With a brand new Ridley Scott Alien film set for release this week, we at Psycho Drive-In thought it would be fun to look back at each of the films in the official franchise. So every day this week, the Psycho Drive-In All-Stars will be sharing their thoughts, memories, and interpretations of one of Hollywood’s most enduring and important science fiction franchises. I was 12 years old in 1986. My family had moved to a tiny Texas town a couple years back and I’d fallen deep down the horror movie rabbit hole. I was reading Stephen King and Clive Barker novels at a quick clip and was constantly on the lookout for something that would truly scare the shit out of me. I’d recently seen Alien and it had certainly done the trick, so I was eagerly looking forward to the sequel. I was prepared to be scared, but I wasn’t prepared to fall in love. While Alien is an exercise in restraint, its sequel is a triumph of glorious excess. Bill Paxton’s character Hudson uses the term “badass” to describe himself and the cadre of Colonial Marines accompanying Ripley on the return to LV-426 and I can’t think of a better word to sum up the film as a whole. There’s so much sci-fi action and splatterhouse gore in Aliens that it’s practically a genre unto itself. We’re also treated to some damn colorful performances by the entirety of the cast, turning what might otherwise have been a dozen vanilla stereotypes into some truly unforgettable characters. I’ve carried those characters with me ever since ’86. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), the tough-talking ball-busting gunner. Apone (Al Williams), the dulcet-cadenced Sergeant that holds it all together. Hudson, Paxton’s monumental crybaby whiner. The stoic no-nonsense Hicks (Michael Biehn). Lance Henriksen’s brilliant turn as the android Bishop. Even Paul Reiser gives the performance of his career as the slimy corporate bootlick Carter Burke. Every character, even those that perish quickly, gives you a little something to remember them by. And then there’s Ripley. Much has been made of Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens. As an early example of a female lead kicking ass in an action film, the character proved revolutionary in inspiring advances for women across the genre and in roles typically reserved for men in general. And it’s not some hollow gesture or reliant upon sex appeal, there is an absolutely incredible character arc at play here. Ripley begins the film scared, alone, tortured and haunted by her experiences aboard the Nostromo. At the film’s climax, when she pops the cargo bay door open suited up in the power loader ready to do battle with the alien queen she is a woman transformed, and it is awesome to behold. Back to the part about falling in love. I didn’t fall in love with Ripley so much as I fell in love with the film as a whole. I fell in love with great writing, I fell in love with coming to expect more from genre film than a decent special effects budget. I fell in love with the idea that sometimes the real bad guys are the corporations acting in the interest of their bottom line. And I fell in love with the idea that a woman can be the lead of an action film without having her tits and ass hanging out. It’s been 31 years since Aliens and while we’re doing better on some counts, we’re still struggling with that last bit. Here’s where I go out on some glib anti-patriarchal rehash of the “nuke the entire site from orbit” quote. It is, after all, the only way to be sure. — Adam Barraclough James Cameron takes the slow building dread of Ridley’s Scott’s Alien and replaces it with the immediacy of gut-busting action. There is no mistaking that the films are carved of similar ilk, but they approach the material in unbelievably different manners. This movie turned the resourceful Ripley into much more of a killing machine. Ripley becomes a pure badass in this film. What is most important about the legacy of Ripley in these films is that her gender is rarely commented on. She, for all I can think, the first truly great female heroine that is on level playing field, if not better than the men than she is next to. Cameron’s film doesn’t treat gender like heterodoxy but rather smashes it with resounding certainty. Ripley is a great heroine in Alien, but she takes full form under a screenplay that is partially written by James Cameron. Ripley’s central badassery (yep that’s a word I checked) is important beyond the pro-feminist angle that it employs because every film that follows in the franchise needs to have a powerful female lead. Noomi Rapace and Wynona Ryder both follow in the footsteps, and for my money, even though the script isn’t great, Rapace does a really convincing job (more on her insanely gruesome abortion scene later this week). Just like Alien, Aliens is about corporate greed being the true enemy. The decisions made by Ash in Alien and Burke in Aliens directly endanger the crew in both instances. They are both driven by their corporations and not the people aboard the ships. Burke even calls someone a “grunt” to their face, showing his complete removal from them. A lot of the joy of the film is Ripley clashing with the corporate structures. Weaver is physically up to the challenge, but beyond that, she is a dynamic presence on screen. She brings a confidence to Ripley but tinges it with a sense of righteousness which could be why she is constantly butting heads with those above her. As good as Aliens is, I tend to prefer the slow dread of Alien. The films aren’t apples and oranges, however, they do take such different approaches that people feel like they need to fall in a camp on which they like better. I like to think of them as companion pieces that add depth and richness to the other one. This leads me to one of the negatives of the film, although it is only a negative when you take Alien 3 into account. Cameron attaches a sense of maternal instinct to Ripley in her protection of Newt. They form an unmistakable bond, but she is completely dropped and forgotten in the third film. I only say this is a negative because the third film retroactively makes the character of Newt an unimportant side character. Cameron’s film is great for spectacle and for that it never disappoints. There may not be a better living director at composing coherent and fully engaging action. There is clarity to Cameron’s work that we have come to take advantage of. Titanic certainly has faults, but Cameron’s staging of the action is the best realization of the unraveling of that fateful April night from a purely coherence standpoint that you can imagine. As much as I am indifferent towards it, the same goes for Avatar. The Terminator was his warm-up, this is his true emergence as a master of the craft. Much of the problems that exist with the films that follow in the franchise stem from the nearly immaculate conception of these first entries. Audiences got spoiled on a level of quality and craftsmanship that lack in the next two. David Fincher does his best in the third film, but Cameron and Scott made what is one of the great one-two punches in the history of film. — Peterson Hill One of the things I love about Aliens is the way James Cameron combines what is essentially a Vietnam War film and a (problematic-in-itself) critique of gendered power and identity in the 80s. Between 1978’s The Deer Hunter and 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, no less than fifteen major films focused on the Vietnam war, along with at least three regular television series and a handful of mini-series and TV movies. In fact, between 1985 and 1987 at least one of the top-five grossing films of each year centered on Vietnam stories (Rambo 2: First Blood, Platoon, and Good Morning Vietnam). By foregrounding the Vietnam parallels, all of which have been well-documented elsewhere (specifically, the articles “Is this going to be another bug-hunt?” by Tim Blackmore, and “They Came From Beyond the Center” by Joe Abbott, as well as the essay “Genre, Gender, and the Aliens Trilogy” by Thomas Doherty) Cameron undercuts audience expectations and is further able to alter traditional elements of character and plot. In essence, by manipulating the foreground, he is able to present original takes on common stereotypes. The Marines being sent into harm’s way at the behest of corporate/political interests can be seen as analogs for the American armed forces seeming technological superiority over the North Vietnamese, only to be taken completely off-guard by the tenacity and guerilla-style combat of the xenomorphs. Visually, Cameron also filters a lot of the action through the helmet-cams, symbolically recalling the impact that television had on the perception of the war, and keeps the soldiers confined and restrained in an artificial jungle of wires, machinery, and, ultimately, biomech goo. At the same time, Cameron is tasked with fleshing out the world the Ripley finds herself in after surviving Scott’s nightmarish Alien. Ripley’s escape pod ended up floating in space for fifty-seven years. Everyone she ever knew is gone, including, thanks to the Director’s Cut, her daughter. The only thing she has left is her job, and then that is also taken from her. A review board of gender-neutral executives strips her of her flight officer license and she is forced to undergo a six-month period of psychological evaluation. Therefore, in one fell swoop, Ripley is no longer a mother, no longer employed, and is classified by the controlling class as dangerously irrational for sticking to her story about what happened to the Nostromo. Gender-neutral isn’t actually accurate, to be honest. Everything is masculinized in Aliens, and traditional feminine gender characteristics are subtly coded as dependence, or even childlike. The officials who strip Ripley of everything are all outfitted with suits and ties, padded shoulders and severe looks. In order to survive, she cuts her hair short and is forced to do manual labor on the loading docks (because there is either traditional masculinity or weak dependence in this world) while living in an apartment the size of a closet with her cat. And if you have a cat, you know that can’t have been easy. Then the rest of the film becomes an almost textbook following of Joseph Campbell’s heroic quest outline as Ripley receives her “call to adventure” and after initially refusing, shifts into the “Crossing of the First Threshold” as she agrees to return to LV-426. We then get the “Road of Trials” as Ripley and the hyper-masculinized Marines disastrously engage the xenomorphs (and are emasculated in the process), find Newt (signifying and triggering the only positive feminine quality available in Cameron’s Aliens – motherhood), and establish a new command structure as Ripley assumes the mother role to everyone and begins taking charge. Even the potential love interest narrative is subverted to the point where Ripley is the caregiver/life-saver. We then get “The Return,” immediately followed by the “Refusal of the Return” as Ripley refuses to leave once Newt gets separated – she won’t accept a second loss of her child. This leads to the symbolic journey into the underworld as the final fifteen minutes of the film plays out in real-time and Ripley is forced to confront her Other, the Queen: the ultimate ideal of capitalist, corporate power – the anti-mother of identityless enslavers, workers, and drones. Their final battle, one between Being and Nihilism, between working class motherhood and the dehumanized corporate production of “disposable” offspring. Alien is practically a perfect film, but sometimes I think its importance was almost stumbled upon in a way similar to Night of the Living Dead’s accidental social commentary on race. Aliens takes on a greater narrative and thematic challenge and (mostly) rises to the occasion, establishing itself as both an amazingly effective action film while also attempting a critiquing corporate culture and establish a cross-gendered heroism that is able to embrace masculine cliches (lugging a huge phallic gun around) while also leaning fully into a single feminine cliche (Mother). But it’s a questionable feminist stance, as it is essentially an abandoning of feminine gender signifiers in order to stake a claim in masculine stereotypes. Cameron seems to be attempting to sidestep gender criticism to focus instead on class, but can’t escape an ultimately masculine gendered representation of individualism versus corporate power, where even Motherhood becomes encoded as a masculine undertaking and the only other actual example of biological motherhood is monstrous to the extreme. — Paul Brian McCoy Sitting here in 2017, one finds it hard to believe that not too long ago our cineplexes were NOT filled with sequels, reboots, remakes, etc. Today you pretty much expect any film that is a success to have a sequel (see: The Fast & The Furious) and you’d expect to see it within two years. It’s like clockwork now. But that wasn’t always the case. Sequels, not including the cheap-to-make and easy-to-cash-in-on slasher sequels, used to be reserved for major studio tentpole releases, such as the Star Wars Trilogy and the Indiana Jones series. Sometimes it would take YEARS to see a sequel as the studios wanted to make sure that their precious properties were handled with care to ensure longevity and, ultimately, to bring back the audiences – and bank roll – from the first film. Case in point – James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi/action masterpiece Aliens. In 1979, Ridley Scott shook up the world with his nasty, slimy, claustrophobic horror thriller, Alien. It was a film that scared up box office records, further cemented 20th Century Fox (and studio head Alan Ladd) as the folks who were taking risks on science fiction’s newly found resurgence, and even earned an Oscar for visual effects. With all of these highlights, one would expect a sequel to be greenlit almost immediately. And yet that didn’t happen. In fact, it would be seven years before audiences would learn the fate of Ellen Ripley. But, man, was it EVER worth the wait! Aliens is one of those rare birds in cinema, a sequel that meets (and, depending on whom you speak with – exceeds) its original. It’s a film that is quickly mentioned alongside the likes of The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back. And it’s a film that, 31 years later, still delivers the goods. What is it about Aliens that makes it such a great sequel? Honestly, that answer can be summed up in two simple words – JAMES CAMERON. Before he was “King of the World,” Cameron was an up-and-coming director, having worked with the great Roger Corman on many of his sci-fi movies. Cameron had a background in matte paintings and visual effects, which helped train his eye to use these tools – as well as a limited budget – to craft 1984’s dynamo, The Terminator. It was The Terminator that would lead Cameron along the path to 20th Century Fox and, ultimately, to LV-426. Cameron had a massive undertaking – make a sequel to Ridley Scott’s mega-hit that was true to Scott’s vision but also not a slave to it. The studio systems are notorious for wanting a rinse/repeat on sequels but Cameron was going to do something special, something different for Aliens. Where Ridley Scott delivered the frights, James Cameron was going to war (literally and figuratively)! And this is where Aliens excels as a follow-up film. What makes Aliens such a great sequel is that it has a different tone and feel to Ridley Scott’s film. Gone are the gothic architecture and nightmarish tone, replaced with military steel and a kick-ass action lust. No longer are we with the “truckers in space.” Now we’re going to war with a team of die-hard Colonial Marines, armed to the teeth with bad-ass weapons (and attitudes to match). The combination of these elements help make Aliens a wonderful companion piece to Scott’s Alien, but also allow the film to stand on its own merits – a rare feat for any sequel, regardless of day and age. Bringing the absolute best in special effects to the table, Cameron infuses Aliens with tons of action while also remembering that what made ALIEN so great was the terror it had dripping off the screen. Aliens has its fair share of scary moments, including one of the single best special effect sequences this writer as ever seen involving a facehugger actually scampering right towards are heroine – all done IN CAMERA! And, of course, who can forget the revelation of the Alien Queen? She’s simply breathtaking to behold and the fact that she’s a giant puppet that was actually on set shows again how Cameron breaks new ground and pushes the VFX envelope every time he gets behind a camera. Aliens raises the stakes, not only with the sheer number of the scary xenomorphs found on Hadley’s Hope, but also with the dynamic relationship between Ripley and the lone survivor of the colony, Newt. If you watch the Director’s Cut, this relationship is made all the more beautiful when you learn that Ripley lost a daughter while in cryosleep, making her connection to Newt even stronger. We look at Aliens as a war film, which it definitely is, but it’s not an empty action film. It has something to say about the dynamics of family – that a family may not be who you are born to or who you bring into this world, but it can also be made up of the people you bond with during important moments in your life. In Aliens we get to see the ULTIMATE showdown of maternal instincts between Ripley and the Alien Queen and it’s still as intense and exciting as it was over 30 years ago. Why? Well, the visuals, sure, but more importantly is that we’ve invested in these characters. For over two hours, Cameron puts us in the scariest, most dangerous place in the universe and in that time we bond with Ripley, Newt, Hicks, Bishop, Hudson, Vasquez and the rest (well, not Burke – F that guy). Because of what we know about the creature from the first film, we know they are going up against something that is the most perfect, lethal organism known to exist and there’s more than one of them this time. We are emotionally invested in seeing these people escape a no-win situation and the stakes are high because we know they can’t ALL make it out. This makes Aliens so rewatchable and is the main reason why many will say they prefer it to Alien – which I completely understand. For me, Cameron’s Aliens is a benchmark in how to build a sequel. You stay true to the source material, but you build upon it and give the audiences the tastes of what they love from the original while giving them something more, something new that gives your sequel some real meaning as to WHY it exists. Aliens delivered in 1986 and it still delivers today. It is truly the blueprint on how to build a better sequel. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation would be proud. — Kevin Pauley See larger image Aliens 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Aliens 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray New From: $14.43 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.