By the time July rolled around in 1986, moviegoers that year had already been treated to the awe and wonder of hitchhiker cautionary tales, Molly Ringwald’s reprised role as sad teenager (who’s poor this time!), two animated films about robots that can transform into less cool things than robots, Sly Stallone vs. an axe-clanging cult, Goose’s faulty “Eject Seat” button, Matthew Broderick as a lying, uneducated rich kid, and David Bowie’s scandalous elf king britches. Memorable films aside, 1986 deserves four-stars for at least diversifying its weird shit (robot identity crises notwithstanding) as opposed to churning out 50 variations of Will Ferrell screaming or that one rom-com where the unlikely couple defies the odds.
Then came Aliens. Released seven years after Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, peed pants-inducing original film, Aliens answered the (probably) pressing question of could it get much worse than being stuck on a spaceship with just one xenomorph and a milk-filled android played by pre-Bilbo Baggins Ian Holm. As it turns out, yes. It could absolutely be worse. Long before denying a more buoyant wooden door for Leonardo DiCaprio or creating two-and-a-half hour long environmentalism infomercials featuring affable blue aliens who talk to trees, James Cameron accomplished the nearly impossible task of creating a science fiction sequel not named Star Wars that could hold its own against the enormous standards set by its predecessor.
Having read his screenplay for The Terminator and probably unaware of his involvement with Piranha II: The Spawning, Brandywine Productions approached the then-29-year-old Cameron about writing a sequel to Alien. Being the robot/alien/explosions-loving writer he is, Cameron jumped at the chance and the rest is movie history. Aliens saw Cameron take the risk of continuing an otherwise open-and-shut sci-fi horror narrative, instead of going the safer route of simply telling a separate but similar story of a blue-collar salvage crew getting their asses handed to them by the slobbering, two-mouthed, acid-blooded offspring of H.R. Giger.
Revisiting the “that’s that” denouement of the original film would naturally run the risk of not leaving well enough alone and end up functioning as little less than an unnecessary footnote. But Cameron didn’t simply revisit the final scene of Alien. He uses it as the opening scene for the sequel and not as a recap a la Rocky. Beginning with Sigourney Weaver’s Lt. Ripley and her fearless cat, Jonesy, sleeping in the cryochamber onboard the escape pod they’d used to escape the self-destructing Nostromo, Aliens jumps right in and doesn’t look back. It’s the only time in the film that you really think about what came before, and it’s ultimately the last glimpse of a still relatively hopeful Lt. Ripley.
From there, the film cultivates its own kind of palpable fear and one that’s inherently different from the isolation of the original film. Mistrust of authority or the ruling class are familiar themes for Cameron. In fact, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that much of why his films have been so successful falls squarely on Cameron’s ability to place believable characters in unbelievable circumstances against a variety of opposing and generally corrupt forces that run the gamut of setting from post-apocalyptic to historical to science fiction at its most terrifying. To that end, Aliens capitalizes on what was a briefly mentioned but no less unsettling suggestion from its predecessor.
Of the first film’s many blood-curdling scenes, perhaps the most chilling and relatable to audiences is the confrontation between Ash and Lt. Ripley near the film’s climax. In what now seems an especially smart move by Scott, the film goes beyond what was already an outstanding dynamic of science fiction and horror. Though a passing moment juxtaposed against the rest of the film, the scene ultimately sets the stage for a silent adversary that underscores virtually every aspect of the franchise from the sequel all the way through the well-meaning but ill-conceived Prometheus. Though technically called Weyland-Yutani, that opposing force is appropriately referred to throughout the films simply as “The Company.”
It’s the kind of cold, mechanical name that Cameron had used to incredible effect with The Terminator and would continue to do so all the way up to present day, providing a stark, emotionless contrast to the intangible strength of the human experience. At its most effective, horror sticks. It piques the curiosity and imagination in such a way that you avoid gray cats and highways in general after watching Pet Sematary for the first time. Managing that kind of response is difficult enough in the realism of suburbia. Conveying it with staying power using a story that takes place on another planet and features Bill Paxton yelling for at least a solid hour alongside hundreds of aliens? That takes talent.
A few years before he became awkward husband of Helen Hunt in Mad About You, Paul Reiser nabbed the role of Carter J. Burke, Weyland-Yutani shill and champion corporate asshole. To his credit, Reiser plays the role convincingly, though it’s not exactly a far-cry from the awkward, bumbling insecure guy role he’s played multiple times. Only this time, there’s a murderous, slimy coward behind all those “uhs” and “derps.” As a young viewer, Burke represented little more than an unlikable character who I hoped would end up in the cradling arms of a xenomorph. With repeated viewings since and throughout adulthood, Burke’s character has become much more unnerving.
Hell is … Paul Reiser.
You expect an alien species that had killed all but one person and her cat in the first film to continue to be generally unapproachable in the second. Even the reveal of Ash’s loyalty to the company and its true intentions in the first film aren’t as much a blow as the gradual realization that Burke, an actual person and not an android, is utterly indifferent to sacrificing human lives on the altar of weaponry advancement. Yowza. Though Cameron hasn’t always succeeded in his attempts to convey his perspective on social issues (i.e. floating angel people who finger wag and threaten tsunamis because humans … uh … kill each other?), his understated treatment of The Company in Aliens is tremendously effective.
In the context of history, Aliens serves as an eerie parallel to the Reagan Administration’s overtly militant perspective of any country or culture not under the stars and stripes. What’s even more striking is that the film was released only eleven years after the end of The Vietnam War. Where its predecessor took the route of isolation as a vehicle for fear, Aliens is in many ways even more terrifying in that there are no escape pods and the enemy is no longer limited to a single creature of unknown origins. For Aliens, the enemy is as much the suggested motives of its human characters as it is the animalistic instincts of its xenomorphs.
For all that Scott’s Alien suggested in portraying a human response to unknown terror (see: The Cold War), Aliens is a kind of full realization that those boundaries of conflict are not so easily defined in reality. One of the film’s most telling scenes comes at the very beginning of the film as Ripley attempts to explain the events that had occurred on the Nostromo to a room full of corporate executives, representatives of The Company. Rather than responding with an understandable, “Holy shit. Let’s make it a point to never come into contact with one of those fuckers again,” the sleazeball collective shrugs it off as if the face-hugging, multiple mouth-having, everyone-killing alien just needs some cuddles and a military purpose.
It’s hard to imagine that Cameron’s interpretation of how the original story would continue wasn’t informed by the international climate of warmongering corporate thugs eager to push the button. Of course this is to say nothing of one of the film’s most fully developed characters, Newt. A byproduct of The Company’s military agenda, Newt is an unwitting victim in a corporate scheme gone awry in the worst way imaginable. Her story of how the entire rest of her family were taken and killed by the aliens is an easy get in terms of being chilling. But knowing that behind it all is the reality of humankind at its most deplorable is just as disturbing.
This isn’t to suggest that Cameron expected viewers to bypass their fear and simply embrace the xenomorphs as just a bunch of silly ol’ exoskeleton-clad grumps who just want to have a million baby xenomorphs and terrify the shit out of the universe. The film’s effectiveness as a science fiction horror remains just as iconic and untouchable as the original to the point that were it the only film set in this narrative, it would lose little if any of its staying power. And while the three decades since the release of Aliens have had no shortage of captivating science fiction horror films, none of them have come close to offering the same kind of science fiction that despite taking place on some imagined distant planet, feels terrifyingly close to home.