Reviews of Aliens
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A lingering question from Alien was: who exactly is Ellen Ripley? We know she was the sole survivor of the Nostromo after a giant extraterrestrial attacked it on its journey back to Earth, but we know nothing about her beyond the context of the planet that made her a legend.
She herself became a part of that mysterious, cold, and solitary world where the stuff of nightmares lurks. That’s where James Cameron picks up with Aliens. Ripley is salvaged by her former employers after drifting in space for 57 years in stasis. Her behavior before the honchos that put her life in danger offers a revealing look at what she may have been like in Earth. She is stubborn and defiant, but afraid of what the unknown planet holds.
In set-up Aliens has a lot in common with Cameron’s Avatar. A renegade hero from an unscrupulous corporation encounters monsters and adventure in a strange land. Aliens is far less fun, though, and Cameron the novice filmmaker had yet to develop his wondrous imagination.
Dialogue has never been Cameron’s strength but, Aliens does not represent its nadir (it does feature the classic “Get away from her you bitch!”), even though some of the lines sound like comic captions. But the improvement in writing is a trade-off for a breathless film with little suspense.
Ridley Scott’s Alien was a triumph of carefully built suspense from the start. Aliens remains stuck on neutral. It is not a fault, of course, that the film takes its time before revealing the aliens. That’s what made the original work so well. It’s that the build-up time is not used for developing tension but squandered on an inert script and an unnecessary complication about Ripley and her army discovering a terrified little girl (Carrie Henn) in the devastated colony. For a long time Hollywood has felt the need to domesticate its toughest heroes by pitting them with a child. This is an absurd scenario for Ripley. Here is a woman who kicked alien ass and the best thing Aliens can do to expand her persona is turn her into a foster mom. Sigourney Weaver is at best playing cold and this change of pace undermines everything we loved about her Ellen Ripley.
Predictability contributes largely to the film’s shortcoming. We’ve seen this all before. An incredulous crew fails to take warnings seriously and consequently meets its demise at the hands of the very real danger.
Aliens is a James Cameron film in the worst sense of the term. The characters are props existing solely to be devoured by monsters, the film is full of simplistic statements, and stunts covering for a lack of writing (even bad writing). These traits have burdened many of his films but Aliens lacks Cameron’s best qualities that often salvaged those films, such as great visuals and a core.
As much as Cameron is associated with science-fiction, he was at his best in his only mainstream project away from the realm. As much as a guilty pleasure as Titanic was, at least it had emotion to spare. It also had some genuinely sad moments that are not present in this testosterone overload.
Cameron approached the material as an excuse to dazzle us with explosive action while Ridley Scott made a unique balance of suspense and horror. But even the loudest, most mindless action movies need a build-up, if not they play like a rollercoaster that only descends. By the time the first alien bursts out of a chest, there is little tension in context and Aliens becomes a clunky creature feature with no excitement, not even of the mechanical kind. The aliens themselves are killed too easily. Cameron apparently didn’t realize that what made the first creature so scary was our uncertainty about its mortality. Only the ending, in which Ripley torches the alien hatchery, comes closely to matching the quality of the original. The key seems to be in the absence of dialogue.
There is no thought in Aliens and the film is a machine-made mess. Tellingly, there are two strong females on the crew (three if you count Newt, the little girl), and yet not enough estrogen to fill a cup.
James Cameron seriously needs to find another historical event that means as much to him as the story of the Titanic and reinvent himself. Otherwise, he will become increasingly boring and predictable, since he’s been essentially remaking the story of Aliens many times.