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4 out of 5 stars
Ridley Scott's Alien was a classic sci-fi horror film. He used claustrophobic sets and atmosphere to create a creepy, modern monster film. James Cameron's Aliens, however, is a great sci-fi action film.
Both films benefit from having competent directors at the helm. Both directors take a different approach to the material, which lends each film a unique feel. We never feel like we just watched the same movie twice, nor that we saw an inferior spin-off of the first--common complaints about sequels.
Aliens is a self-contained story. (I actually saw Aliens before I saw Alien... back in the third grade. My parents were cool like that.) The action picks up 57 years after the events in the first film. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been in hibernation since her first ordeal with the alien. Her story of the alien is met with derision, and her bosses demote her for blowing up her ship, the Nostromo. Ripley is horrified to learn that colonists have been living on the planet where her crew encountered the alien for 20 years. However, when contact breaks off with the colonists, Ripley is sent in with the Marines as a consultant to confront the aliens. The Marines find the colony devoid of life, except for one little girl, Newt, who has managed to survive by hiding in the vents.
Lesser films use children as a cheap device to force the audience to care about the outcome of the story. Here, the relationship between Ripley and Newt is pivotal to showing Ripley's maternal side, which is essential to the development of the character.
Cameron takes his time setting up the story and building suspense. Almost an hour passes before the first encounter with the aliens. The set-up can be perfunctory at times, with dialogue between the Marines seemingly copy-and-pasted from Full Metal Jacket. From the midway point, however, the action doesn't let up. We sat through the slow ride to the top of the roller coaster, and it is all thrills until the end.
This film is now 25 years old and was so popular that if you're reading this, you probably have already seen it. I will instead write about one of the themes of the Alien franchise that I find interesting in understanding the films. Much has been written about how the franchise is actually about rape. However, I will write about the series's feminist undertones.
My Western Civ teacher at the University of Kansas, John Younger, lectured about how the feminist movement can be traced through the series.
Alien was released in '70s, a time when the feminist movement was in its most militant phase. Ripley, a butch female, single-handedly destroys the alien (which has a penis-shaped head and penis-like extremities protruding from its body). This was after it had already killed all her male companions, proving that "women need men the way fish need bicycles."
Aliens came out in '80s, when feminists began to embrace their femininity. We see this in the motherly role Ripley adopts toward Newt. Ripley goes alone with a pulse rifle taped to a grenade launcher to rescue Newt from the alien queen.
Alien 3 came out in '90s, when the feminist movement became more inclusive, and progressive men could actually be considered feminists. In the third installment, the men of the penal colony work together with Ripley to destroy the alien.
As for the subsequent movies, it's better to just mentally erase them.
The films also celebrate Native American art. Alien creator H.R. Giger was a great admirer of pre-Columbian art, and based the alien design partly on the stone reliefs of the Chavín culture, a pre-Inca Andean society. One creature in Chavín art is notably depicted with a mouth within its mouth.
Considering these things adds layers of appreciation for the viewers.
Ultimately, Aliens works because the filmmakers set out to make a good movie, rather than crank out a sequel simply to cash in on the success of its predecessor.