Aliens: Military Sci-Fi turned Horror

Next up in our chronological march through three monster movie franchises is 1986's Aliens, directed by James Cameron.

Coming out seven years after Alien, and with a completely new director, it's interesting to see the different take on this horror tale. Cameron and Scott are hardly the same kind of director, but there is one thing that they do have in common. They each take ownership of whatever they're making.

Overall, you could say that Scott is a bit more artistic in his general approach, while Cameron does a great job at making the entire piece feel cohesive and complete. While these two approaches can be different, they both work wonders in the universe created within the Alien franchise.

[I don't expect to spoil too much in this hub, but, again, the statute of limitations for spoilers on this one expired forever ago, so don't say I didn't warn you.]

But first, the story

We start on a space shot of the small escape vessel from the end of Alien. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is still in hyper-sleep when her ship is found and opened by a space salvage crew.

Ripley wakes up in a hospital and is told by Carter Burke (Paul Reiser)—a representative of "the company" who must have very absorbent suits to mop up the slime that drips off of him—that she'd just gone through a much longer hibernation than she'd expected: 57 years. In that time, the company has actually sent a terraforming mission of at least 60 families to make Shake-N-Bake or something on LV-426, the planet where all the trouble had started in the last movie.

(I was about ten and this was the first thing I ever saw Paul Reiser in. It took me a while to actually get into Mad About You because of this.)

Excuse me, sir. Are you saying we should change into our red shirts?
Excuse me, sir. Are you saying we should change into our red shirts?

When contact with that colony is lost, Ripley is dispatched along with a team of highly-trained cannon fodder. I mean, colonial marines. They are to determine if it's just a downed transmitter or maybe something a bit more sinister, like a faulty left-handed pencil or something.

They get to the planet and find out that it really is just a downed transmitter and everyone dances around and picks daisies for the rest of the movie. It's really quite a letdown.

Oh, wait, that's exactly not what happens.

Dot dot dot

This is an interesting movie in comparison to the first. In general, Alien is much quieter than this one. More "evaluate the situation" and stuff, while Aliens gives us explosions, cars crashing through walls, massive alien attacks, flamethrowers, Michael Biehn grunting, and a much higher body count.

It's loader fighter barbie.
It's loader fighter barbie.

Alien is "space opera" while Aliens is more "military sci-fi". But in the end, they both devolve into "horror" very nicely. The colonial marines have training, weapons and confidence, but none of that means anything against this new foe for which they are completely unprepared. That's when the horror starts.

And like the first movie, it takes its sweet time getting there. Again, it's not slow. There's always something interesting moving the story forward. But it's half-way through the movie before the first real alien attack in the hive. Up to that point, the marines are out of their element and just don't know it.

Just watch Hudson (Bill Paxton). He's got more bravado and chest-pounding than the rest of them combined. But from the moment it all hits the fan, he can scream and cry and curse and whine and die with the best of 'em.

Aliens - trailer

What works?

But what exactly makes this movie work so well?

Well, I've already touched on one of the ideas. The pacing is deliberate but not slow.

But Cameron also makes sure to fill the screen with characters that you want to watch. Whether you love them and want them to survive, or hate them and can't wait for them to die, you can't turn away. Hudson, Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), Hicks (Michael Biehn), Bishop (Lance Henriksen), Burke, Apone (Al Matthews) ... these are all distinct and interesting characters.

One thing that differentiates this movie from the previous one is that you do actually get to see much more of the creatures in this one. But then the setup is different. When there's one creature running amok, the more you don't see it the more you have no idea when it'll be around the next corner.

But when you're dealing with a swarm of them, every new shot of one of the aliens just re-emphasizes the fact that you're out numbered. You may be able to take out ten of them, but it only takes one of them to take you down.

Hat tips

There are also several elements that fans of Alien would recognize. For instance, several shots are done to remake certain iconic shots of the first movie. But more importantly, there's the presence of an android in the crew.

A key element of Alien is the fact that Ash, the android, spends his time trying to protect this dangerous creature, and eventually snaps and tries to kill Ripley herself. This adds an automatic mistrust between Ripley and Bishop. And Bishop doesn't do much to make you more comfortable with him. At times, he's just a bit too creepy without even meaning to. But it makes for good watching.

(They even add a comment that Ash was a Hyperdyne model android. Sounds pretty similar to Cyberdyne, don't it?)

Yes your magesty

Then there's the queen.

Aliens introduces the queen alien to the mix and this could definitely have been an iffy call. I pointed out in a previous hub that many monster franchises feel the need to add new elements to their monsters in order to keep them unknown and scary.

That doesn't mean that it can't be a great idea.

The addition of the queen just makes sense. In Alien, we see only one of these creatures. (Or two if you include the face-hugger.) But it makes sense that, if these creatures have had time to fully move in and unpack all their boxes, they would have a more detailed social hierarchy.

Add to that the fact that the queen is just a cool looking beasty.

Ripley: Evolution

In the first movie, Ellen Ripley is just a flight officer on a space cargo ship. Of course she'd be unprepared for the horror she was about to meet. This time, she may not want to go back, but she knows at least a little bit what to expect.

She confronts her demons in an effort to take down her nightmare.

And she has apparently been spending her nights watching Robot Wars.

Also, in the Special Edition, we learn that Ripley had a daughter who grew up and died while she was in hyper-sleep. (Ellen, not her daughter.) When she meets Newt (Carrie Henn), she latches on to this young girl who is the age her daughter would have been had she gotten home on time. ("Jeez, mom. Call when you're going to be fifty seven years late. I had dinner ready and everything.")

Ripley is a terribly sympathetic character because she is a blue-collar worker caught up in a situation completely beyond her control, who lost her daughter and is desperately clinging to any hope of a good night's sleep again.

Things that go boom in the night

One element that does slightly diminish the element of "monster in the dark" horror is the fact that our heroes do in fact have a whole lot of firepower. It's wholly inadequate, but it's still a safety blanket in the minds of the audience. And when those weapons get used, there's a real adrenaline rush that helps propel you through the next series of attacks.

But I can't say that it really detracts from the movie itself.

In fact, if I wanted a scary movie that was just the first one over again, I'd watch Alien with sunglasses on.

In many ways, the subsequent movies tend to follow the feel and atmosphere of Aliens more than Alien. That's not bad, because it really helps Alien to stand alone as it should. However, Alien³ and Alien Resurrection don't pull it off as well and I'll get to why later in the month.

But what do you think?

5 out of 5 stars from 2 ratings of Aliens

In the end, Aliens is not as much a purely scary monster movie as Alien, but it is still very well done and has plenty of real scares throughout. This one gets a 9 / 10.

Aliens is rated R for monster violence and gore, plenty of language, and just a bit of skin (walking around in underwear after hyper-sleep).

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