Aliens is a follow up to Alien, and stands out as an example of how you take a great movie and make it better. Other than being a great sequel to a famous SF master piece, it also got a bad rap for what some believed, mistakenly, I think, to be a gung-ho portrayal of the military.

I don't look at it that way. I mean, this clearly is a movie about the military, and about the military ethos. It showcases numerous instances of esprit de corp as well as masculine bravado often associated with men in uniforms, not to mention Cameron's almost boyish fascination with weapons, spaceships, big guns and all things glitzy and lethal.

However, Cameron also goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate the limitations of a militaristic approach to crisis resolution and expose the masculine bravado for what it is. And anyway, the movie is just too much fun to dismiss it on ideological grounds.

Review by SAndman
January 10, 2009

Director: James Cameron

screenplay: James Cameron

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley
Carrie Henn as Rebecca 'Newt' Jorden
Michael Biehn as Cpl. Dwayne Hicks
Lance Henriksen as Bishop
Paul Reiser as Carter Burke

Released: 1986

Newt: My mommy always said there were no monsters - no real ones - but there are.

Aliens opens when a deep salvage team comes across the shuttle carrying Ellen Ripley and the cat Jones, sole survivors of the Nostromo spaceship. When Ripley wakes up from hypersleep she finds out that it has been fifty-seven years since the events that took place aboard the Nostromo prior to the launching of the shuttle. She is suffering from terrible dreams in which she is impregnated with an alien embryo which is about to burst out of her chest. Before long she is approached by Burke, who introduces himself as a company man, which immediately raises suspicions.

Ripley is taken before a committee of company bigwigs. They take her deposition and in a rather kangaroo court fashion rule that in events preceding the destruction of the Nostromo she acted in questionable judgment.

In the course of the proceedings Ripley finds out that LV-426, the planet on which the crew of the Nostromo first encountered the deadly creature in the insides of the wrecked alien spaceship, has been colonized by terraformers.

She can see what is coming but since nobody seems to care much about the fate of the settlers she leaves the proceedings demoted and full of foreboding.

Ripley sets to rebuilding her life as best she can. Stripped of rank she can only find a menial job and ends up working on cargo loaders. At night she suffers from the recurrent dream in which she carries an alien embryo which is just about to smash its way through her chest.

Soon she finds out that her fears have been justified when Burke, accompanied by a marine officer, comes and informs her that they have lost all contact with LV-426. He offers her a new mission, and though he assures her that she has nothing to fear as she will be accompanied by highly trained Space Marines, she turns him down. That night she has her dream again, and the moment she wakes up she calls Burke and agrees to join the mission.

In my view, Aliens is, by and large, an elaborate science fiction parable of obsession. Every character in the movie is driven, to say the least, by some overarching notion or another. Ellen Ripley struggles to confront her nightmare once and for all. The Marines are ready to undergo terrifying ordeals on account of their reputation - for all their bravado and the tough guys' image they want to project, that attitude proves hardly sufficient to see them through; were it not for Ripley's gutsiness and leadership they would have been easy game for the swarming hosts of creatures. Burke, a grasping bureaucrat, is willing to renounce his common humanity to sate his greed. His businesslike, smarmy mien is likely the most repelling thing in the movie.

And, finally, the monsters, aliens, or whatever you want to call them, those slithering, slimy, grotesque things that lurk on the borders of a man's night terrors, are driven by the deepest of life's urges - preservation of the species. In the end, it all boils down to one thing alone - survival. That is something men and aliens both have in common.

There is a beautiful little exchange some halfway through the movie when Ripley and the rest, having just lost a fight to the aliens, their first fight, that is, come to a brief lull in which they try to come to terms with their predicament. They put forward various suggestions about to how best to deal with the crisis. Ripley suggests that they best take off and nuke the whole sight from orbit.

Hudson, the big mouth and the first of the Marines to break down, jumps to it - he has already lost his nerve, and is now acting solely on his fear. Corporal Hicks, next in the line of command after Lt. Gorman, incompetent officer in charge of the military side of the operation, got knocked out by a blow to his head, is not sure about this. He must step up now and decide their next step. Quickly, Burke, ever calculating, chimes in, and lamely tries to reassure everybody with a line about "not making any snap judgments". But what is clear to everybody is that his primary concern is not the safety of his team but the bill of expenses their expedition might incur.

There, in that scene, you have three basic examples of how men operate. Men are ready to destroy a planet if that wipes out the fear that is staring in their face (If we ever discover another sentient life form, or any life form at all in the universe, we'll have to work very hard to come up with a whole new morality if we are to live with it rather than blow it to smithereens the moment it turns out to pose a potential threat to our welfare). That is Ripley's viewpoint. That approach is sensible enough, though you could argue its ethical implications, as long as you can provide the rationale based on the survival of the human species.

Another approach to this situation is embodied in Corporal Hicks, who, being cut off from the chain of command, for a moment seems at a loss. He's floundering without an outside authority, without somebody to give him orders, although he quickly springs to action incensed at Burke's derogatory comment about him being unable to make that decision, "He's just a grunt, no offense."

And then, there is Burke's point of view. What it basically comes down to is that there will always be men who will sacrifice fellow humans in a heartbeat if they stand to profit from it. As Ripley succinctly puts it, "I don't know which species is worse. At least, you don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamned percentage."

It is against this greed, as much as the lethal pursuers, that Ripley pits herself, and, inspiring the rest of the team by her tenacity, she musters in them the best of what our species possesses, loyalty to a man standing beside you, fierce protectiveness of our children, adaptability and determination to prevail against tremendous odds.

James Cameron put a lot of themes in the Aliens. I already mentioned his fascination with technology, and especially the way technology functions as an extension of a man. Think the cargo loader which figures in the final showdown between Ripley and the Queen.

The base site itself is one the visually most compelling sets I've seen on screen with its maze of corridors, elevator shafts, beams and cross-hatched girders, staircases, conduits, the clanging doors which separate the corridors - these objects have all the immediacy and responsiveness of much-used infrastructure. Even the vests that cover the marines' bodies show the same meticulous attention to detail - stains and scratches are almost palpable.

Furthermore, the warship is a true masterpiece. Sleek and intimidating at once. The bay area, cargo loaders, life pods, even the guns, especially the guns, are designed with a loving attention to the tiniest detail - you can really see there is deadly economy at work here.

Also, lots of thought went into the characters of the Marines. They are nothing short of lifelike. Script itself is outstanding. You can read it (I certainly did, umpteen times) and enjoy it in its own right. Dialogs are crisp and full of gruff banter. With the exception of Platoon I can't think of a single movie before or since in which the military ethos has been depicted with such probing insight and command of material.

The character of Ripley undergoes a significant shift compared to Alien. She moves center stage, and grows in stature. In Scott's Alien she was one of the crew, albeit the one who outmaneuvered the creature, this time around she truly is the hero of the movie, and more. Fearsome and unstoppable, at times she comes across as something elemental, a force of nature. Just as fascinating is her alien counterpart, the Queen. She is a grisly combination of ferocity and fertility. The scene in which the fertilized eggs slither down the transparent egg-laying organ extruding from her body - ah, there's something to haunt your quiet moments - resonates with images of morbid sexuality.

Aliens is a movie to watch and watch again with double the pleasure. (Pleasure effect grows exponentially with every new watching.) Without a doubt the most powerful part in the series. It took Scott's visionary creation to new levels, and set a standard for the genre.

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