Tuesday 24 September 2013

Movie Review: Aliens (1986)

In director James Cameron's hands, Aliens is a spectacular, tension-filled, adrenaline-drenched, combat-rich sequel that matches the original for tension, and far outmuscles it for action.

After drifting for 57 years in hypersleep, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued and transported back to Earth. During her long journey, planet LV-426, where her cargo ship the Nostromo picked up the deadly alien, has been inhabited by a small human colony working to transform the atmosphere to make the planet inhabitable. Ripley's employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, is bankrolling the work. Ripley is suffering from nightmares, and her tale of killer creatures on LV-426 is met with extreme scepticism, until contact with the colony is lost.

After some convincing, Ripley joins company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) as civilians accompanying a group of Colonial Marines sent to LV-426 to investigate the fate of the workers. The Marines include the thoughtful Hicks (Michael Biehn), the loudmouth Hudson (Bill Paxton), the super confident Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and their useless commander Gorman (William Hope). They find the human colony devastated and only one survivor, a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn). Soon the Marines encounter a large number of aliens, and the battle commences.

Aliens is a well-crafted masterpiece. Particularly in the Special Edition, which features 17 extra minutes and the reinstatement of several scenes, Cameron dedicates the first hour fully to fleshing out the premise. Ripley is provided with a backstory as a mother who has now outlived the daughter that she never returned to see. She suffers from recurring nightmares, and is victimized by the money-driven executives of Weyland-Yutani. Carter Burke provides a human face to the company, despite his underlying smarm.

On the long trip through space, the Marines are introduced, and Cameron provides quick but effectively distinct sketches for the key soldiers who will be shouldering the brunt of the battle. When the shooting starts these Marines will matter, and creating people out of soldiers proves to be a worthwhile investment. Meanwhile, the Special Edition also brings to life the small human colony on LV-426. Humans, including Newt's parents, are on a hostile planet and getting on with the work of creating a new, breathable atmosphere, until that abandoned spaceship is once again discovered, and a facehugger makes an appearance.

Rarely has an action movie invested in such a long introduction with virtually no action, but the pay-off is immense, and the final 90 minutes of combat action are outstanding and simply breathless. Ripley and several of the Marines are people worth caring about, and having been introduced to the loss of Ripley's daughter and the fate of Newt's parents, the relationship between Ripley and Newt becomes intensely poignant. Several of the rugged Marines are afforded personalities, to ensure that every injury and fatality is meaningful, as Aliens delivers its action with a pounding heart.

While Alien was an uneven and terrorizing fight between unarmed cargo ship crew members and an advanced killing machine intent on spawning and multiplying, Aliens attempts to create a more level battlefield. Now the humans are trained combatants fully equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, cocky and confident, arriving on the planet to kick butt and take no alien prisoners. Cameron still populates the war with moments of building tension and creeping terror, but once the shooting starts, it's a full-on war, and the emphasis is on unstoppable, breathtaking action with a rarely seen level of kinetic energy. The aliens prove to be a formidable foe, using the force of numbers and capable of changing tactics to defeat the best that the Marines can throw at them.

The first encounter between the Marines and the aliens proves just how great the alien advantage is, the human soldiers transformed from arrogant cockiness to traumatized victims after just the one engagement, Ripley the first to realize just how much trouble they are all in. Offense becomes defence, then defence becomes survival. As the humans stumble onto more of the aliens' ecosystem, the terrifying nature of the creatures become clearer, until the mammoth, hideous alien queen herself makes an appearance.

Sigourney Weaver proves that smart actresses can be terrific action movie heroines. She takes centre stage for the final 45 minutes in a display of wild courage and steely determination, but without ever losing Ripley's soul and vulnerability. Aliens ends with Ripley deploying brawn and brains in a final epic battle for survival. Regardless of the species, beware the wrath of a wronged mother, intent on avenging her young.

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