Quite often, movies, books, music, television shows, and other pieces of pop culture serve as a reflection of the time when they were made. Sometimes they are very much rooted in that time, and no longer feel relevant in the decades that follow. Occasionally, though, they maintain every ounce of the power they were infused with when they were first created, and in a way, they become timeless. These are the pieces of art that endure, that hold up. The purpose of this column is to look at the pop culture of the past, and determine if it does indeed hold up.
In 1979, director Ridley Scott unleashed Alien upon an unsuspecting movie-going public, and at the same time managed to create not just one of the greatest science fiction/horror films ever made, but one of the all-time greatest films period. The film is a master class in tension and atmosphere, and to this day it holds the power to scare and shock viewers, even those who have seen it multiple times. Seven years later, James Cameron was given the daunting task of following up Scott’s masterpiece, and instead of cranking out yet another sequel that was exactly like the previous installment, he instead decided to take the franchise in an entirely different direction, replacing the claustrophobic horror of the first one with balls to the wall action and an even stronger emphasis on the science fiction elements. Aliens was a huge hit when it was released in 1986, and many fans claimed it was every bit as good if not better than the original film. Lately, however, there have been rumblings (mostly among internet movie fans) that the film doesn’t hold up, and that it really isn’t a very good movie. The question is, are they right? That’s what we’re here to find out.
For those who don’t know, Aliens picks up right where Alien left off. Ripley, sole human survivor of the Nostromo, has been drifting through space in suspended animation aboard an escape pod, along with the ship’s cat. She is picked up by a salvage crew and nursed back to health, only to learn that she was out there for 57 years. After a tense confrontation with the unsympathetic board members of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, Ripley is fired and stripped of her flight status. However, before she is escorted out of the building, they inform her that there is now a terraforming colony on LV-426, the planet where she and her crew originally picked up the alien that wiped them out. Ripley tries to return to a normal life, taking a job at a loading dock, but she is plagued by nightmares of the creature that terrorized her and killed her friends. So when she learns that contact with the colony on LV-426 has been lost, and that the corporation wants her to accompany a squadron of Colonial Marines as a consultant to investigate, Ripley reluctantly agrees, hoping that by doing so she will at last be able to confront her fears and banish the creature from her mind forever. When they arrive on the distant planet, however, they discover that the colony has been completely wiped out, and in its place is a vast hive of bloodthirsty aliens like the one Ripley first encountered nearly six decades earlier. Despite all their macho posturing, the Marines soon realize they are completely outnumbered, and all the high-tech weaponry in the world won’t protect them from the hordes of dispassionate killing machines that want nothing more than to survive at any cost. Now the Marines must rely on their cunning if they want to survive, but in the end, will it be enough?
Simply put, Aliens is neither the unassailable classic its hardcore fans (such as myself) make it out to be, nor is it an unwatchable, dated mess like some of its detractors would have you believe. It is simply a solid, smart (seriously) action-packed sci-fi thriller that is very much rooted in its era in some ways, and totally timeless in others. It is also a bold sequel in that it doesn’t try to be a carbon copy of the film that spawned it, but instead tries very hard to stand on its own. In that respect, it succeeds very well. Whereas Alien is rooted in the B-grade horror films of the 50s and 60s (primarily Mario Bava’s 1965 film Planet of the Vampires), Aliens feels more like a throwback/update of the pulp sci-fi novels that came before (specifically, Roberta A. Heinlein’s classic juvenile novel Starship Troopers). In some ways, Aliens feels like its own film, one that is only tangentially connected to the original. While there might be less of a sense of involvement or identification with the lead character, someone who had never seen Alien could easily watch the second film in the series without ever feeling lost. It’s rare that a sequel tries to be anything other than a carbon copy of the original, and even rarer when it succeeds. Cameron’s film manages to do both, and while that isn’t necessarily enough to conclude that it “holds up,” it is a strong point in its favor.
Along those lines, Cameron ups the stakes significantly by making sure that the film lives up to the title. While the crew of the Nostromo was terrorized and taken out by a single, seemingly indestructible xenomorph, the highly trained and heavily armed Colonial Marines are overwhelmed by vast hordes of highly evolved killing machines that have concentrated acid for blood. There are those who think that Cameron totally diminished the threat of the alien simply by including more than one, and that he essentially turned them into cannon fodder (quite literally in a deleted scene included in the Director’s Cut of the film). To an extent, they are right, but on the other hand, Cameron wanted to present the aliens as an overwhelming threat that could completely overpower a “team of ultimate badasses” who come charging in equipped with high tech weaponry and a whole lot of bravado. However, the Marines are facing something they weren’t prepared for, and quickly learn that despite all of their macho posturing, they are not nearly as invincible as they think they are. On the other hand, the aliens are also running into something they weren’t prepared for, but manage to adapt to it through sheer numbers. Sure, it may seem like the creatures get cut down rather easily, but at the same time, they do manage to take out most of the Colonial Marines during their first encounter and send the rest scurrying away feeling completely frightened and unprepared. And they don’t do it through sheer force of numbers, either. The aliens use their adaptability and their cunning to battle the marines, going so far as to cut the power to the facility where the soldiers are holding up (despite the fact that they are just animals, as Bill Paxton’s character of Hudson points out), and they prove to be every bit as durable and resourceful as the title creature of Ridley Scott’s original.
Another criticism leveled at the film is that it hasn’t aged well, and in some ways, that’s true. The effects, while often quite good (practical creature effects will always trump a bunch of pixels), can be a bit dodgy at times, especially Cameron’s use of rear screen projection. However, this is not necessarily a deal breaker, and no film should ever be judged solely on its effects. More emphasis should be placed on the story and script, and whether or not it retains an impact or remains relevant long after release. Aliens manages to do both. Sure, the dialogue isn’t stellar and the character development leaves a bit to be desired (the Marines are basically a collection of “types”), but the film still manages to be thrilling and exciting over 20 years after it initially hit movie screens. It contains a number of big action set pieces that retain every ounce of power they had when the film was released all the way back in 1986. Additionally, Cameron takes a cue from the original film, and spends some time ratcheting up the tension, specifically in the scenes leading up to the first alien attack, when the Marines initially land on LV-426. Of course, if the film were nothing but action beats and jump scares, it would quickly become boring without at least one character the audience could latch onto. Thankfully, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is still one of the best female characters in the history of cinema, embodying both a warm maternal side and a toughness that is wholly believable. This type of character is a rarity in films to this day, when all too often a strong female character is often confused with an attractive girl who kicks ass while wearing skimpy outfits. Ripley’s evolution from survivor to fighter feels totally organic, and by the time the film rolls around to her big climactic moment with the alien queen, the audience is totally behind her. It’s another reason why the film holds up, and why Ripley has endured as such an iconic character for the last three decades.
Furthermore, the film is still relevant, despite the fact that it is over 25 years old. The film carries a strong anti-corporate message, not unlike the one currently espoused by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is a theme that pops up again and again in Cameron’s films, all the way up to his most recent film, Avatar (2009), and it is embodied here in the character of Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), an evil company man who wants to smuggle alien embryos back to earth so they can be used as biological weapons. To do this, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn), the lone survivor of the “shake and bake” colony set up on LV-426. Sure, it’s a broad characterization, but it very much feels akin to the “profits over people” mentality that seems to be so prevalent these days (not to mention back in the ‘80s, aka the “Me Decade”). In that respect, the film is reflecting a concern that is still very much in the public consciousness, and therefore it feels very relevant.
Similarly, the film also has a somewhat conflicted view of the military. Throughout his career, James Cameron has had an interesting love/hate relationship with the military. He seems to fetishize military equipment and technology (not to mention the troops and the military lifestyle), while simultaneously being disgusted by the fact that it is used for the purpose of destroying and killing. It’s as though Cameron admires the military, yet he is totally against war. That is a sentiment that many people share, especially in this age when the United States is bogged down in a series of seemingly unending conflicts, with people praising the troops while decrying the war. This is another theme that is rooted in a completely different era (in this case, Vietnam), yet lends the film a sense of timelessness. It is one of the reasons why Aliens is totally relevant to today’s audiences, and one of the reasons why it holds up as well as it does.
Ultimately, despite some rather dated special effects and model work (not to mention a ridiculously antiquated but somewhat forward looking telecommunications system that prefigures Skype in a lot of ways), Aliens holds up just fine. It is still a thrilling, exciting popcorn flick that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the viewer, and a sequel that doesn’t sully the original film in any way. It is in no way a better film than the original, which is one of the greatest films ever made, but it is a damn fine film that has managed to withstand the test of time.