Aliens is about to turn 30 years old in July and, like overexcited idiots, we’re jumping ahead and celebrating this masterpiece right here and now. After three decades this film has lost none of its terrifying brilliance and stands as a testament to how to do a sprawling action film on a smaller budget and with virtually no computer generated special effects.
Aliens pushed the boundaries of cinema in 1986 and the result was a film which exceeded expectations massively and improved on one of Ridley Scott’s timeless masterpieces.
James Cameron directed it with real verve. He’s got a bit of a reputation (Kate Winslet certainly won’t be working with him again) for pushing things to extremes, which is fine for us movie goers as we don’t have to be near him as he goes about production. Full credit to him. He makes action packed films and this is arguably his best.
Following on from the exploits of Ripley in 1979’s Alien, we meet up with her character after she’s been floating in space. Picked up by a deep space salvage crew, she immerses herself back into normal life before being drafted in as an expert for an army initiative to unearth what’s happened to a human colony on a planet. The result? Utter carnage.
The big advancement on Scott’s Alien is the sheer number of aliens – they’re everywhere! The claustrophobic tension and horror of Scott’s film is also mixed with explosive action elements and, we have to say, we think Cameron’s film is better than the first one. Sacrilege?
Say what you like about Cameron and his work on something such as Titanic (a strange film which is essentially Romeo and Juliet for 90 minutes before morphing into an, admittedly, rather brilliant film), the man knows how to do action.
Aliens is just remarkable. Although you don’t see any aliens for the first hour, once the first action set-piece kicks off (a genuinely shocking moment) with aliens camouflaged by walls emerging to attack the marine unit, the intensity ramps up and doesn’t stop until the final credits roll. It’s breathless stuff and it was even improved upon when the Director’s Cut was released.
The Cast & Characters
What helps the film significantly is the excellent cast and the characterisation afforded to the marine unit. Sigourney Weaver’s fantastic as the bold Ripley, even though being a pacifist (see the documentary below) she was left conflicted during production by the extensive use of guns.
The supporting cast of Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser, William Hope, and others is pretty exceptional. Thusly, you have the likes of now legendary, even revered heroic film characters such as Corporal Hicks, Corporal Hudson (who loses his cool enormously when the aliens break lose and yells the famous line: “Game over, man!”), Private Vasquez, and others left to fend for the lives in a brutal fight with odds stacked greatly against them.
Thrown into an appalling situation, they use their brains and formulate a plan to get off the planet where they’re stranded. Kudos to all of the actors, it’s a riveting collective performance.
Where’s Michael Biehn?
Although this is Weaver’s film, we’re going to highlight Michael Biehn here as he’s one of cinema’s great enigmas. As the level headed (and impossibly cool) Hicks, he complements Ripley’s leadership in Aliens and helps a few survivors flee the planet. It’s a subtle performance with moments of extreme intensity which adds tension to the film by highlighting the hellish situation this lot are in.
After starring, and being brilliant, in three of the ‘80s biggest films (The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss), you’d think he went on to superstardom and critical acclaim. He didn’t – after 1989 he pretty much disappeared and that was that. What the hell happened? On paper he has everything required to be a star: excellent actor, very hunky, impressive CV, and yet this wasn’t enough.
He was supposed to spearhead Alien 3 in 1992, apparently, but this fell through (given how awful that film is this rejection probably did him a favour). He was also considered for a big role in Avatar in 2009 but nothing came to fruition – now 59 he seems to have retired and is content with his family life.
A Difficult Production (bloody English)
Returning to the Aliens, perhaps unsurprisingly with the advanced nature of Cameron’s demands, the shoot wasn’t easy.
We should point out this primarily appears to be due to the British crew at London’s Pinewood Studios. They had issues with Cameron’s lack of experience (apparently The Terminator hadn’t been released in UK cinemas at the time of Aliens’ 1985 filming) and believed he was about to destroy the legacy of Scott’s 1979 film.
With regular inopportune tea breaks (which left Cameron vexed), occasional walk outs, mockery of Cameron’s then wife (producer gale Anne Hurd), and the demanding technology requirements for the film, it all got a bit fraught. At least it all turned out nice though, huh?
The Making of
Some of these issues you can see in the above documentary from 2003. This also provides detailed insights on how they made everything come together; Cameron’s occasional use of reversing film is particularly brilliant, whilst it’s also impressive what Weaver went through physically weeks on end.
It caps off 30 years of being one of the finest action films available, one which mixes brains with brawn and has left an indelible mark on the industry. Hopefully for the 30th anniversary Aliens will get a limited release back into the cinemas as seeing this thing on a big screen would be nothing but essential viewing. Fingers crossed!