Tense, thrilling and hugely influential, James Cameron’s sci-fi action classic Aliens turns 30 this month
The 1986 follow-up to Ridley Scott’s space chiller Alien defied convention in many ways. It bucked the trend for sub-par sequels, shifted gears into an entirely separate genre, and set a new standard for action sagas everywhere.
As well as being generally gripping and entertaining, its story, themes and style would go on to inspire the wider movie world for decades to come.
Here’s why it’s the greatest action film ever created.
(Warning: Spoilers if you have’t seen Aliens)
Few films can have the viewer on the edge of their seat for such vast stretches of time, but Aliens is adept at inducing an ominous, nail-biting tone for prolonged periods.
Long, steady build-ups of tension are utilised throughout, from the very opening scene when the salvage crew enter the escape pod, to the extended tracking shot of the Sulaco interior, to the cautious, painstakingly nervy initial foray into the colony.
Best of all is the ratcheting up of unease prior to the slaughter under the atmosphere processor.
A heavily-armed squad of troops being ambushed from the shadows and picked off one-by-one, while horrified colleagues in a bunker/truck watch on monitors as their heart-readings go flat, has since been carbon-copied in everything from Predator 2…
…to Jurassic World.
Incredibly evocative, the film’s terrific music also complements that aforementioned suspense sublimely.
Evoking everything from the eerie vastness and mystery of space, to military flair and bombast, the late James Horner’s superb sonic backdrop has atmosphere in spades.
The tense mood built by those spooky, isolated drawn-out drones and ambient effects is magnificent – and when it explodes into drum-rattling life, you know you’re in for some thrills.
Adversity, challenges and the occasional kicking are all things action protagonists can expect at some point.
But Aliens goes darker than most films before or since have ever dared.
Most of our ‘heroes’ are wiped out in the first-half of the movie. The rest are largely traumatised, terrified, and confused. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
Eighty per cent of the platoon get killed. The drop-ship crashes and explodes. They have a paltry amount of weapons and ammo left, a rescue party isn’t due for 17 days, and then they learn a nuclear explosion is going to obliterate the surface in a matter of hours.
Talk about nerve-jangling.
The wisecracking dialogue
At least there’s some great comic relief though.
Action movies have always loved their one-liners – right back to Sean Connery’s James Bond electrifying a guy in a bath, before tutting “shocking” at the corpse.
But the razor-sharp, witty back-and-forth of Cameron’s much-loved Colonial Marines introduced a whole other kind of entertaining, snappy dialogue into the action lexicon.
There are so many quotable quips (“What are we supposed to use man? Harsh language?”) and memorable reactions (“Game over man! Game over!”) in Aliens, that fans of the film have every zinger, retort and outburst etched into their brain forever.
It would be surprising if Shane Black – who gave us similar sparkling exchanges in Predator and Lethal Weapon in the following years – was not influenced by this. And many others doubtless were.
What Pulp Fiction did for drama dialogue post-’94, Aliens did for action post-’86.
It would be easy to dismiss the supporting cast of Cameron’s classic as cliched archetypes – if they weren’t so surprisingly memorable, sympathetic and, at times, multi-layered under the surface.
The Marines are a case in point. They may be enjoyably flippant in the first act, but as they come further and further under pressure we see their real personalities emerge; the desperation, fear and anguish showing off more hidden depth than you might expect, and revealing genuinely touching affection for one another.
We really do care about them, too. Each loss feels like a hammer blow.
All of them are memorable, and pretty much every single player in the story equally so – even the chain-smoking, skeptical corporate suits in the cringe-inducing meeting scene.
Speaking of which, has there ever been a more detestable yet meek villain than thoroughly ordinary company man Carter Burke?
His banal but destructive scheming costs the lives of the colonists, thrusts the rescue party into danger, and almost sees Ripley and Newt ‘impregnated’ in a ghastly trap.
Interestingly, this theme of corporate greed as ‘the real villain’ became highly popular in the action movies of the late ’80s and early ’90s, even ballooning into outright satire in the iconic RoboCop, immensely popular Total Recall and deliciously ludicrous They Live.
The sheer adrenaline
We talked about those tense build-ups earlier, but when all hell does eventually break loose, Cameron’s handling of the frantic, explosive bullet-spewing action is nothing short of pulsating.
Tell me you can watch Hudson’s last stand without the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, and I’ll call you dead inside.
(Warning: Very strong language!)
There are several centre-piece outbursts of fighting in Aliens, and each one feels like a desperate battle for survival.
From the white-knuckle escape in the APC, to the shootout and tunnel run when the Xenomorphs infiltrate the complex, to Ripley’s showdown with the Queen – all are unforgettably shiver-inducing.
Ellen Ripley as a protagonist
Despite her emergence as a strong leader and resourceful survivor in the original movie, at the start of James Cameron’s sequel Ellen Ripley is right down to rock-bottom.
Her flight status is revoked. She’s a psychological wreck. She’s working dock loaders for garbage wages to make ends meet.
Even when she’s asked to go along on the mission to LV-426, her status is as a ‘consultant’. She’s a blue-collar grafter with no formal weapons training, and is supposed to just sit back and let the soldiers handle it.
And yet, despite all of these things, Ripley wins the respect of the marines, saves their asses more than once, and proves herself far more competent, courageous and smart than any of the others.
Yet throughout she’s no invincible superhero; remaining vulnerable and rattled enough (despite her resilience and determination) to be utterly relatable and believable for the duration.
The whole concept of the unlikely, ‘underdog’ hero has become a mainstay of Hollywood action movies ever since.
Once every action pin-up had to be a hardened specials forces veteran or super-spy.
Now down-to-earth characters battling situations they didn’t ask for has become a more commonplace, and frankly welcome, sight.
Sigourney Weaver as an actress
Pretty much the entire, sensational film is anchored on a magnificent, multi-layed performance by Sigourney Weaver who, lest we forget, got a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars for her efforts (a feat virtually unheard of for a genre movie).
She perfectly captures the trauma of Ripley at the film’s opening, not least when she receives news of her daughter, and she manages to showcase a whole rollercoaster of emotions from beginning to end: fear, doubt, anger, wry humour, hope, determination, disgust, desperation and joy.
It’s a complete performance; crucially given emotional weight via the relationship she forms with child survivor Newt, who Ripley endeavours to protect while everything around them is falling apart.
Few protagonists in an action movie are as genuinely engaging. Few leading actors as talented, committed and powerful.