Saturday, May 13, 2017

Summer School: 'Aliens' (1986)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Starting with its title, Aliens promises something more than Alien, an expansion on the small-scale concept of the previous movie. And it delivers just that, with more characters, more aliens, more violence, more back story and a longer running time (by about 20 minutes, with an additional nearly 20 more in the extended special edition). More isn't necessarily better, but while Aliens is merely a very entertaining action/sci-fi movie (as opposed to the masterpiece of Alien), it's still a remarkably successful sequel, respecting and expanding upon the key elements of the first movie while forging its own distinct identity.

If Sigourney Weaver was mostly an ensemble player last time around, here she's unequivocally the star, even if she's surrounded by another endearingly motley crew. As he would later do with Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, writer-director James Cameron here turns Ripley into a badass action hero, although she was pretty badass already as she single-handedly defeated the monster at the end of the last movie. Awakened after a 57-year hypersleep, Ripley is horrified to discover that the planet where the Nostromo first found the alien parasites has been colonized, and she's roped into a mission to investigate when the sinister company (here given a name, Weyland-Yutani), conveniently loses touch with the colonists soon after Ripley is revived.

It's all a bit convenient, but it gives Cameron the chance to revisit the aliens in a similar but new context, as Ripley joins a crew of Colonial Marines on their mission to the planet. These are highly trained military recruits as opposed to the working stiffs of the Nostromo, but they still mostly get their asses handed to them by the aliens, this time an entire swarm of them who've taken out nearly the entire colony. I realize that plenty of lines from this movie have become iconic, but I find all the comic relief and banter a little tiresome (especially Bill Paxton's hammy performance), and the sentiment gets a little overstated as well, with Ripley forming a sappy maternal bond with young Newt (Carrie Henn), the colony's only survivor.

Still, Cameron builds suspense nearly as well as Ridley Scott did, establishing all the characters and the looming threat before unleashing terror. I had remembered this as a nonstop action movie, but it actually starts slowly, and once again the alien(s) don't show up until an hour into the movie. Once they do, though, Cameron uses them a lot more liberally than Scott did, and the second hour of the movie is packed with tons of action. Despite its lower horror factor, Aliens is still frequently nail-biting and scary, although more in an adrenaline-pumping way than as slow-burning dread.

Weaver (who was nominated for an Oscar) really steps up as the more action-oriented version of Ripley, while retaining her no-bullshit persona, and Paul Reiser is the standout in the supporting cast as the consummate corporate weasel, always looking out for the bottom line at the expense of human lives. I also like Lance Henriksen's take on Bishop, a helpful android who exists in contrast to the sinister Ash from the previous movie. The fan culture around this movie favors the broad supporting characters, but I prefer when Cameron quiets them down and lets the action speak for itself.

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