The first time I saw this movie I was by myself, munching on a huge Italian grinder from D'Angelo's that I snuck into a nearly empty Showcase theater one afternoon. Watching this again I still felt a little bit of that same feeling when the final confrontation begins: "No, wait... no, that's enough, I want to relax now, it's been like 45 minutes of this...ohhhh shit."
In the early days of Horrorthon, when discussing what counted as horror and what didn't, I would often cite these two flicks as a guideline: Alien is a horror movie, Aliens is an action movie. Fortunately for my sci-fi theme, we've since widened our range a bit. (Also, the franchise would later proceed to move back towards its origins, but more on that in another review).
As far as I can tell, Aliens is the only example of someone inflicting a deliberate genre change on a sequel and having it work out (although off the top of my head I can't recall anyone else even trying). The coiled spring of tension that is Alien is given over to the machine-gun wish-fufillment that flourished in the 80s. Cameron said his focus was "less on horror, more on terror," but he may as well have said "more on kicking ass." The conversion is simple: add an "S" to the title to really define the scope of the problem (which loses "Alien" as an adjective, so good-bye horror), then add that special ingredient best presented by Kurtwood Smith in Robocop: "Oooh, guns guns GUNS!"
(It also helps that you're not on a spaceship and don't care where the acid blood goes.)
This conversion does not come without cost, primarily in the quality of dialogue, the sophistication of 70s cinema chatter having been eclipsed by the acceptable action-flick slang of the time. Bill Paxton particularly stands out, unloosing "slack-jawed jarhead" in such an overbaked fashion that I wanted to clock him more than I did watching his character Chet in Weird Science (who, now that I think of it, might actually be the same character).
Private Hudson's bravado famously collapses when the shit goes down, effectively adding to the tension and the action, so his attitude makes some sense in terms of the bigger picture. But watching the mission briefing scene, in which an alleged elite military unit behaves like a roomfull of teenagers in detention, I realized uncomfortably that I was watching the probable birth of a sci-fi trope that continues to this day: the Fuck Your Mission Briefing scene. That's where a bunch of hardcore professionals gather round to hear their space orders and then loudly denounce the speaker as full of crap. I just watched Event Horizon last night and it's the same damn thing, echoing all the way to Prometheus this year. It's really too bad, almost three decades later sci-fi writing is still aiming way lower than it should.
Another regrettable benchmark established by Aliens is the stripped-down, utilitarian production design vibe that discards most of the personality of Alien. Look especially in the upper left corner of that picture above; it's just flat panes of gray. Overall, it's might be enough to be adequately future-ish, but it's not really trying to get your attention. Here's some more:
See what I mean? It lacks ambition. But that's just the interiors.
It is with some delight that I turn from these inadequacies and their unfortunate impact on cinema and start fawning over some of the production design triumphs Aliens has to its credit, starting with the Sulaco (above), one of my favorite-ever fake spaceships. I love that thing so much, my model kit of it is one of the only toys I've never stopped displaying. And that Drop Ship is pretty groovy, too.
And there's also this thing. Remember this thing?
And that brings me back to the final battle, still one of the most exciting and satisfying action sequences I've ever seen. Sigourney Weaver summons a lifetime of fury and fear to mix it up hand-to-hand with the family-sized version of one of cinema's most terrifying monsters, unbelievably brought to life with Oscar-winning puppetry. There's one shot that still gets me like the first time, when the two of them separate for a moment to regroup, and the Queen opens her maw to emit a hissing sigh of pure animal hatred. Yikes.
There are a few other performances I like: Michael Beihn as the grunt with a brain, Paul Reiser as the adorably evil Company man, and good old Lance Henriksen as the caring, faithful but still a little creepy Bishop the android. I'd spend more time talking about them but I'm more interested in spaceships and monsters.
Aliens isn't perfect but it comes pretty close, and while four and half stars may seem high for a movie that spawned Fuck Your Mission Briefing, there's enough stellar stuff in there to balance it out. I have to give it to James Cameron: even with his most questionable endeavors, he always manages to knock the action scenes out of the park.
Except those movies where it's all about him in a submarine. Did you know those fuckers were documentaries?