April 26th means Alien Day. And on this day I would like to challenge the “common wisdom” of james cameron‘s Aliens that has always been a bee in my bonnet. Or should I say an Alien in my ascot? A Facehugger in my frock?
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that what is largely considered to be one of the best sequels of all time is somehow getting an unfair shake. Cameron’s 1986 follow-up to Ridley Scott’s immortal classic is well beyond gilded in the eyes of film fans at this point. Yet there is a persistent…attitude, shall we say, around Aliens that never sat right with me – and that is the notion the film is just “the action one” to Scott’s claustrophobic horror.
Because of the movie’s action fest reputation it seems many forget Cameron’s sequel is still a 100% dyed-in-the-wool horror film. We’ve all been proudly proclaiming Cameron’s breakout classic The Terminator “is a horror film, actually” to anybody who will listen. So why don’t we do the same for Aliens?
Aliens is more often than not categorized as the bigger, louder, firepower enhanced shoot ’em up extravaganza next its smaller, more intimate predecessor. While on the surface much of this is true, that’s just it. This is all on the surface. Aliens certainly is bigger is scope and scale than Alien. It certainly contains propulsive action. Sigourney Weaver‘s hair is quintessentially 80s. The film even has a couple of choice 80s style one-liners sprinkled on top. But a bombastic fireworks of 80s action machismo it is not.
The film is direct comment on machismo artifice. There may be big guns firing copious rounds into Xenomorphs. There may be explosions. There may be one-liners…but it’s never in service of propping up the marines as Rambo-esque badasses. Aliens is telling us that Rambo ain’t shit if you toss him into this world. He’s a paper tiger.
While the storytelling and filmmaking sensibilities of Scott and Cameron are vastly different, you can tell from the opening moments of Aliens that Cameron is trying to adhere to what Scott established while also doing his own thing.
Aliens is quite the slow burn when you get down to it. Depending on which version of the film you’re watching (Theatrical or Extended) it’s 30 minutes or more of runtime before the characters land on planet LV-426. It’s also an hour or more before the first major set piece in the Alien Hive takes place. So in all that time, what is Cameron doing?
He’s establishing character. He’s making world-building look easy. He’s also teasing out tension, suspense, and dread like the filmmaking equivalent of a master surgeon. As we are reintroduced to Weaver’s Ripley and being endeared to the merry band of roughneck Colonial Marines, Cameron is making us wait for the shoe to drop. We know it’s all going to go to hell and it’s only a matter of time. Cameron plays a ballsy game making the audience wait so long for the terror to strike. Before the film sets out for LV-426 we’re perfectly honed in to Ripley’s headspace. We know her fears and anxieties are correct. We sympathize with her plight against Weyland-Yutani, which is all for naught.
So after spending so much time with Ripley – knowing she’s right and seeing the nightmares that wake her up coated in sweat every night, we’re primed and on the edge of our seat waiting…waiting.
Like Scott before him, Cameron uses setting and sound to his advantage to craft mood and unease. Cameron’s touch is more matter of fact and rough around the edges than Scott’s, but it’s just as effective. The more matter-of-fact hand of Cameron matches the characters and story being told.
The marine dropship flies over a ghost town that was once a human colony. Inside the complex the walls and ceiling are blown out, debris is litered everywhere and not a soul is to be found. The colony of LV-426 is haunted, just as the derelict was 57 years ago when the Nostromo found it.
The horror of Aliens is rooted in a finding yourself woefully unprepared against an insurmountable threat. It doesn’t matter who your skillset is or how tough you think you are. When you go up against an enemy you underestimate no amount of training or badassery can save you. If the lone Alien in the first film represented everything from the threat of sexual violence to the dangers of the unknown, the multitude the characters face in Aliens represent single-minded ferocity of nature when its purpose is purely survival.
You will sometimes run into the criticism that Cameron dumbs down the creatures in his film – making them nothing but space bugs and ruining their terrifying mystique. I don’t think it’s that simple. Yes, Cameron’s additions to the lore of the Xenomorph are more “standard” for the lack of a better term, but the film does indeed expand upon ideas found in Alien.
If one of the themes of Alien is birth, Aliens is about family and the homestead. LV-426 is the home of the Xenomorphs (or at least these particular ones). They have come from a mysterious crashed ship, but they were there first. Weyland-Yutani colonized their home. The Colonial Marines are another invasive force. The entrance to the Hive is a masterclass in mounting suspense. The cold metal walkways and industrial spaces merge into a completely different environment as the marines make their way into the nest. It’s hot. Every inch of the place is covered in a black, organic material. The Xenomorphs are taking back their home.
They can blend into the nest with perfect ease, hiding in plain sight in front of the marines until it’s time to strike.
Instead of making the first major confrontation between the marines and Aliens a full-on firefight, Cameron chooses to focus on the confusing horror of the scene. Most of the action is off-screen as we see the terror stricken reactions of Ripley and Co. as they watch the unit fall victim the ambush. The bodycam footage is a frenzy of fire and screams. Lt. Gorman (William Hope), so concerned with running a smooth operation and proving himself an effective leader, locks up. It’s up to Ripley to do something to save the lives she can.
With most of the marines decimated and the remaining characters cut off from their ship The Sulaco, the film’s narrative becomes something of an under siege story with a ticking clock element. If the Aliens don’t take them out, the imminent explosion of the entire facility will. In this sense Aliens look like something Night of the Living Dead more than being Exhibit A for robust 80s action bonanzas.
The vast majority of the action only takes place in the third act when the Aliens overwhelm our heroes in force. They sneak in through the ceiling in another expertly tense example of buildup and payoff. A loss of power bathes the setting in a hellish red, casting the Aliens in a demonic light. The crew of the Sulaco has landed in hell, and hell’s denizens are coming for them.
The third act of the film is where horror and action merge in perfect symbiosis. Ripley’s rescue mission of Newt is one of the most thrilling set pieces in horror. She has mere minutes before the entire place is dust and it’s her and her alone armed with some grenades and a flamethrower. Just as she thinks she’s home free, they find themselves in very heart of the nest…presided over by the Queen herself. The reveal of the Alien Queen is one of the coolest damn things in genre film history. The image is striking and the creature design is as perfect as it gets. She’s instantly intimidating. Just like how the Alien was shot in the first film, when you see the Queen you aren’t quite sure what you’re looking at at first.
She’s backlit against the darkness, boney protrusions and limbs tower over her brood. She’s the dark royalty of Hell.
Even without HR Giger’s creative input, legendary effects man Stan Winston and his team created a movie monster with all the subliminal elements of the original creature. The Queen is massive and less humanoid than her offspring, yet there is an undeniable femininity to her all the same. She’s lithe, agile, and the flatter, fanned out design of her head is obviously meant to evoke a crown.
The Power Loader fight between Ripley and the Queen is every bit a knockdown, drag out brawl as it is the final showdown between the hero and the monster we’ve seen in countless horror films leading up to Aliens and films following in its wake. The Queen fight is the monster showdown perfected with expert filmmaking craft.
James Cameron uses every trick in the book to make his film scary. He emphasizes the use of space and sound to craft suspense. He understands many of the same elements that makes a horror film scary are what make an action film thrilling. The way the camera captures space, the use of sound, the design of sets and locations – it all melds into a perfect tightrope walk of mixed genres.
So yes, Aliens is in fact an action film. A great one at that. It’s also one hell of a horror film. A classic one just like its predecessor. And it deserves to be seen as such.