Aliens (1986)

Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!

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Okay, so I would be the first to admit that Aliens (1986) doesn’t really feel like a good fit for a spooky Halloween movie selection. It is, however, the follow up to one of my favourite horror/sci fi films of all time – Alien (1979) and as part of my commitment to follow up horror films with their sequels, this will just have to fit the bill.

It is, of course, renowned for its shift in genre from its predecessor. While the original Ridley Scott film had a claustrophobic slasher-film-in-space feel, Aliens elevates the story to the next level – turning the atmospheric horror into an action/disaster movie complete with whooshy space ships and heavily armed Space Marines marching into the unknown.

I should say, though, that I will be watching the 1990 Director’s Cut, as it’s just better. There. I said it. It also happens to feature a scene early on that actually genuinely terrified me the first time I saw it, so, hey, I guess it totally counts as a horror. I knew you’d come around.

We’re in the pipe, five by five.

Written and directed by James Cameron, Aliens begins in the void. Some time after the events on board the Nostromo, a lone shuttle is picked up adrift in deep space. On board, a team of salvagers discover the still sleeping form of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who is soon shipped back to her employers at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to be fully debriefed on her adventures.

It is here that she learns that she has been drifting in stasis for over 57 years – and things have changed. Most shockingly, Ripley is told of her daughter having already passed away at an old age, having lived a full life with her missing. Distressed at the news, and reeling from The Company’s dismissal of her claims of an alien creature wiping out her entire crew, Ripley has her licence revoked and is forced to take up menial cargo loading work.

That is, until the slimy corporate representative, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), offers her a lifeline. The exomoon where it all began – where the alien creature was recovered – LV-426, has become home to a terraforming colony known as Hadley’s Hope. Home to at least 70 families, all contact with the site has been lost, following a search to investigate a mystery signal somewhere out in the stormy terrain.

Along with Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) of the Colonial Marines, Burke is able to convince Ripley to join a marine unit to head out there and investigate. Feeling a responsibility to confront her nightmares, Ripley is soon ushered on board the USS Sulaco, accompanied by a motley crew of the supposedly toughest, hard ass marines out there.

Counted amongst the unit are Sergeant Alone (Al Matthews), Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn), motormouth Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), a highly intelligent android built to look like a human – though without the issues that caused some other androids to go a bittwitchy, from time to time.

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It is worth stating at this point, that there is reason the marines of Aliens are so beloved by fans of the series – and sci fi in general. As soon as we meet the marines, they are oozing charisma. Occupying the screen and belting out some of the most quotable lines in cinema, the tone is quickly and firmly set from this point on. Hudson quickly establishes himself as the team joker, and cocky motormouth, Vasquez is a hotheaded gunner, while Hicks stands out as a more reasoned, calming influence.

When we get to the colony, the marines’ soon establish that the colony is deserted. Whatever happened, though, it didn’t go down without a fight. Empty halls are marred with gun shots, scorch marks, and most disturbingly of all – large, acid burned holes between floors. Burke and Ripley soon follow, and together they begin to investigate their environment. It is here that Ripley finds Newt (Carrie Henn) – a traumatised little girl hiding in the colony’s ventilation system – and vows to keep her safe.

Using the colony computer, the group are able to track down the colonists – seemingly holed up inside one of the giant atmosphere processing towers. The marines set about their task, under the remote supervision of Gorman, Ripley and Burke. As they descend into the lower decks, the marines find evidence of unusual secretions on the walls. Their confidence wavers as they go deeper, discovering the bodies of the colonists – cocooned and serving as the incubators for alien’s offspring.

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Witnessing a chestburster in action, the marines are quick to kill it – but the following ambush by its older siblings is both quick, savage and chaotic. In short, the arrogant marines are left traumatised, the few that survive being saved only by Ripley’s quick and decision action – i.e. ramming a bloody great APC through a wall.

Desperate to stay alive, the group are soon left isolated in the ruined colony, and Ripley is forced to take command of the demoralised military unit. But, as tensions increase and the alien threat gets ever closer, will the group be able to survive? Or will the sinister machinations of The Company once again undermine those that are left to fend for themselves?

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We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!

I’m sure I’m not the first to think that all James Cameron did was take the story beats of Alien (1979) and just rework them into the 80s-action flick that he would prefer, but that definitely appears to be the case. Complete with some incredible special effects, beautiful model shots and some excellent characters, Aliens makes a solid effort to improve on what was established in the earlier film.

As I mentioned, there is definitely more of an action vibe about this film than horror, but still there are several moments of cheek-clenched terror to be had. In the Director’s Cut, we have some scenes of added edge-of-the-seat tension during the sentry turret sequence, as well as Newt witnessing her father being attacked by a facehugger – which shit me up good as a kid, lemme tell you – and that scene. The scene that bonafide arachnophobes must get cold sweats about at random times during their week. Who knew silly old facehuggers could be so creepy? Of course, the Xenomorph itself is a work of art – and whole hordes of them are stunning to see. They remain a constant threat, and one that you should never underestimate.

In short, then, Aliens is arguably one of the best sequels ever made. It has everything – although tonally it is a fairly major change in pace to the original Alien. It was a game changer in the genre, and still delivers on some excellent thrills and action set pieces.

Is it horror? Maybe a little. Just remember: short, controlled bursts. You’ll get it.

Yours, A P Tyler

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