Aliens (1986): The Perfect Organisms

Sequels are worse than original films. That is a near decree that has been handed down from the high mountains of Hollywood, carved into the living stone of film history. Very rarely does a sequel live up to the standard set by the original and almost never does a sequel surpass the original. I can only think of two that have definitely done so, both were Jim Cameron movies and both had a strong action presence. One is the imitable Terminator 2: Judgment Day the film that set the standard for summer action blow out movies when I was a kid. The other, and in my opinion, superior film, is Aliens, Cameron’s action-horror-sci-fi follow up to Ridley Scott’s taught, tense original.

What makes Aliens so successful where so many other sequels, and hell, sci-fi/space movies have failed? Allow me to heap praise:

  • Story Continuation: Alien ended with Ripley’s quick thinking and courage helping her survive and enter stasis. This is precisely where the sequel picks up. Found by a salvage team Ripley awakes 57 years later than expected, faces a new world she doesn’t know, a company that doesn’t believe her (and even blames her for the occurrences aboard Nostromo), the loss of her daughter, and constant nightmares of the events that brought her here. We see Ripley try to restart her life, but she is forever haunted by the alien and is driven to face her fears for closure.
  • Story Advancement: How often does a sequel not just continue a narrative but add wonderful concepts to the universe and lore AND develop previous characters while introducing excellent new characters? Almost never. Here the story isn’t about a small expendable crew sacrificed for some corporate suit’s private agenda. It’s a military mission that takes us back to the source of the alien in the original film. We see more of the world in which these characters live. We learn more about the aliens as species. This film is the first appearance of the canon source of the facehugger eggs (barring deleted scenes from Alien largely ignored by later narratives). The first appearance of Colonial Marines and their bevy of weapons and equipment. The first appearance of Aliens as organized, strategizing hive minds. These concepts not only influenced the rest of the franchise, but science fiction as a whole as other franchises took these concepts and borrowed liberally from them.

  • Characters: I won’t even add “great” or “memorable” to this bullet point as they go far beyond that. Characters make this movie. Ripley is still one of the best characters in all of sci-fi and here she grows from a survivor to a true action heroine on par with anything Schwarzenegger has achieved. Tough, resourceful and smart without becoming the kind of “bad-ass” cliché a 13 year old boy or Quentin Tarantino finds interesting, Ripley personifies how to make a good action character without removing his or her humanity. Then there are the marines, the quiet cool of Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), the loudmouth braggart over-compensation of Hudson (Bill Paxton), the inexperience of Gorman (William Hope), and the absolutely kick-assness of Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein; and who, again, Jim Sterling rightly called “one of the toughest bastards in all of sci-fi”). There isn’t a marine wasted. Even characters you only see for a moment on screen or just in text, Drake, Vasquez’s incinerator partner; Wierzbowski and Crowe, marines whose camera feeds go fuzzy as their squad mates call for them; Dietrich the medic who is the first to get grabbed; Frost whose unfortunate job it was to carry the ammo. This is all off the top of my head, that’s how memorable these characters are. My personal favorite is Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). Dripping personality, every word he speaks is a poetic verse of glorious career military jargon married with drill sergeant cadence. I personally would have gone back into the Hive for him just to have him chew me out for taking so long. Other than the marines we have Lance Henrickson in his signature performance as Bishop the “synthetic person,” corporate shill Burke played to slimy perfection by Paul Resier, and Carrie Henn as the lone colonial survivor Newt. Newt is an unusual character. This could easily have been one of those little kid characters so precocious and useless that audiences hate her. Instead she shows us how she survived on her own for so long and even helps with ideas and planning. I’m pretty sure I’d be more useless in that situation than Newt is…

  • Quotability: When people think of quotable movies the same names come up; The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas… Usually crime movies or movies with carefully designed catch phrases like Jerry McGuire. I’d posit that Aliens has some of the most memorable quotes of all time. From Apone’s ringing “Absolute BAD-asses” to Newt’s quiet “They mostly come at night….mostly…” And from Vasquez’s, “I only need to know one thing: Where. They. Are” to Ripley’s marvelous “Get away from her you BITCH.” There is more that is used and reused in pop culture, especially in the sci-fi pop-culture sub-genre than in almost any sci-fi movie ever. Maybe even surpassing Star Wars in some circles… Even phrases like “5 x 5” are now owned by Aliens. And of course…the most epic give up cry in the history of entertainment “Game over man…Game over!” Hell…Hudson could have his own quotes section…

Aliens succeeded by not trying to remake the original, while sticking to its formula, adding new effective elements that made sense in the world, introducing characters who feel real, and telling an absolutely terrific story. I love every second of it, and actually recommend by a wide margin the longer director’s cut, which includes memorable character-building scenes and an amazingly suspenseful sentry gun sequence. The only flaw is you actually like all the characters (well except Burke…) so much you don’t want any of them to die…

Perfectly written. Perfectly cast. Perfectly designed. Perfectly acted. Perfectly executed in every way.

A perfect organism receives a perfect five panicking Hudsons out of five.


See my original thoughts on Aliens from last year’s “Best Horror Sequel” post here.

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