Movies have a funny way of staying with you. The right movie at the right time can make a memory so strong that it forms a little piece of who you are. The same can be said of all media, of course—books, comics, a TV show or music—but movies have always been especially important to me.
In case it wasn’t obvious from the title, James Cameron’s Aliens was one of those pieces for me. In 1986, I was somewhere between 12 and 13. The entire year had been awful for everyone. My mom and sister were both in and out of the hospital for health problems, and I was pretty much ignored most of the time because everyone was constantly in crisis mode.
But this one day, on the way to a scheduled hospital stay, my parents, undoubtedly burned out from the stress, decided to take a break and take us to the movies. My dad and I were both huge science fiction and action fans. One of my earliest memories is going to see Star Wars with him in ’77 or ’78 (it came back to theaters a few times back then). Dad was also really into reading and watching film critics, and Aliens had gotten raves from Siskel and Ebert, which instantly put it on his must-see list.
Aliens was the first R-rated movie I’d ever seen. I wish I could remember my at-the-moment emotions during the film, but it was 30 years ago. I do, however, know the effect it had. Aliens, in comparison to anything else I’d seen (even Star Wars), was a revelation. The pacing of the relatively simple plot was breakneck and intense. The creatures were astounding (and still are), and the human characters were flawed, emotional, and mostly disposable.
The ideal of the space marine, though owing much to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, was almost single-handedly formed in the minds of filmgoers by Aliens. Cameron, clearly influenced by much older war movies and, perhaps especially, Apocalypse Now, took time in the first act to make sure we knew all these soon-to-be chewy morsels before the nightmare started.
Paul Reiser, as Burke, was an especially interesting character. The evil company man is a hackneyed cliché now, but Aliens is the reason you see this character so much. I’d only seen Reiser as a comedian, but he was perfect in the role—shallow and friendly, with a rotten core. He was as much a villain as the creatures and seeing humans in such an unfavorable light even compared to the monsters was something very new to me.
More profound was Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. I hadn’t seen Ridley Scott’s Alien yet, but I knew the basic premise and that Ripley was the lone survivor. In the late ’70s, both Alien and Halloween created a twist at the end simply by having a woman be the survivor. Decades later, it’s just a cliché—the Final Girl trope.
All I knew then was that Weaver kicked all kinds of ass. When she says, “Get away from her, you bitch!” I got excited chills. I still do. It’s a quintessential movie moment. Looking back, it never once occurred to me that it might be odd to general audiences to see Weaver as an action lead. Hell, Cameron would go on to make a career of this, but Ripley was the perfect star for Aliens.
Vulnerable, but badass, Ripley hated everything about her situation, yet still managed to function. She didn’t breakdown and cry, or rely on the marines to save her. Instead, she turned the tables on nearly every tired other action movie by saving them. Ripley remains one of the greatest film characters in history for a reason.
The impact Alien and Aliens had on pop culture is immeasurable. Every element of these films has seeped into every other media. Videogames like System Shock 2, Dead Space, and virtually every other science fiction game since owe Aliens a profound debt.
Aliens, of course, didn’t come from a vacuum. Cameron was recreating, in his own style, all the films and stories that had impacted him as a kid and budding film director. The Thing (both the original and the amazing John Carpenter version), old war movies, and ’50s monster movies all merge together to make something that, in turn, would affect all the next generation of kids like me.
I’ve had countless versions of the movie since then, but the laserdisc special edition stands tall in my memory. This massive box set, released in 1991, held the extended cut of Aliens on four double-sided discs. I’d heard rumors about a longer cut for years, and my excitement over seeing a longer version of my favorite movie was extreme. That extended cut, along with the theatrical cut, director’s commentary, and pretty much all the other extras from that first laserdisc special edition are included in Fox’s new 30th Anniversary release of Aliens. There’s also a new digital-only short about Cameron and his “Inspiration for Aliens.” (The inclusion of some really gorgeous “collectible” art cards is a nice touch too, but if you have the movie already, none of this is really worth a re-buy.)
When they’re old enough to see Aliens, my kids probably won’t get my obsession with the film or why it’s stuck with me. Just the same, the film stands tall 30 years later nearly as brilliantly as it did in 1986 (awful dropship sequence aside). Seeing it in the theater for the first time, every frame of Aliens blew my mind and felt like it was showing me—that clueless 12-year-old me—something new. And I hope at some point my girls find a movie that has that same effect on them.