James Cameron's rise to the top was swift: it was only his third film, and the second that anyone ever gave a damn about, that saw him win the coveted credit, "A James Cameron Film". Of course, being the director of something as outstanding as The Terminator would do that for a fella's reputation. Mind you, this was all entirely deserved: because 1986's Aliens was indeed "A James Cameron Film", even if the precise meaning of that phrase hadn't completely revealed itself to audiences in '86 just quite yet. But we, with so many years of hindsight to guide us, are in a position to see Aliens as one of the appallingly rare artifacts in big-budget filmmaking: a sequel to a tremendously successful film (Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien), made by a different director than its predecessor, which showcases the full personality of the new filmmaker while also staying entirely true to the world built up in the first film. Not for nothing does Aliens frequently find itself in the rarefied company of The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Part II, Bride of Frankenstein, and only a handful of others: the sequel to an irrefutably great movie that is at least arguably even better than its precursor. I wouldn't make that argument, personally. But it's not a terribly hard one to make.

Cameron started working on the screenplay for what was then just simply Alien II in 1982, hot on the heels of massive hit debut Piranha II: The Spawning, when he was suddenly the hottest name in Hollywood. Wait, no, that's not right. I actually have no idea how he nabbed the job writing the sequel to the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1979, and one of the most successful R-rated movies ever. But the executives at 20th Century Fox were so thrilled with what he gave them that year that they did something insanely smart, for movie studio executives: when the writer wanted to take some time away from the Alien sequel to work on The Terminator, Fox agreed to freeze their project until he could come back to finish it. And even before the killer robot movie was in theaters, they'd agreed to let Cameron direct his screenplay as well. That's the kind of sweet deal that comes along only once a generation; Orson Welles hardly had a better situation when RKO gave him free reign to do whatever the hell he felt like in 1940, resulting in Citizen Kane.

Their generosity was amply rewarded: Aliens remains one of the great science-fiction films of the 1980s, which probably doesn't sound like the praise I mean for it to be. Part of its genius lies in not replicating the first film, in narrative content or in tone, for while Alien was a ponderous "used future" sci-fi picture that very abruptly and excitingly turned into a haunted house movie about halfway through, Aliens is pretty much a war movie; a gang of marines is sent to a remote outpost where the local colonists have suddenly stopped communicating, and upon their arrival, they find all the colonists dead, and a clutch of incredibly vicious natives ready to tear even the well-trained and well-armed marine squadron to pieces. Set aside the fact that the colony is on a planet in deep space, and the natives are slimy, H.R. Giger-designed hellspawn instead of the Vietcong, and you have a pretty standard war-action template right there.

It was with Aliens that James Cameron first demonstrated something that would become a kind of signature move: take a situation as hackneyed as possible, tart it up with anvilicious dialogue, and present the whole concoction with such intense momentum that the audience is practically grateful to have such easily digestible characters and situations to cling to while the plot spins by at a hundred miles an hour. I mean, really: there's not a single member of that squadron who gets to have a real human personality, and the three "featured" marines, Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn, second of three films with Cameron), Private Hudson (Bill Paxton, second of four films with Cameron), and Private Velasquez (Jenette Goldstein, first of three films with Cameron) are just as bad as any of the wallflower characters. Hicks is the designated intelligent one, Hudson is the shrieking whiny baby, and Velasquez is the woman who has more of a macho attitude than the men. To call these stock types is a significant understatement. But somehow, they remain etched in memory, long after the movie is over: perhaps it is the director's ability to get inside the actor's head and help them find the best and most interesting parts of a cliché; perhaps it is something about the scenario that gives their personalities more urgency. Perhaps I'm an idiot, and everyone else in the world thinks that these are three horribly pointless, uninteresting figures.

What is certainly undeniable, is that in Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley, returned from her ordeal in Alien after a 57-year cryogenic nap, Cameron found one of his greatest heroines. Strong female characters with a certain masculine edge are a key element of his filmography; look to the growth of Sarah Connor from waitress to brilliant, bloodless survivalist over the Terminator films. And the one respect in which I think Aliens absolutely and undoubtedly trumps Alien is in Ripley's characterisation. Frankly, she didn't have one in the first movie, which was part of the point: none of the cast members were particularly distinct, and this was for the well and good function of its plot. But here, now that we know all along that she's going to be the hero of the piece, Ripley gets to become far deeper and more troubled and altogether a vastly more engaging person. One of the most obvious choices Cameron made, and one of the most important, was to give her a daughter who grew old and died during Ripley's absence (don't look for this hugely necessary turn in the theatrical cut of the film, by the way; curse you meddling studio executives!); this in turn leads her to effectively adopt the only survivor of the aliens' attack on the colony, a girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), about the age that Ripley's daughter was when they last saw each other. Aliens thus becomes one of those curios that pop up sometimes, an action movie driven by feminine, i.e. mothering, impulses, as perceived by a man (and in Cameron's case, not apparently a man who had a particularly progressive attitude towards the women he knew personally). Coupled with the fact that the primary adversary is an alien queen, the film eventually takes on a sort of wide-ranging consideration of Womanhood as a mythological concept, in both its nurturing and destructive modes. That this is married to a very specific depiction a particular woman, realised in Weaver's career-best performance, keeps things from getting to reductive or "Woman as Other"-ey. Also, the "Get away from her, bitch!" moment is classic bad-ass cinema.

With Aliens, Cameron also continued to prove himself a technical action director par excellence. If I am not much mistaken, this was one of the first movies in which the director sent the cast off to boot camp to learn how to be better pretend soldiers, and it worked outstandingly well here: few war movies indeed present the behavior of a company on the ground in more exciting detail, even when it's just a matter of hashing out where to set an automated gun turret. For this is another of Cameron's skills: he can find the exact way to make even the most quotidian activity hum with tension. I'd say, "I bet he could even make a telephone call seem exciting", but that wouldn't be a fair bet: I know damn well he can, because he's done it a number of times (including, in fact, in Aliens).

As good as he is with boring moments, it's no surprise that Cameron excels at legitimate action scenes: the battles in Aliens - which are probably fewer than you recall, if your memory of the film is like mine - are pretty brilliant cinema all 'round (I assume some of that has to do with the second unit, directed by Stan Winston, visual effects genius like none other of his generation). The sound design is brilliantly noisy, and the hectic cutting, which never lets us get a good long look at the aliens, keeps us from ever getting our grounding as the action shifts from point to point. War, they say, is hell, and while Cameron commits the sin of making war seem really damned exciting, he also makes it seem chaotic and capricious as well.

I also need hardly mention to those what have seen the movie how magnificently the director handles the ticking clock trope: first by giving us a fairly long clock (four hours), and only slowly winding it down, so that we're aware of it, though it doesn't seem to be a really big issue, until all of a sudden there are 18 minutes left and 19 minutes of stuff to get done, as Ripley goes on a bug hunt in a tower of explosions and plumes of flame. It's a dirty trick to play on the audience, but it works, that sudden reveal of how quickly the clock wound down. At any rate, the last 20 minutes of Aliens are the best part of the movie: just Ripley and her wits and a giant-ass alien queen, designed by Cameron himself, according to the lore.

However, there are some certain flaws that must be conceded: first, the score is abysmally bad, the first really terrible thing in James Horner's checkered career. He later claimed that Cameron just didn't give him enough time, which is plausible; and that is why he had to cannibalise his earlier cues, stealing especially from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the "Klingon" theme from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, with a jaw-dropping lack of shame (comically enough - or is that, sadly enough? - Horner got his first Oscar nomination for "Original Score" with Aliens). But thievery isn't what makes the score fail: its operatic Trekian excesses simply don't fit the mood of Aliens, despite (or because of?) how thoroughly Cameron chopped it apart to make it work.

I might also add to the list of offenses, Paul Reiser's slick bureaucrat villain, a tired retread of the Ee-vil Capitalist trope - look, as a Dirty Fucking Hippie, I don't mind calling capitalists evil, but it's damn lazy storytelling, and it was long before 1986. We can predict his every venal move from pretty much the first time he mentions the dollar value of something, and by the end, his willingness to endanger lives to save property makes absolutely no logical sense; and unlike the tired stereotypes of the marines, Cameron can't make this character work (maybe because, I'm just spitballing, Paul Reiser was cast in the role).

If we're looking at the extended "Special Edition" cut (never referred to as a "director's cut", by the way, there's one more gaping problem. Most of the additions are nice little character moments, like Ripley and Hicks swapping first names, deservedly cut for pacing. But the longest insert is a minutes-long scene set on plant LV-426 that shows us just how the aliens came to kill the colonists after so many years dormant. It is to the greatest detriment of the film to show us the colony working and thriving, even for a moment: when our first glimpse is, like the marines', of a bombed-out broken down wasteland, it adds a great sense of mystery and dread. That gets tremendously well-scotched by this added scene, and I have a tendency to skip it whenever I watch the movie.

But on the whole, this is a fantastic follow-up for the director of The Terminator: it proved that he has a mind for directing action movies considerably more nuanced and plot-driven than just "find ways to blow things up" - and even when he blows things up, it's done in the most aesthetically pleasing way conceivable. I don't quite like this film as much as his last - I do, in fact, consider The Terminator to be Cameron's masterpiece and only perfect film - but between the two of them, they form a pretty irrefutable argument that he was one of the most caring, intelligent action filmmakers of the 1980s.

Reviews in this series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alien³ (Fincher, 1992)
Alien Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (The Brothers Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)
Alien: Covenant (Scott, 2017)