Seven years after the release of Ridley Scott’s phenomenal Alien in 1979 (read our retro review here)—a movie that had people lined up and down city streets to see it and helped usher in the age of the blockbuster—the next dose of deep space terror was unleashed. This time, sitting in the driver’s seat was American filmmaker James Cameron fresh off his success from the film The Terminator. Backed with big studio bucks, a stellar cast including the return of Sigourney Weaver as the seminal Ellen Ripley, and more screen time for Giger’s nightmare-inducing alien, the Xenomorph, Aliens was prepared to confidently bring moviegoers back on July 18, 1986, and continues to do so 35 years later.
The continuing saga of Ripley in Aliens was a well conceived narrative cultivated by David Giler (Alien 3, Alien vs. Predator) and the legendary Walter Hill (The Warriors, Streets of Fire), who would eventually become a franchise producer, from a script penned penned by James Cameron himself. It is so well constructed that someone who is completely oblivious to the happenings in the original film could dive right into Aliens without any confusion. This is a tactic I would often utilize with friends who have never experienced anything Alien related to introduce new fans to the franchise and ultimately make them keen on seeking out the original. This experiment has proven successful on several different occasions, I am pleased to report.
Besides her loyal feline, Jonsey, Ripley is the sole surviving crew member of the USCSS Nostromo and is miraculously found by a deep salvage team within a hyper-sleep chamber in the far reaches of space 57 years after the devastation met by her team on an abandoned spacecraft upon LV-426. This planet and number have evolved into a significant source and date for fans to celebrate… Alien Day has been proclaimed proudly as 4/26. Upon her awakening, Ripley relays her horrific experience to Weyland-Yutani Corporation executives only to find them dismissive of her claims about a raging alien threat. It’s only after finding communications have ceased with Hadley’s Hope—the colony of families who have subsequently made a home on LV-426—that the company elects to investigate and give possible credence to the sole survivor’s story. Reluctantly, Ripley agrees to return to the planet with a team of combat-ready Colonial Marines in hopes of locating the colonists and eradicating the alien monster.
Like its predecessor, Aliens delivers a colorful array of characters and dialogue. This ragtag outfit of Marines is brought to life with memorable performances by real-life USMC Sergeant Al Matthews as Sgt. Apone, Lance Henriksen (Near Dark, Pumpkinhead) in a make-or-break gig as the android Bishop, and Michael Biehn (The Terminator) as Hicks. There’s also the adorable “bromance” between Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein: Near Dark) and Drake (Mark Rolston: The Shawshank Redemption) and the compulsively quotable Private Hudson played by the late, great Bill Paxton (Boxing Helena, Near Dark). But none shine more brightly than Sigourney Weaver as she returns to the fold as Ellen Ripley, the fearless, resilient woman who survived near certain death in deep space in Ridley Scott’s original\ and has become one of the most revered characters in cinema. Now complete with a meaty backstory and a reinvigorated sense of purpose, Ripley bravely faces her vicious alien foe… again. Weaver’s performance in Aliens was so sensational that it earned her an Oscar nod for Best Actress—the first ever for a woman in an action/sci-fi/horror role.
In hopes of increasing the terror in Aliens and focusing more on the Xenomorph, Cameron enlisted the legendary services of Stan Winston (Pumpkinhead, Jurassic Park) and his team to create the exceptional creature FX. Howard Berger (From Dusk Till Dawn, Scream), who would later go on to co-found the world famous K.N.B. EFX Group with Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, had some of his first experiences on a special effects crew with Aliens. Tom Woodruff Jr. (Starship Troopers, Alien: Resurrection) also assisted in various aspects of the alien concept and creation. It was a large, talented, international team of sculptors, effects creators, set designers, workshop supervisors, and other artists working insane hours to meet lofty demands. Despite the tremendous tension faced by Cameron and his then wife and producer, Gale Anne Hurd, from the Ridley-loyal British crew members at Pinewood Studios in England, the production wrapped successfully and, as we all know, helped shape cinematic history for all the right reasons.
In contrast to Scott’s moody, atmospheric original, Aliens amps up the action and the horror by including more vicious kills, something critics didn’t especially like. Impeccable pacing and performances, brilliant set designs, and a thoroughly menacing Xenomorph have helped the film find well deserved fanfare, both in 1986 and over the past three and a half decades. Cameron and crew pulled off what was unthinkable—delivering a worthy follow up to one of the most influential movies ever made. Aliens isn’t just one of the best sequels but one of the best features ever committed to film.