In all honesty, you could probably blame all sequels of the modern era on James Cameron who made them so damn good, Hollywood execs saw money signs and decided to greenlight any sequel that had any chance of making more money.
Aliens, released this month in 1986, was only his third movie credited as a director even though Cameron has spoken out he didn’t do that much on Piranha II: The Spawning.
After the success of The Terminator, Cameron seemed like the perfect candidate to direct a sequel to Alien. And it would lead to a franchise that never would compare to the first two, just like the Terminator franchise.
Aliens doesn’t duplicate the plot of the first one. Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon and others were able to take the haunted house format and set it in space. I commented in a movie column I wrote for the Wagoner Tribune that the xenomorph in that movie was hardly shown which led to the suspense that we never know where it’ll pop up even when it’s hiding in plain sight.
With the element of surprise gone, Cameron decides to add more xenomorphs battling Marines. The tagline of the movie is the iconic “This Time It’s War.” The horror element is mostly gone as Cameron, who had been credited as a writer on the second Rambo movie, decided to make it a sci-fi action movie.
At the end of the first movie, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) gets in the hibernation chamber and goes to sleep. The beginning of Aliens begins 57 years later as the shuttle was lost in space and found by a salvage crew.
Over the years Weyland-Yutani, the company Ripley worked for, has sent people to help colonize LV-426 where the crew of Nostromo set down on leading to the events of the first one.
Initially, her claims are not believed by the corporation. But when the colonists quit communicating, a company man Burke (Paul Reiser in a slimy weasel of a role) and a Marine Lt. Gorman (William Hope) approach Ripley about going to LV-426 with a squad of about a dozen Marines to find out what happened.
They’re your typic Dirty Dozen/Merry Men (including of women) who all talk about how “badass” they are but when faced with the xenomorphs are picked off one by one ala Agatha Christie, to where it’s just three grunts Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Pvt. Vasquez (Jeannette Goldstein) and Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton in a memorable role) left.
Also along is Bishop (Lance Henriksen), a synthetic android, who Ripley isn’t too enthused with being on a mission with as on the last one, an android “malfunction” and tried to kill the humans to protect the xenomorph.
The Marines also find Newt (Carrie Henn) a young girl who is the only survivor of the colony. In a deleted scene that was only shown on TV versions as well on director’s cut, it’s mentioned that Ripley’s daughter on Earth has died while she was in hibernation, which makes the relationship between Ripley and Newt more meaningful.
Cameron gives us a lot of gunfire and explosions but he doesn’t overdo it. This might explain why another deleted scene in which sensory machine guys blast xenomorphs to pieces was deleted. Yes, it’s bigger but that doesn’t always mean it has to be louder.
Cameron is able to pull some memorable performances out of the cast. Weaver received an Oscar nomination for her role. Considering it looked in the first one she might be the antagonistic character, this is quite an achievement.
Cameron has always written strong roles for women in his movies. Take Sarah Conner on both of the first Terminator movies as Linda Hamilton became a modern of badassery for women. Then there’s Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss who is considered a bitch by so many of the men in the movie. But if she was a man herself, they would think differently.
Rose in Titanic and Neytiri in Avatar were very strong female characters who rallied against traditions their societies expected from them. Even Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in True Lies was able to break free of her suburban image and get in on the action.
And Vasquez proves she can be just as much a meaner Marine than her male Marines. Goldstein’s performance has set a stereotype in future action and sci-fi movies for similar characters.
Paxton has gotten a lot of attention over the years for his loud-mouth narcissistic role. And Paxton dials it up to 11. But in real life, he said it was a hard role, especially having to use so much profanity around Henn.
I always thought it was funny that Hudson is the IT person of the squad. It’s also a comedic role for the late actor who seems to be the butt of many jokes and pranks by the other Marines.
But Henriksen never does really get the attention he deserves as Bishop. Playing a synthetic, he speaks in an almost monotonous tone, but you can still see there’s some hint of emotion around his role. He knows Ripley doesn’t like him and even the Marines might think he’s a little weird. You’re also wondering if Bishop is going to end up double-crossing everyone like what happened in the first movie.
Henriksen is an actor often cast as bad guys or suspicious people. But here, it’s nice to seem him play a good guy even if his body is ripped apart at the end by the queen alien.
Aliens also wasn’t an easy movie to shoot. Filmed in England, Cameron had a cultural clash with the crew and cast, and vowed never to film another movie ever in England.
James Remar was fired shortly after filming began as he was batting a substance abuse issue. Remar was initially cast as Hicks, and reportedly can still be seen in the background in one scene. Biehn did a better job as Hicks. Remar can be a very intense actor and I don’t think that would’ve been right in the role.
Unfortunately, the success of Aliens led to sequels, prequels and crossovers which weren’t as good. Scott has returned to the franchise but Cameron thankfully has stayed away.
As he prepares those Avatar sequels, we’ll know if lightning will strike a third time for him.