This is the fourth in a series of analysis retrospective articles I’ve done for The Metaplex, and, time permitting, I hope to publish a new one every week.
If Alien is the quintessential sci-fi horror film, Aliens is the quintessential sci-fi actioner. James Cameron is writing and directing instead of Ridley Scott, and the plot jumps 50 years into the future. Ripley has been found by chance after years hibernating in a space pod, and she’s heartbroken to learn her daughter, unmentioned in Alien, died several years before. Her grief is personified by her utter isolation—she’s stuck on a corporate space station orbiting Earth, disconnected from her beloved planet, home. Ripley was shocked to learn, as I was on my first viewing, that LV-426 (the satellite moon orbiting the planet Calpamos) is now inhabited. Not only that, but it has been commissioned as one of the sites fit for terraforming, the lengthy process of reshaping a planet’s atmosphere to make it livable. Ripley is stunned by this news and pleads that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation listen to her desperate warnings that at any second the Xenomorph monster can return and spell tragedy for the settlement’s inhabitants. At first, they rebuke her, but when communication with the planet’s base goes silent, they send her in with a team of military commandos to scope out the problem. From there, the tagline of Aliens becomes relevant. “This Time It’s War.
Sequels, even good sequels, fall into a trap of just reshaping the original instead of building upon it. Based on a 90-page screenplay written before he ever directed The Terminator, Cameron only needed the first fifteen minutes to shake the rules of the universe. For instance, the themes and symbols of the first Alien are reversed. Where the first film grappled with deeply Freudian ideas like the male fear of pregnancy and rape, Aliens is a meditation on maternity. The plot could be summarized in one simple sentence: Two matriarchs go to war. There is a deeply symbolic subtext to the entire film that becomes instantly palpable once you become aware it exists. Much has also been made of the film’s powerful anti-war leaning. Cameron toys with American iconography, from the sci-fi jet-copters that have the cockpit of a military chopper to the commandos covered in green-brown camouflage like they’re storming a jungle. There’s also the basic premise, which can be seen as blatantly anti-imperialistic. For the Weyland Corporation (military industrial complex) to successfully gain control of another territory, LV-426 (Vietnam), they have to amend, revise, and prevail over the natural order of the area they are invading. In the film, this is done through terraforming (invading). The natural environment is so hostile to their unwanted presence that the air (Vietnamese) kills them.
Additionally, the visual palette has changed. Aliens doesn’t recapture the sumptuous fidelity of Alien’s cinematography, but it doesn’t matter. The scale is intensified a hundredfold. The horizon is vast and more revealing of the planet's surface, showing the landscape isn't a collection of perverted grey shapes but full of foreboding mountains that look like disfigured gravestones. Scale means more than how much stuff is in the image, and Cameron conquers air, land, and (the proverbial) sea. He takes us from the gritty claustrophobia of the Nostromo’s corridors into a multilevel labyrinth where every room has its own unique way of killing you.
One of the greatest assets of Aliens is that it takes its time. I remembered Aliens as a rip-roaring action spectacle, but what I found was a film ingrained with suspense. The first action scene isn’t until well after the first hour, but since the mood and stakes have been so well established, Aliens has the impression of containing far more action than it actually does. I often say the same of Scorsese’s films. Despite not having much action at all, they feel as though they’re filled with shoot outs and holdups. Cameron still pays loving homage to all the tropes of the action genre, but that doesn't mean he won’t subvert them. At the very least, he introduces a new twist. The first big action sequence spends almost as much time showing characters worrying about those in the battle as it does showing the battle itself. This isn’t mindless sensationalism. Cameron keeps it human.
There's a method to the madness of the thrilling violence, and it has a lot to do with how the film's scope constantly shifts between large and small. By shifting between a full set and a tight set, Cameron plays with the audience by use of opposition that would make Sergei Eisenstein proud. It’s a psychological trick where viewers experience tension, then release, tension, then release, tension, then release, ad infinitum. Not only does this intensify the suspense of the scene but it escalates the intensity of the violence. Take for example a scene where Ripley is in the tunnel next to the big space of an office. An alien monster, the facehugger, attacks. She escapes from the tunnel and into the room, evading the facehugger, and there’s a natural moment of letting your breath out. She’s safe, even if temporarily. That is, until you realize the office is yet another level of confinement, one even more impossible to break out of. The gut reaction of the audience -- and Ripley -- is to ask “Where’d it go?!” Where’d it go!?” They're locked in a room. There’s no way to escape. They have no means of contacting anyone for rescue, and a deadly creature hunts them. When the sequence finally erupts in bloodshed, it’s a commanding catharsis. This is how Cameron stages each set piece: he forces the viewer into agonizing suspense, and then explodes the screen with gunfire and quick cutting.
But just soon as the stakes are reestablished, Cameron cuts away. We are shown Ripley has an audience, she’s on a video camera, and if her only her friends would look on the monitor, she’ll be saved. We’ve seen this trope before and since, but Cameron uses it to construct a hierarchy of spatial confederation. By spending so much time building up a lucid sense of space, when the shit hits the fan viewers become perilously displaced in the action. We become as helpless as the characters. What once felt like spatial continuity is now a maze of hazy hallways.
The visuals have the power of a supercharged V8 engine, and they rev up the scare factor to frightening extremes. Aliens is full of tantalizing images: a camera panning past a reeling turbine (that just screams MENACE), flames erupting a nest of alien eggs, or the clashing colors of blue and red highlight fighting space marines. In fact, much of the third act uses the contrast between these two colors, giving the film a quality synonymous with the escalating tension. Blue suggests freedom. It lights up escape routes to safety. Red, the predominant color, shows entrapment and violence.
Only the delirious mind of James Cameron could conceive of a car chase that has a murderous monster alien in pursuit of a military motorcar that’s one part tank, one part armored transport, and one part Lamborghini. It’s painted in sexy black, and we see its descendants in Chris Nolan’s Batman movies. This chase scene is emblematic of another one of Cameron’s tricks as a filmmaker, what I call the domino effect. The domino effect is a grandiose interpretation of the principle of Chekhov’s gun, where whatever is introduced into the plot must be relevant later on, usually citing that a loaded gun in the first act must always fire by the third. Instead of it involving one or two plot strands, it involves about ten. Cameron bides his time, slowly introducing each domino, from the mech power suit to the Alien lair. As such, it makes the last hour of the film a ripping series of sequential payoffs each more exhilarating than the last.
Weaver continues to exhibit the extraordinary athleticism first seen in Alien’s final act, and she’s rarely sitting still. She’s constantly in motion, and she fills the frame with aggressive movement. Nobody in film has ever paced so fiercely. Weaver runs through corridors, often while carrying heavy loads, and, from the mid-point on, it seems like every fifteen minutes she has a new stunt to pull off. She defies the stereotype that physically demanding roles are only for brawny, big men. Instead of playing Ripley as a static protagonist, which alone would be far removed from the damsel in distress women typically play in science fiction, Weaver gives a wired performance. She pronounces her presence with a dominating intensity that glues your eyes to the screen. She’s fierce but not frantic. Cameron might have made his Alien sequel a science fiction masterstroke, but Weaver makes it a monument. She’s an emblem of inspiration to screenwriters and actors everywhere. She drives the story without ever giving the impression she’s actually in control of her surroundings. Danger is everywhere, and if Ripley’s in trouble, so are you.
She’s also rarely positioned as an erotic figure. There are maybe two scenes where Ripley has a sexual countenance, one of which shows her practically cupping her breasts after a nightmare. There’s also a brief moment after the halfway point where she flirts with one of the space marines. Otherwise, the film and Ripley have an asexual relationship. She shows no interest in sex, and the film shows no sexual interest in her. If anything, she’s made less of a sex object than the space marine commandos fighting alongside her. James Cameron’s early films loved to subvert gender roles, and Sarah Connor is cut from the same cloth as Ellen Ripley. So when the military G.I.s emerge onscreen with bulging and exposed arms coated with more oil than a double bacon cheeseburger, you know this is Cameron making a joke on the overly macho films of the 1980s. This is in contrast to the 1970s, where bookish heroes weren’t just around, they were common.
In many ways, Aliens set a new standard for action cinema. Not only does it have as much in common with Rambo: First Blood as it does with Alfred Hitchcock, but it was the rare film to use the crude effects of the 1980s to its advantage. Some films from this decade have extraordinary visuals but many don’t. Total Recall, while still enjoyably campy today, is unfortunately dated. Sets look like a sci-fi themed 80s rave, and the overall aesthetic suffers. But, for Aliens, it found the sweet spot. CGI hadn’t been used yet, so early bad CGI couldn’t harm it. Mechanical technology had become advanced enough to make complex animatronics, and Cameron used them to create stunning action scene after stunning action scene. The power suit is a feat of technical wizardry I still can’t compute. Sometimes, the crass technology backfired. But, for Aliens, it made it timeless.