This time it’s war.
During interviews at the time, director Ridley Scott expressed his interest in exploring the big mysteries and ideas suggested in Alien such as the origin and purpose of the Space Jokey and the alien species, but despite the film becoming a big success for the studio and the producers desire to make a sequel, such thing did not happen instantly.
Alan Ladd Jr., the man who had greenlit both Alien and Star Wars, left the head of 20th Century Fox and the new management had no interest in a sequel to a sci-fi horror film. It wasn’t until 1983 with a new management at the studio that Walter Hill and David Giler were able to move forward. They imagined the sequel could follow Ripley and a group of soldiers dealing with the alien species, but since they admittedly didn’t knew how to write sci-fi they proceeded to look for writers.
Eventually they came across the script for The Terminator and at the end of a meeting with writer/director James Cameron about other projects, they offered him “Alien II.” Cameron was a big fan of Alien and sci-fi and so he quickly put together a treatment that combined the producers idea with elements of his own un-produced script titled “Mother.” Cameron would flesh out the script while he was filming The Terminator and after that film proved a success he was offered the director’s job as well. Despite Scott’s own interest in directing a sequel he wasn’t contacted at all.
While the first film made Ripley the central character eventually, Cameron built Aliens around her entirely, giving the character a past and exploring the traumatic effects of being the last survivor left in her. Though it was cut from the original theatrical release, Ripley’s subplot about losing her daughter while she was drifting in space for 57 years added a lot of weight to her actions during the course of the film. When Ripley wakes up from hypersleep she has truly lost everything.
Though the studio was worried about Sigourney Weaver’s leverage on her salary, and pushed for a script that didn’t include Ripley at all, Cameron refused to do the movie without her, as she was key to the story he intended to tell. His determination would no doubt pay off in the end.
Ripley’s new companions were very different from the blue collars from the first film and, in trying to reflect the still fresh memory of the Vietnam war, Cameron created characters the filled every military stereotype, overconfident and with disdain towards the enemy, and believing the amount and size of their weapons would make any task easy, but he also made them charismatic enough so when they start dying we actually care for them.
Given the larger cast it’s understandable that many of the new characters went undeveloped, though those who do get developed have become iconic. There’s Hicks (Michael Biehn) who always tries keeps a cool head when others just lose it. He’s the perfect match for Ripley and the two quickly develop almost a romantic relationship. Hudson (Bill Paxton) starts out as the cocky comic relief before becoming prey of fear, but even at his character’s worst Paxton imbues him with a charm that makes him likable all the same. Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) is the stereotypical though woman that many movies default to when trying to deliver strong females. Like Hicks she remains calmed and focused despite the hell unleashing around them.
Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is a droid whose motives seem shadowy at times, made worse by Ripley’s past experience with Ash, but in the end he earns her trust. Continuing with the theme of corporate greed Burke (Paul Reiser) is a weaselly company man who hides behind a mask of kindness. Apone (played by real life soldier turned actor Al Matthews) is the tough but charismatic Sergeant of the squad, and Gorman (William Hope) is an inexperienced and bumbling lieutenant who’s he laughing-stock of the marines and makes all kinds of bad decisions.
Mirroring the Vietnam war though, no matter how powerful or big the marines’ guns are, they are swiftly dispatched and decimated by an enemy the initially underestimated. All their cockiness and tough hombre attitude vanishes from their faces and they have to deal with the fact they might not survive in the end, and in the final assault they gather the courage make one last stand.
There’s one new character though that rises above all: Newt (Carrie Henn). While the Colonial Marines reflected the state of 80s action films and are gave the Aliens its wide and lasting appeal with audiences, the heart and soul of the story is Ripley’s relationship with that little girl.
Ripley and Newt have both lost their families and everyone they knew and loved. They both experienced first hand the horror caused by the alien creatures and have seen people die around them, unable to stop it, and they are both haunted by nightmares and bad memories. Ripley’s maternal instincts give her the strength and will power to put Newt’s safety above all, and when the soldiers fail, she assumes command, determined to protect those around her this time. Ripley and Newt become surrogate mother and daughter, and along with Hicks they find the promise of a family.
But there’s a counterpart to this protective mother angle that James Cameron explores with the alien Queen. A deleted, and later reinstated, scene in Alien showed Dallas and Brett morphing into eggs, thus explaining a bit more about the alien’s life cycle, but at the time this was unknown. Cameron took advantage of this and, continuing drawing parallels between aliens and insects, conceived the idea of a Queen, a majestic creature whose design felt like a natural extension of Giger’s biomechanical creatures.
Like Ripley, the Queen is trying to ensure the survival of her species and is enraged and in search of revenge when she sees her eggs and children being burned. This leads to the climatic and iconic final battle between the two fierce mothers, a battle that reaches its climax not when Ripley manages to dispatch the Queen into outer space, but when Newt runs to her side calling her “mommy.”
Aliens follows its predecessor with a slow build up and a non-stop final act, but the stylistic similarities end there. Like Scott, Cameron is a strong visualist and he added a lot of blues and reds to the darkness, giving at times the feeling of coldness and hellish nightmare respectively. While we see a little more of the aliens this time, they remain mostly in the dark to increase the tension and to hide the technical limitations at the time.
Giger, who played a key role in the production of Alien, was not invited to return because Cameron, being a designer himself, wanted to put his own stamp into the alien world. While the creature design remains faithful to the original, he and Stan Winston added a few improvements like reducing the number of fingers and making them longer, and most distinctively removing the dome and human skull for practical reasons.
Another big change when compared to the first film is in the aliens behavior. While the creature in Alien had an elegance to it, the horde in Aliens behave much like murderous, mindless drones most of the time, running into the marines gunfire without much regard for their lives. While it takes away from the mystery they once had, it does provide the film with great action while doing it, so it gets a pass.
One of the highlights of the film is of course its bombastic score. Composer James Horner wrote a combination of militaristic action cues with romantic melodies and horror sounds punctuated by high-pitched strings, and it did so in merely two weeks. Like Goldsmith before him, Horner had to deal with the filmmakers cutting and pasting his music out or order. Two cues from the Alien score were also used during Ripley and Newt’s escape from the Queen and the cue for the final confrontation with the Queen went unused, but it did made its way into the ending of Die Hard a couple of years later.
Despite all those problems, the score for Aliens has become a classic of action cinema, with the cue “Bishop’s Countdown” used to death in trailers for action movies for years to come. It also received nominations and awards but the whole process proved so stressful and unpleasant that Cameron and Horner distanced themselves for years, until Titanic came along, a project that they both felt very strongly about and their collaboration would continued years later with Avatar.
Alien might have redefined horror and sci-fi, but it was Aliens that turned the concept into a franchise (sometimes to its own detriment) whose marketing machine reached beyond the film themselves and extended into all kinds of merchandise, comic books and even a cancelled Saturday morning cartoon. It also set the blue print for all sequels to follow. While the easy route in horror has always been to simply repeat the formula, Cameron took the idea in a bold new direction that allowed him to make it his own. It also turned Ripley into the first action heroine but, unlike the many copycat attempts that followed, her story had a real substance to it and it gave the film a heart of its own.