James Cameron was a huge fan of Ridley Scott's Alien, and had even written a script of his own that was almost like a sequel to the film, titled "Mother". So it was very appropriate that it was Cameron who was chosen by producers Walter Hill and David Giler to direct the long-awaited sequel.
He wrote the script while he was waiting to make The Terminator, but 20th Century Fox would not agree to him directing until after the success of that film. Once The Terminator was a hit, they gave Cameron an $18 million budget to play with for his next film.
It's interesting to note that Cameron wrote Rambo: First Blood Part II shortly before Aliens, so he was already immersed in that military world (though his original script was quite different before Sylvester Stallone got his hands on it). He was actually writing three scripts at the same time (Terminator, Rambo and Aliens), which was quite a challenge.
Like the first one, Aliens was shot in England, but with a more American cast (Cameron didn't want any British accents for his tough space marines). Returning cast members were Sigourney Weaver (the studio initially balked at paying Weaver more money to return, even though it's hard to imagine the film without her) and Jones (probably played by a different cat).
The film also featured The Terminator trio of Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen and, in a much bigger role, Bill Paxton. The actors playing the colonial marines had military training to get into character, except for Biehn who replaced the original actor playing his role, James Remar, after shooting had already begun.
There were frequent clashes between Cameron and the British crew. They clearly didn't think the unproven (in their eyes) director was worthy of following in Ridley Scott's footsteps. Cameron, for his part, didn't have much patience for English traditions such as the teatime lady interrupting his shoot with her trolley. The tension would eventually lead to an all out strike.
The film was eventually finished on schedule despite all the problems. In order to keep the film under two and a half hours, extensive cuts were requested by the studio. However, the removal of the scenes did not really hurt the flow of the film. The scenes would later turn up in a Special Edition release.
The atmospheric teaser trailer, with no dialogue, finished with the tagline, "This Time its War", promising an even more visceral experiences than the first classic film.
The film follows on directly from the end of the original, or so it seems at first. Ripley and Jones are picked up by a salvage crew and awake from hypersleep. There's a nice dissolve from Ripley's face in hibernation to the planet Earth.
Following a startling but bloodless (on the whole the film is much less gory than it predecessor) nightmare where Ripley is infected with a chestburster, she learns that fifty-seven years have passed, and the planet her crew visited in the first film, LV-426, has now been colonized.
Ripley is fired from Weyland-Yutani for carelessly blowing up the expensive Nostromo (though strangely it was only worth $42 million) and seems stuck on Earth until company stooge Burke offers her the chance to regain her post. The catch? She has to accompany him and a team of space marines to the plant where they found the alien, and find out why they have lost contact with the colonists. Like most heroes Ripley refuses at first, but then realises she must face her nightmares.
So begins the action-packed sequel, which delivers more aliens, more thrills and more of everything. The film is a real roller coaster ride (literally in one scene as the heroes drop down to the planet in an "express elevator to Hell") and moves so fast that it's easy to overlook some of the lapses in logic.
The Sulaco is an impressive spaceship that looks, appropriately, like a giant gun. Bishop's introduction, where the android stabs his knife between his own and Hudson's fingers faster than humanely possible, is a nice gag.
The tension as the marines search the colony is nicely built through two tricks - showing the limited POV of the soldier's cams in numerous shots and using a more advanced form of the motion tracker device that led to a memorable set piece in the previous film.
There's also a more tender side to the film with the developing relationship between Ripley and a young girl, nicknamed Newt, who survived the aliens' attack on the colony. She comes under the protection of the marines.
When the marines discover the whereabouts of the missing Colonists they go into a trap without projectile weapons (Gorman stupidly won't tell them the reason they can't use the weapons is because if the massive nuclear reactor in the complex gets hit it's bye-bye). It's around an hour into the movie before the aliens finally appear and all hell breaks loose, but the wait has been worth it. Not surprisingly, all the anonymous grunts are killed first.
This virtual massacre leads the group to consider leaving and nuking the site from orbit. All except Burke, who shows his true colors by claiming they don't have the authority to destroy company property and wipe out another species. He calls Hicks (who is in charge now) a grunt, "no offence" - a line that Hicks will reuse later when deciding Burke's fate after he betrays them.
Of course things gets worse when they learn the colony is going to explode in 4 hours and Bishop volunteers to crawl to the dish to call a ship down to pick them up (seems odd that there was no one left on the Sulaco, not even a cook or engineer).
There's a tense scene where Ripley and Newt are stalked by facehuggers released by the treacherous Burke. Eventually, the marines come to their aid and Hudson finally gets to be a badass by blowing away a facehugger.
There's a creepy scene where the aliens enter the complex and Hicks (rather stupidly) pokes his head up into the air duct to see them crawling towards him. Newt leads Ripley and the increasingly small number of marines to safety. However, an explosion sends Newt tumbling into a lower level where she is captured by aliens.
Ripley and Hicks make it to the shuttle where Bishop is waiting, but she refuses to lose her surrogate daughter and suits up like Rambo to head back to rescue Newt. Of course they soon stumble into the Queen's nest and meet what's been producing all those pesky eggs.
Unlike most action movies, Aliens doesn't cheat with time. When the voice announces that there's 15 minutes left to reach safe distance before the colony explodes, Ripley actually rescues Newt and gets out of there in less than 15 minutes.
It's slightly disappointing that the climax is a virtual replay of the end of the first film - i.e. Ripley goes back to rescue the cat/Newt while the ship/colony is on a countdown to destruction. She succeeds and escapes the explosion but the alien has stowed away on board the ship and has to be blown out an airlock into space by Ripley.
There's a disturbing moment before that when it seems like Bishop has a chestburster in him but it's actually the Queen's tale spearing him from behind. Despite the overly familiar ending, it does feature one of the great all-time crowd-pleasing moments where Ripley dons a power loader suit to fight the Queen and says the line, "Get away from her you bitch!" Newt calls Ripley her "mommy" after she's been rescued again, indicating that they have both found a surrogate for the loved one they lost.
The ending manages to suggest that, for Ripley and the survivors at least, the nightmare is finally over. Of course, when the third film in the series was finally released, that would turn out to be very much not the case.
As in The Terminator, Cameron brought a lot of depth to his characters. Ripley in particular is a much stronger character than in the first film (Weaver received a well deserved Oscar nomination, a rarity for an actress in a genre role).
Though Weaver was initially unhappy with the amount of gunplay in the script, she stepped into her woman of action role with confidence. The relationship between her and Newt is particularly touching (and would have been given even more depth in the deleted scenes, which showed how Newt was a surrogate for the daughter she lost).
The marines are very much like their 1980's counterparts, though less respectful of their superiors. Biehn is likeable as Hicks, the most well adjusted member of the space marines. There are hints of a relationship between him and Ripley (they have a romantic scene where he teaches her how to use a gun) but the film understandably doesn't have much time to develop it.
Of the rest of the supporting cast, Bill Paxton's Hudson, who freaks out like a foul-mouthed little girl when things go wrong, is especially entertaining. Hudson's various outbursts (such as "Game over, man!") are amusing, as is his dialogue with the butch Vasquez, such as when he asks her if she's ever been mistaken for a man and she retorts, "No, have you?".
Lance Henriksen is also very good as Bishop, the android who Ripley is understandably suspicious of but who turns out to have a heart of gold. Some of his later scenes also hint that he could be villainous, such as when he coldly examines one of the face huggers. However, he adheres strictly to Asimov's laws of robotics, even warning humans to "watch their fingers" when they are sealing him in a tunnel for a dangerous mission.
Special mention must also be made of Carrie Henn, who played the role of the young girl Newt, with great sensitivity and charm. Newt has to come to terms with the fact that there are real monsters, despite parents' claims to the otherwise. Surprisingly, it was to be Henn's only screen role.
Paul Reiser (known to TV audiences thanks to Mad About You) is very good as the creepy Burke. It's interesting that is character is introduced in a dream, lending him a somewhat shallow and untrustworthy quality from the start. When he gets his just desserts from an alien it's a very satisfying moment.
Even the minor characters are given arcs, such as Gorman who goes from an inexperienced Lieutenant despised by his troops to a courageous man who blows himself and Vasquez up rather than let the aliens get them.
Cameron is even more assured in his third feature film, taking over the reigns smoothly from Scott. While he doesn't have as artistic an eye as his predecessor, he ramps up the action and creates a more entertaining, if less groundbreaking, film. While it's less scary than the first film, Cameron handles the required jump moments well.
The film is less beautifully shot than the first movie. However, Cameron and his DP (the second one, after he fired the first) know how to use a camera. The shots of Newt under the floor grate trying to evade the marines cleverly foreshadow the very similar shots of her trying to escape the Alien Queen at the end.
There were no new H.R. Giger designs for the sequel, though they did stay fairly close to the aesthetic he created for the first film. The sets hold up well compared to those in the first film. It's especially interesting to see how the inhospitable planet Ripley and her crew first visited is now slightly more Earth-like as a result of terraforming.
While the attention to detail is impressive, there are some anachronisms carried over from the first film. For example, it's hard to imagine people still smoking cigarettes that far into the future, especially in space. The dialogue is also very 1980's in feel.
The action takes a while coming, but when it does it is very impressive. As in The Terminator, Cameron and his crew ratchet up the suspense and then pay it off in a big way. The first attack on the marines is pretty intense, and the final confrontation between Ripley and the Alien Queen is one of the classic movie showdowns.
Stan Winston returned to work with Cameron, designing, of course, a whole army of aliens this time. The xenomorphs, as Cameron calls them, were less intricately designed than the one in the first film, since it would have been impossible to create the many costumes needed and they were mostly to be used for quick shots. Indeed, there were only six complete costumes but clever editing created an army of aliens. The Alien Queen is one of the great screen monsters of the pre-CGI age that still holds up well today.
The score was by James Horner, who had written the music for Battle Beyond the Stars and would go on to later score Titanic, despite not having a very good working relationship with the director during the post-production of Aliens. The exciting score fits the film well and the main dramatic theme would go on to feature in countless trailers for other action movie.
The main subtext of the film is motherhood, with both Ripley and the Alien Queen fighting to protect their young. This helps to give a more feminine tone to the film to offset all the macho posturing. Indeed, despite the gung ho nature of the marines, the film does a good job of demonstrating the eventual inadequacy of their machismo.
Many people have seen a resemblance between Cameron's film and Robert Heinlen's novel Starship Troopers. Both feature space marines fighting armies of vicious alien creatures, though Cameron doesn't include the rather fascist subtext of Heinlen's book.
There are some interesting references to other alien lifeforms the marines have previously encountered, such as their complaining about being on another bug hunt and a dialogue about "Octurian pussy". There is also a possible Vietnam allegory with the marines being defeated by a less technology advanced but deadlier enemy.
Overall, Aliens is a superbly entertaining film that offers plenty for both fans of the first film and general action movie audiences. However, quantity doesn't always mean quality, and despite the excitement and superb craftsmanship of the film, it doesn't quite match the horror, innovation and artistry of Scott's original. The aliens are a lot easier to kill, thus they lack the unstoppable menace of the one in the first film. It may not be the superior sequel many have claimed, but the film is a triumph in most respects.
The film was released to very good reviews and was an even bigger hit than the original, earning over $80 million in the U.S. alone. It also proved the executives at Fox wrong, some of who regretted the decision to hire Cameron during the troubled production and even considered firing him at some points.
It was also the first of many Cameron films to later be released as a special edition. Cameron had been forced to cut around twenty minutes from the film before the release. An important subplot was removed where we learned Ripley's daughter had died of old age while she was floating in space.
The Special Edition also features an interesting scene with Newt's family discovering the alien ship at the beginning. A subplot with remote sentry guns set up to stop the invading aliens adds some tension. We also learn Ripley's first name is Ellen, in a brief scene that does admittedly slow the pacing of the final confrontation. Overall, the special edition makes a good film even better.
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: THE TERMINATOR
CHAPTER: THE ABYSS