begins as an ensemble piece in which Ripley slowly rises to become the character at the center of the story. The first half of Alien moves at an eerily leisure pace (Ridley Scott recounted how people would complain that "nothing happens [in Alien] for 45 minutes"); it continues to speed up, with calming moments peppered throughout, becoming electric and very exciting up until the largely quiet final act. Suffice it to say, Alien is an unusual and brilliant film all around. Aliens, by contrast, basically follows the studio-approved Hollywood blueprint for an action/adventure/thriller in story structure, character outlining and general pacing. Cameron structures Aliens well but it is much more of a traditional, familiar film than Alien - I found this aspect particularly disappointing.
James Cameron's Aliens has a strange reputation as one of the greatest sequels in film history. It seems to me that Aliens features all the usual sequel trappings which makes me wonder how the film achieved its noble but unworthy title. Taking the Alien story in a starkly different direction from what Scott created is not damning in and of itself as a different direction could have been interesting. However, while generally entertaining, Aliens features little that is compelling or interesting. Rather than creating an engaging film world through style and suspense, which made the original Alien such a great film, Cameron focuses on special effects and gunplay in a way that makes Aliens a largely forgettable action flick. Although ending up an enjoyable film overall due to the professional quality of its production value and Sigourney Weaver's strong performance of a more fleshed-out Ripley character, Aliens dramatically pales in comparison to Ridley Scott's original 1979 Alien.
CBC Rating: 7/10