Lost in space for a number of years - and plagued by nightmares of an encounter with a hostile Alien - Ellen Ripley struggles to adjust to a new life.
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There are three types of popular, mid to late, 80’s movies. The largest group are films that may’ve been good in their time, but just don’t hold up anymore (every Best Picture winner except Platoon); the second group are films that are great in their time but can’t exist anywhere else (Red Dawn, The Goonies, Gremlins); the third, much smaller group are the few classics that were not only great in their day, but are still just as amazing right now. If I had to make a list, Midnight Run would be on it – ditto Die-Hard, Back to the Future, The Fly, Glory, and Depalma’s The Untouchables and Casualties of War among others – but if there is one movie that would stand out most, for me personally, it would have to be James Cameron’s amazing ALIENS.
Cameron had recently quit trucking and was building models for Roger Corman movies when the first Alien film was released. Ridley Scott’s incredible, Alien, turned a haunted house styled movie, into a phenomenon. It was a simple story, executed brilliantly and a movie that didn’t really need a sequel. By 1984, Cameron (now a feature director) was about to make The Terminator but he was also pushing two scripts: the Alien sequel and Rambo, a follow-up to First Blood. Cameron either had a knack for interesting, unexpected, sequels or was just asking for trouble. Fox was interested in another Alien film, but everything hinged on how The Terminator would turn out. Though the film wasn’t a blockbuster it did make a big enough splash in Hollywood to give Cameron a shot at Aliens.
In the first film, Ellen Ripley witnesses the death her entire crew and just barely manages to escape with her life. She sets a course for Earth in her escape shuttle, then enters a cryogenic chamber to sleep is for the six week journey. In the opening scenes of Aliens we discover that her shuttle drifted past the core systems and was lost in space for fifty-seven years. Ripley wakes up with nothing – her job, her friends, even her daughter are gone. She also comes under much scrutiny from a corporate state known as The Company. They don’t believe her story about how she lost one of their freighters and decide to revoke her flight license. To make matters even worse, she is haunted by horrible nightmares of the monster that destroyed her life.
Someone at The Company secretly believes Ripley and launches an investigation on the now inhabited planet LV426 - the same planet where her team encountered a crashed Alien vessel nearly sixty years prior. Contact is soon lost with the colony and a company executive, Carter Burke (Reiser in one of his few serious roles), sponsors a military operation to discover exactly what happened. Despite her bad dreams, Ripley initially refuses to along as an advisor, but when Burke promises that the mission will be to destroy the Aliens, she signs up. Even as an advisor, Ripley is respected but isn’t quite taken seriously by The Company or the soldiers en route to LV426 until things go wrong. As the film progresses and each new crisis emerges - Ripley begins to have a more commanding presence. By the middle of the film she is pretty much calling the shots and the only one to challenge her is Burke who is not as trustworthy as he seems.
In addition to her leadership responsibilities, Ripley befriends young Rebecca (aka Newt), the last survivor of the colony. Both share a bond because their suffering is similar – they both have the same sense of loss, and the same nightmares. Both women are at rock bottom in the beginning of the film but by the end, everything they lost is restored. I doubt both characters are conscious of their experiences because they spend most of the film on the run from aliens. It is in the final scenes when the aliens are finally put to rest - in one of the greatest finales ever filmed – that Newt and Ripley both finally realize how far they have come. They both lost their families but became a new one.
The film is sold as a solid action picture – but like all Cameron’s vehicles, it’s so much more. The tagline was “This time it’s War” and, while it does deliver the promises of its marketing campaign – there is also beautiful movie within a movie. The Terminator was sold as an action movie and it delivered the goods, but it was ultimately a heartbreaking love story. Aliens was sold as a sci-fi war film, but ultimately it’s a story of loss and renewal.
Sadly, no one really remembers Aliens or the brilliant film that preceded it because they were followed by an unwatchable, moronically insensitive, sequel that not only destroyed the Alien franchise, but the entire science fiction genre for a decade. I ignore the unfortunate existence of any Alien movies after Aliens and I advise everyone to do the same. Only the first and especially the second film are worth your time. Though technically outmatched by modern sci-fi movies, I can’t think of one sci-fi action film of the last twenty-five years that comes close in delivering action, story, and drama as impressively as Aliens. James Cameron is a master (the Martin Scorsese of escapist cinema) and though he has technically outshined Aliens in later films – I still feel that this is the best it gets. This is a brilliant filmmaker at the peak of his talent making one of the very best science fiction films of all time.