James Cameron’s Aliens is a terrifying and deeply emotional classic that is every bit as powerful for a first-time viewer in 2012 as it must have been in 1986. Relying on atmosphere and character relations over spectacle alone, Aliens nonetheless maintains a perfect balance of excitement, horror, and genuine compassion.
Ellen Ripley, given a fantastic and disturbing performance thanks to Sigourney Weaver, is traumatized by the horrific events of the film Alien, of which she was the sole human survivor. She learns that the planet where the original film’s crew found eggs of a deadly alien species, is now home to a colony–and that contact with said colony has been lost. As a consultant, Ripley accompanies a group of Colonial Marines to investigate.
The film introduces one of its best characters early on, a young girl named Rebecca (or Newt, as she calls herself), who out of fear initially hesitates to communicate with Ripley and the rest of the crew. As Newt slowly opens up to Ripley, the two form a bond over the course of the movie that becomes truly heartwarming without ever feeling silly or forced. Ripley’s talents as a mother figure, and by extension Weaver’s, add plenty of depth to both Ripley and Newt as characters, and the film as a whole benefits from human relations such as this. These character interactions and others feel extremely authentic, and they create a similar effect for the enforced drama that fuels the action. This makes said drama feel so much more convincing than it would be if the film relied on tactics such as, perhaps, telling the viewer that millions of people had been killed off-screen. (This does nonetheless happen, to a comparatively very small extent, but by that point the film’s already done a fine job of giving the viewer a reason to care about who lives and who doesn’t.)
Aliens seems to use the idea of the “strong woman” as a running theme, with Ripley fiercely protecting her new-found companion; a soldier named Vasquez essentially behaving like “one of the guys,” with the battle competence to match but thankfully without the boorish personality; and one more example at the end of the film that’s just done too well and developed too well (without any dialogue on this character’s part) to spoil or to ignore. By comparison, a number of the men in the film seem to be annoyingly weak, whether in terms of morals or courage. Of this film’s few flaws worth mentioning, one is the film’s tendency to repeatedly demonstrate and emphasize this comparison–strong women, weak men–to the point of excess, where the dichotomy, whether intentional or not, becomes as tiresome as a number of the characters driving it. (On that note, one character’s goals and motivations bring to mind the plot of the original Alien a little too eagerly, and that’s not the only element in Aliens that seems lifted from the original.)
Despite a few too many recycled plot elements and story events, Aliens is overwhelmingly successful in establishing an atmosphere of dread and terror–the Colonial Marines quickly find themselves completely unprepared for the enemies and circumstances they face. Machismo and bravado quickly give way to vulnerability and uncertainty, and beyond simply keeping the viewer interested and guessing throughout the action scenes, character deaths serve as horrifying but logical events, not as random excuses to beg for the viewer’s emotion. The characters most often in danger are usually the most likeable, with one notable exception producing a guilty but likely intentional amount of pleasure.
It’s rare when a film truly terrifies me. Though I admittedly don’t watch many horror movies, it’s nevertheless not often that I actually get scared watching a film anyway, whether it’s a horror movie or not. While not quite as rare, it’s always a blessing when a film moves me to legitimately care about its characters. Somehow Aliens manages to succeed gloriously at doing both of these, and for those who are brave enough to get through the story, a viewing can hardly be recommended enough.