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[Article] – Aliens Turns 30…


Posted August 21, 2016 by

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James Cameron’s Aliens turns 30 this year. A film that is rightly lauded as the correct way of doing a sequel, I look back at what made it so special and see if there are any lessons that franchise-happy Hollywood can learn from it today.

Seven years after Ridley Scott’s original, relatively unknown James Cameron took the reins, his grungy, original The Terminator having put him on the map. Cameron wisely decided against a repeat of the original’s horror-in-space tropes and instead opted to splice Xenomorph DNA into the burgeoning action movie genre. This was a wise commercial and artistic decision, with the hyper-masculine action movie fast becoming a staple of 1980s cinema. Although Aliens pre-dates two of the most successful examples of the Reaganite ‘one man army’ films (Predator and Die Hard), it also functions as an antidote to their testosterone-drenched excesses. So often a feature of James Cameron’s work (leaving aside True Lies…), a strong female protagonist drives Aliens, without her being sexualised or compromised. Indeed it is Ripley’s maternal instinct which motivates much of the narrative, not least the nail-biting Newt rescue sequence.

Of course, 80s tropes are present throughout, with wisecracking support characters, heavy artillery aplenty, last-second escapes, and a vague cynicism towards authority, personified by Paul Reiser’s brilliantly nefarious Burke. Cameron undermines what expectations might have existed for, say, Michael Biehn’s Hicks to take a lead role by having Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley constantly exert her influence (even in terms of military tactics and engineering) over the others. It’s moves like that that have helped Aliens stand out over countless male-led actioners.

Aliens, while headlined by major star Sigourney Weaver, has an ensemble dynamic which has rarely been bettered. The film doesn’t have time to really develop any character other than Ripley, but it gives each just enough to make them memorable. Of the survivors of the initial assault, there’s Vasquez (hard as nails), Gorman (incompetent leader), Husdon (jittery, comic relief), Hicks (grizzled, tough) and Bishop (honourable android – although he prefers the term ‘artificial person’) . The point being that we like these characters and care about them just enough. This is where sequels/extended universe films Resurrection and Prometheus went wrong: seen-it-before cyber punks, or dull scientists as supporting cast who don’t do enough to make us care about their fate.

Cameron wrings every ounce of tension from his set up. Taking cues from the likes of Jaws, he knows that a monster is scarier when you can’t see it, so he keeps his aliens off screen for much of the running time, trusting his audience to remember what they look like and allowing their dread to grow in your mind. He uses the quickening beep of motion detectors to wring tension from build up scenes, the first person marine helmet-cams and heart rate monitors to keep set pieces tight, and he weakens the marines against an impending threat by stopping them from using their ‘sonic, electronic ballbreakers” in the fight. A ticking clock is smartly added in the form of an impending nuclear explosion. Cameron keeps the film at a heightened level of tension throughout, with absolutely no wastage: a simple, quiet break in the action is turned into the gut-wrenching facehugger sequence; a scene in which the characters discuss Burke’s betrayal is ended abruptly by an attack bathed in red auxiliary lighting. Once Cameron gets his claws into you, they don’t come out.

Aliens’ biggest lesson to the present day is in how to stage a climax. How often have modern action films been ruined by poor CGI and confusing, explosion-driven endings? Why is the fist-fight ending of Captain America: Civil War better than the CGI Doomsday mess of Batman vs. Superman? It’s simple. Aliens leaves a lesson which is still being ignored by inferior directors all these years later: strip away all the weapons, explosions and CGI, and bring it down to a good old fashioned throwdown. A power lifter-clad Ripley defending her surrogate child against the alien mother. It’s simple and slow-paced, it’s not drowned out by dramatic music, it has distinct beats and is allowed to breathe, and it’s a memorable ending because of it.

Ridley Scott’s impending Alien: Covenant could take lessons from Aliens: keep it simple, don’t let up the tension, and give us some characters to care about.   I was five when Aliens came out, and probably about ten when I first saw it. The mark left by this film is so indelible it could have been made by the molecular acid that fuels its monsters. I watched it again today and it had exactly the same impact as it did on my ten year-old self: made me smile and scared the hell out of me at the same time. And it’s that what great cinema should do?


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Written By:


Adam Laffey
Blog – Adamature Critic
Freelance Contributor

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One Comment

    Lisa McGlinchey

    Great review.
    Was just discussing the movie the other night and how Cameron got it spot on with keeping the aliens (mostly) off screen. Plays a major part in the movie being so tense.

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