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Summer of ‘86: Aliens

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Summer of ‘86: <em>Aliens</em>

In Scream 2, the question of whether a sequel can be better than the original film becomes a running gag, with participants intermittently suggesting examples. For Wes Craven, it’s just another of the many self-referential gestures in his Scream films and elsewhere. But for film lovers, it’s a game worth playing. Enthusiasts differ on whether The Empire Strikes Back really is better than Star Wars (now A New Hope), or should be disqualified as the middle part of a trilogy; and whether Superman II outshines Superman: The Movie. Probably the one sequel that no one denies is superior to its original is The Road Warrior. But in the Summer of ’86, James Cameron’s Aliens outdid Ridley Scott’s Alien in every way imaginable.

A sequel has to be both the same film and different, and this is a challenge for anyone undertaking to direct a follow-up. How to make the film your own, turn it into something that stands up in its own right, while still repeating enough of the successes of the original to justify its coattail riding at the box office? Cameron had announced himself with The Terminator a couple of years earlier, and now faced the challenge of reinventing one of the most popular and successful fantasy-genre films of all time. The 1979 film had married science fiction with horror in a way unseen since the ’50s, reviving the monster genre, which had, for the most part, died out in the wake of Psycho’s ushering in of an era of more personal, intimate, human horror.

What returns from Alien: creepy egg chamber, spidery face-clinging larval parasite, chest-bursting imago, search missions in dark and wet places, a race against a nuclear self-destruct device, android malfunctioning and going literally to pieces, corporate conspiracy to obtain an alien at the cost of innumerable human lives, the airlock as weapon of choice, and the nasty suggestion that it isn’t all over (embodied there in a cat, here in a little girl, both apparently red herrings).

What’s new in Aliens: Cameron replaces the timeless lethargy of Ridley Scott’s space and the sweaty, stultifying boredom of life on an intergalactic freighter with frenetic pace. Aliens grabs you immediately and never lets go; it seems much shorter than its 2:17 running time (and even the 2:34 restored/enhanced edition released in 1999 streaks by with white-knuckle kinetics).

No futuristic plastic fantastic technology. Metal takes over, and dominates the look and sound of the film.

Sigourney Weaver’s wonderful, resourceful Ripley doesn’t just continue the tough-woman role but transforms and refines it until she out-Rambos Rambo, succeeding where the military cannot.

And of course there are the Marines—the “mechanized infantry” of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which Cameron boldly adopted a decade before Paul Verhoeven’s film and dropped into Aliens about forty minutes in. We have references to a “bug hunt,” getting the shakes before a drop, female pilots, cameras mounted on the Marines so leaders behind the lines can see what the troopers on the point are seeing. Cameron clearly loved Heinlein’s novel and found a way to film it by dovetailing it neatly into his sequel to someone else’s film of someone else’s vision.

What’s not to like? There are a few things, including four of my seven least favorite movie clichés: sitting bolt upright from a dream, yelling “no” at something that’s already happened, outrunning an explosion, and having a computer voice remind us that time is running out. Newt, the little girl who is the sole survivor of an ill-fated farming colony on LV-426, is witty, wise, and brave beyond her years, but when the chips are down she has nothing to contribute beyond screaming repeatedly. The marines talk in a 1970s idiom (“check it out,” “bad ass,” “get it on”) even though the movie is set in a future by which, surely, those vacuous expressions—which sounded false even in 1986—will be unheard of. Their weapons are so impractically huge as to be more comical than impressive. Indeed, most of the film’s machinery seems designed with its human interface only half thought-out, creating the impression of future man as a kind of industrial junkyard hybrid. And of course this underscores the mirroring effect of the android: a machine that is almost human interacting easily with humans who are almost mechanical.

Then there’s the deceptive—and ultimately inconsequential—back-story: Ripley is told that she’s been asleep for 57 years and was discovered only by accident. Somewhere during her reflection on this she awakes from a dream, and we’re never sure how much of what we saw was the dream or when the dream started. Did she actually sleep for 57 years? Has she really now outlived her daughter, who was five when Ripley left earth and who died some years ago at age 66? Worse than this never being sorted out is the fact that it is never made to matter, despite the fact that the loss of her own daughter is apparently intended to motivate her bonding with Newt.

But the film’s many fine touches more than balance out the occasional clichés and annoyances. We cut from an alien larval parasite’s spidery legs gripping the head of a space farmer to a close shot of Ripley’s spidery fingers manipulating a cigarette. Cameron enjoys giving us Kubrick references: reverse tracking, especially long corridors; a kid riding a three-wheeler; human talks in alien environments; sidewise tracking cameras discover characters and events around corners; scenes are introduced and enhanced by drums; we’re won over by an android as logical and as humanly fallible and wistful as HAL. There’s even a tough-talking, verbally abusive sergeant whose attitudes and phraseology recall Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (but wait, that can’t be a Kubrick reference since Full Metal Jacket didn’t come out until after Aliens…)

Aliens also shares Kubrick’s atmosphere of a desensitized future; but here, feelings aren’t deadened, but heightened. It’s more Clockwork Orange than 2001: everyone is edgy, resentful, suspicious, abusive; their only humor is insult-humor. These are the ’80s, the era of The Road Warrior and dozens of other junkyard futurism films in which human behavior has been stripped to the essentials and human emotions reduced to raw-edged anger or screaming terror.

But despite the relentlessly bleak and pessimistic view of future humankind, Aliens sings an ultimately joyful song, and I will always love it for the bold self-assurance with which Cameron does Heinlein and out-does Scott.

Robert C. Cumbow, author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, also contributed to our “Summer of ’85” series. His home base is the Seattle film blog The Parallax View, where much of his 40 years of film writing is archived.