Aliens USA, 1986.  Rated R.  137 minutes.
Special Edition: 154 minutes

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein, Al Matthews, Mark Rolston, Rico Ross, Colette Hiller, Daniel Kash, Cynthia Scott
Writers: James Cameron, David Giler, Walter Hill
Music: James Horner
Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle
Producer: Gale Anne Hurd
Director: James Cameron

Grade: A Review by Carlo Cavagna

Just as Alien is one of the best horror films ever made, Aliens is one of the best action films ever made. The second installment in the series, Aliens was co-written and directed by James Cameron. As you might expect, Alien director Ridley Scott's drawn-out tension-building atmospherics are replaced by Cameron's high-octane alien

Aliens picks up right where Alien left off. After escaping the Nostromo in a shuttle craft and floating through space in cryogenic sleep for 57 years, Ripley (a buffed-up Sigourney Weaver) is rescued near Earth. Her employer, the "Company," persuades Ripley to join a group of marines investigating an atmosphere control station on a distant planet that may have been attacked by aliens. Naturally, once the marines reach the station, they find it infested with aliens and copious mayhem ensues. Meanwhile, the sinister Company and its representative on the mission, slimy Burke (Paul Reiser), are up to no good.

Each of the Alien movies explores a more serious theme, in addition to fulfilling its primary purpose as an action or horror film. In this case that theme is motherhood. When Ripley and the marines reach the station, they discover a survivor, a little girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn). Ripley's protective maternal instincts are awakened, and she and Newt soon form a bond. At the same time, the marines are asking themselves where all the aliens can possibly be coming from. If they hatch from eggs, who's laying the eggs? It becomes clear that a confrontation between Ripley and the alien mother is inevitable.

The Big Picture

Aliens is a shoot-'em-up action film, with some of the horror of the prequel thrown in, but it is also something more. By weaving his exploration of motherhood into the fabric of the story, James Cameron injects an element of thought and artistry that could easily have been missing in lesser hands. Also worthy of mention are the characters and the acting. A female action hero was practically unheard of before Aliens, but Cameron took the risk, and the result was that Sigourney Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Each of the other members of the mission is a specific archetype with a specific role to play in the story, but the strong supporting cast (Michael Biehn, Lance Henricksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, and others) prevents them from seeming like tired clichés. The only flaw that mars Aliens is its scientifically improbable final sequence, which appears to break several laws of physics. Still, that doesn't detract much from the entertainment, unless you're the sort of person who cares a lot about such things.

Aliens Special EditionAliens Special Edition

For a long time available only on laserdisc, the director's cut of Aliens is now available on VHS and DVD. It contains over 15 minutes of restored footage. The notable additions are:

1) We learn that Ripley had a daughter who died during the 57 years Ripley spends travelling back to Earth. This loss helps to explain why Ripley responds so strongly to Newt.

2) Cameron takes us on an early visit to the colony showing how the colonists first encounter the aliens. This helps to clarify a fuzzy plot point--namely, how and why do they encounter the aliens only after 20 years on the planet? An explanation is given later in the theatrical version of the movie, but it doesn't fully answer the question. We also meet Newt, Newt's parents, and her little brother, played by Carrie Henn's real-life brother.

In the theatrical release, the scene where Burke tells Ripley that the colony is in trouble and invites her on the rescue mission follows immediately on the heels of scene in which Ripley is fired, which is an abrupt turnaround. In the Special Edition, the early scenes at the colony are inserted between these two scenes. In terms of the pacing, this is an improvement. However, the scenes at the colony aren't particularly well-written, and their inclusion diminishes the sense of the unknown that we experience later, when Ripley and the marines first arrive. Also, the movie works better if we've never met Newt before Ripley finds her, in part because then we don't know to expect her.

3) Cameron pays homage to the original Alien with a silent exploration of the sleeping marine ship. Alien opens with a (much longer) similar sequence. Also, the marines' arrival on the planet and exploration of the compound is longer in the Special Edition.

4) Watch for the remote sentries!

Review © March 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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