aliensMovies used to be better. That does not mean old movies are uniformly perfect. It does not mean movies can be made the same way they used to be. You can’t go back. But movies used to be better.

Aliens is an exceptional action movie, expertly crafted with a skill and patience that is rare in any filmmaking, and particularly in action movies. While the modern action film has a bigger scope and more things happening, action scenes rarely have impact. Even considering a superior recent action film like The Avengers, there are four or five action sequences in that movie, and only one is remarkable for the things that happen in it – the actual action: the fight between Iron Man and Thor over Loki. It took the premise of the characters as seriously as it could, and let the implications inherent dictate how the action moved forward. This is strongly contrasted with the end action scene, the near destruction of New York, which besides a few great character beats kind of seemed like it had been done before (and it had, to Chicago in Transformers – that was infinitely worse, but the films were both problematic in kind).

Aliens takes simple, easy to understand scenarios, and wrings as much tension and excitement out of them as possible. It begins where the previous film left off, with Ripley drifting through space. She is found just before she tumbles into deep space. There’s a nice touch here when the people who find her ship and discover her in a cryo-tube, say: “There goes our salvage.”

It hasn’t been a quick journey for Ripley. Fifty-seven years have passed since she blew up the Nostromo and blasted the alien out of the airlock. No-one on earth really believes her story, and she’s plagued by nightmares of having her own little chest-burster experience.

For any viewer who hasn’t seen the film (or hasn’t seen it in a while), much of Ripley’s reputation for “being the great female action hero” won’t jibe with the character as she’s presented here. She’s clearly capable, and can speak her mind, but the Ripley we meet in the first hour of this movie is damaged and scared. She is not a kick-ass-and-take-names character. The later image of Ripley, replete with machismo, is a strange caricature. In AliensSigourney Weaver’s fine performance creates a very real and very feminine character.

Her femininity illustrates a central theme of the film, which is deeply concerned with childbirth and the importance of a mother figure. The aliens are a perversion of natural reproduction – disgusting little rape-babies that shove themselves down people’s throats, and parasitically destroy their hosts as they force themselves into life. It is an inversion of natural human reproduction, and the chest-bursters are inversions of human babies. Babies are soft, weak, and helpless. The chest-burster is fast, deadly, and fearsome from the instant it comes out of its make-shift womb.

When Ripley agrees to go back to the planet where the aliens come from (which had been colonized years before – and which had suddenly cut off contact), it is only with the reassurance that the people she travels with will kill the damned things.

This leads to the midsection, and the most inventive parts of Aliens. James Cameron (who wrote and directed the film as a follow-up to his major franchise-creating film, The Terminator) was savvy enough to understand that a complete retread of the first movie was the wrong way to approach the material. The alien was familiar from the first film. There could be no real new discovery for the audience, so he turned it into a war movie. Where the first film’s aesthetic was largely informed by a future-imperfect idea, making the future look as lived-in and secondhand as possible, Aliens has a battle-scarred, scorched-earth look. And like any war movie, the grunts are mostly sketches, with just enough dialogue to make them not seem like carbon copies of the same person. They’re cocky, contemptuous of Ripley (except for Hicks, played by Michael Biehn), and sure they know just what’s waiting for them on the planet (some bugs to shoot, some colonists to screw).

What’s waiting for them on the planet is a ghost-town, an absolute mystery which they piece together from the meager information at hand. The only person they find alive in the main compound is a little girl, Newt, who has been hiding out for weeks on her own.

What follows is familiar. The finding of the colonists, the initial attack from the aliens (which occurs at nearly exactly the one-hour mark – one hour without any real action in one of the preeminent action movies of the 80s). The film keeps the tension high by raising the stakes, again and again. Hardly anyone from the team of marines survives the first attack, all of their lines of escape are cut off, and the aliens make their way out of their hive back to the supposedly sealed-off headquarters. The moments when the aliens breach, the “movement all over the place” scene, is one of the tensest, scariest moments in the movies.

If Aliens has a major issue, it is that the major beats of the story, even when dressed with different actions, are a little too similar to Alien, particularly near the end. Ripley is again the last (wo)man standing. She gets to a point where she can escape, and then she goes back to save the cat – or in this case, the Newt. Then, when she thinks she has escaped – bam, the alien is on the escape craft with her. After the power-lifter battle, she defeats the queen by blasting her out of the airlock, just like on the escape pod from the Nostromo. Maybe George Lucas would say, “It’s like Poetry, it rhymes.” But I’m not so convinced it wouldn’t have been better for the end to have gone in a different direction. Maybe there was no way that Ripley was not going to face the threat on her own (especially since the story’s construction virtually ensures the only possible satisfactory end would be her confronting and defeating her fears, largely single-handedly). When you watch the first and second films in quick succession, elements of Aliens feel less fresh than they must have seeing it for the first time nearly a decade after Alien.

But even with these qualms, and the universal caveat that the damn thing should have been shorter (everything should be shorter), Aliens is in the rare club of movie sequels that have some reason to exist. The core of the previous film (the very alien Alien) remains intact, but new ideas are brought to bear against them. By not being a complete rehash, somehow Aliens made itself, for most of its running time, feel very new.

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