Weekend Retrospective - This Time It's War

PERFECT SCORE: ALIENS (1986)

'These people are DEAD Burke! Don't you have any idea what you have done here?!! Well, I'm gonna make sure they nail you right to the wall for this! You're not gonna sleaze your way out of this one!! Right to the wall!'

The behind the scenes history of the sequel to Alien being made sounds like a horror story all by itself. People from either side of the Atlantic fighting over things like work schedules and tea breaks while filming in England sounds like a nightmare. It's the sort of thing that should never happen, but the culture clash and lack of respect from the crew for the film makers set on doing a sequel to Ridley's 1979 classic created a lot of problems. It's been said they refused to even watch a private screening of The Terminator to see they weren't being pushed around by a complete hack.

On top of that there was also friction between two Jims Cameron and Horner as deadlines to finish the music approached. The original DOP was fired because he refused to light the set the way the director had envisioned. James Remar was let go because of drug problems. So it has to be asked, is this a true story of art through adversity? Perhaps, but luckily all the stress paid off. Much like the first two Terminator films, I have often had trouble deciding which is the better movie. They're all fantastic in different ways but let's explore why this particular sequel works so well.


A lot of what the film does right stems from the creative process. Somehow they set out some 6 or 7 years late to do a horror sequel and chose not to rehash the original. When does that ever happen? Of course they still retread a lot of old ground and there are many scene for scene moments, but the approach is all different. A lot of what the third instalment does wrong can be aimed at the way they hit reset on the scores, just so that Ripley could be reduced to a lone survivor again in another hunter versus hunted style film. James Cameron on the other hand took the opportunity to do something fresh. It's a far more intelligence approach, allowing for actual character growth as well as the change in tone. The result is of course one of the best sequels of all time.

It could still be creepy and tense when necessary, but it could also be all about kicking ass. It's a cathartic journey. Recycled elements like the airlock showdown they are suitable bigger and louder to fuel this feeling. Others simply subvert audience expectations - the opening nightmare quickly gets the alien birth over with so people are not waiting for it to come around. The rest of the story changes things around however, avoiding the horror staple of one creature versus a vulnerable supporting cast. Thinking outside they managed to create new iconic moments instead of just repeating old ones. Where Alien could have been just another cheap monster movie called Starbeast, this could have been a brainless rip off called Alien 2. The results of creative minds putting real effort into the process are just as impressive.

One of the more unusual choice is setting the film 57 years later. It might seem like a strange idea but it quickly established the mood, making Ripley alone not in just surviving the Nostromo disaster but in her life as a whole. It also allows for nearly 6 decades of development in terms of science fiction technology. It's something I feel that gets forgotten a lot of the time when viewers complain how easily the creatures get dropped by machine guns and smashed by moving vehicles. But this is a new era, times have changed since Ash described the perfect organism. It also allows for things like drop ships and power loaders without having to have them feel like part of the world of space truckers. Subsequent stories in this franchise often ignore all this and have every day 21st century people surviving against the unstoppable horrors from LV-426 and using contemporary weapons to pierce their armoured skin. Here it's used as a real creative decision, not only to make the film to look different from the original in many places, but also to allow for a shift in tone.


On that subject of course there has to be something said for the character writing. Ripley herself is still one of the best protagonists in cinema.  She moves from being the officer bashing heads with Dallas and Ash in the original, to the one who will pull everyone together when things inevitably go awry in part two. As a bonus there are some interesting maternal themes as she galvanises the juvenile soldiers who lack leadership and discipline, beyond of course her interaction with Newt. It also offers an interesting duality with the aliens themselves as she goes toe to toe against their mother in the finale. The whole child in peril thing can be a distraction, since of course this is a story where characters are supposed to be at equal risk of sudden death. But it's a small complaint.

It helps that the supporting cast are all so effective. There are those who find them irritating, in particular the more obnoxious members of the Marine Corps. Personally I never had a problem with this ensemble. The jar heads are a lot of fun despite having virtually no depth, from the all mouth and no trousers Hudson, the trigger happy Vasquez and Drake, the spineless career man Gorman and the strong and silent Hicks. I always enjoy the red herring of Bishop too, another part that plays against expectations. Even slimy corporate loser Burke who gets all the best parts of Ripley's wrath as things unfold is played just right. The dialogue isn't exactly ground breaking and they are thin caricatures, but it's nearly all memorable. With an ensemble this size that's what really matters.

All this good stuff is packaged in with a finely paced structure, some of the best set pieces and creature creations in science fiction cinema, a one hell of a score. James Horner may have borrowed a lot of cues from his work on The Wrath of Khan (or even one moment that seems to be mirroring 2001: A Space Odyssey) but it's still a great mix of brassy, bold themes and chilling atmosphere building tunes. Other artists involved include the master Stan Winston and his effects team who designed some amazing extrapolations of H.R. Giger's original work. And wow, do they deliver. Moments like the clash between the loader and the Queen are a high point for practical effects and puppeteering. They also make make a small number of costumes feel like a limitless number of alien monsters. My personal favourite however is they way that the original face huggers are augmented to become more nightmare fuel than they were before. The medical bay scene is a true master class in nail biting cinema as well as an impressive use of editing and creature models.


The impact this film has had on popular culture is still being felt in countless films and videogames. However I feel the craft on show here is overlooked when people remember the story just for its most explosive guns blazing sequences. The pyrotechnics and action are still impressive of course, but there is far more to it. It needs more credit for things like the suspense scenes, particularly the exploration of the colony and Ripley's venture into the Atmosphere Processor later on. These are perfect examples of building tension as well as building the world of the movie. The director's cut extends the running time slightly and loses a little of this slow building momentum, but whether one version is really better is arguable. Sometimes too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

James Cameron would go on to work on other greats such as The Abyss and Terminator 2 which retain many of the elements presented here, including no nonsense female leads and the dangers of human endeavours in technological advancement. But as the years pass I often feel sad that this mix of interesting themes, intelligent ideas and ground breaking special effects has never been revisited. Next to these all time greats the likes of True Lies and Avatar are just deeply mediocre and they don't seem to include the kind of creativity and passion beyond a interest in CGI. Will Avatar 2, 3 and 4 ever bring us back to the highs of this visceral thrill ride through Hadley's Hope? I think at this stage it's unlikely, but I can dream.

5/5