Where Did We Leave Off?
James Cameron’s Aliens picks up 57 years after warrant officer Ellen Ripley jettisoned her lifeboat from deep space mineral commercial towing ship the Nostromo. Seeing as Cameron’s sequel arrives in 1986, seven years after the Ridley Scott’s Alien, I don’t think there could have been a more appropriate place for us viewers to enter this macabre warning story of the terrors that wait in the deepest recesses of space. Living in the age of 3D instructional block buster Avatar 2009, it’s clear to me that Cameron’s obvious flare and penchant for special effects is quite often overlooked, or simply overshadowed, by his overt personality.
Still, one can’t deny this director’s ingenuity and willingness to try to take things to the next level, and there really couldn’t have been a better person to direct the sequel to a film which had already done this. Take for instance, the title of the sequel, Aliens: a simple title that hints at a potentially quaint rehash and allusion to its predecessor, but some careful thought here throws a diabolical monkey wrench into the mix.
Alien was about ONE Alien, which managed to terrorize and destroy all of the Nostromo’s 7 person crew not including Ripley who escaped by the skin of her teeth. Aliens however clearly states its focus with its simple name- the fact that there are more than one of these beasts from the stars, and it is with this knowledge Cameron’s Aliens presents a drastically altered version of the slow creeping terror that Scott introduced us to.
Her lifeboat discovered floating through deep space by a salvage crew; Ripley is awoken from a 57 year hypersleep to a world that is very different than the one she left behind. On a space station orbiting the Earth, she remarks that she doesn’t recognize this place, and it’s from this point onwards that Cameron puts one of Aliens’ most ingenious qualities into action. Ripley, like us viewers, is disoriented in this futuristic space station, which no doubt looks advanced and cutting edge to us, but surprisingly to Ripley as well.
Instead of trying to directly patch together the seven years which between Alien and Aliens, Cameron takes an alternate approach by instead further distancing us. We begin our journey through space with Ripley and to do this Cameron washes away all the dark ‘truckers in space’ fore knowledge of Alien. As we sit in the brightly lit medical bay and join Ripley in the conference room with the various heads of the Weyland Yutani Corporation, Aliens gives us our first glimpses of what the well manicured space accommodation of the future looks like- a future now much brighter than Scotts.
The very fact that there are deep space salvage teams routinely searching for lost or discarded space crafts (cosmic American Pickers of the galaxy so to speak) says something about the very specific place the humans in Aliens now occupy in their dealings with space. No longer are we living in a time when space travel is strictly for exploration, but instead the fact that Ripley’s shuttle was found by a salvage team means that as humans, we feel so familiar with space travel that we actually are now scouring galaxies, looking for our own lost or misplaced crafts. As humans, we have established our own presence in the universe.
Even more telling of our level of comfort in space would be the salvage teams’ lack of interest in finding Ripley. I mean, today if you found a woman in hypersleep, drifting aimlessly through space for who knows how long, the questions surrounding her status would be endless: who is she? why is she drifting alone? What was she running from?
During Ripley’s frustrating meeting with the heads of her old employer, Weyland Yutani Corporation, Ripley is told that the menacing Alien creature with acid for blood that killed her crew and caused her to self destruct the Nostromo, has never been recorded in over 300 surveyed worlds. Although the denial that the victimized Ripley receives here is quite infuriating, and when we find out that that there has been a colony of ‘terraformers’ (people who operate Weyland Yutani brand atmosphere processors to make uninhabitable planets breathable) on the bleak LV 426 for nearly 20 years, Cameron ups the stakes of this film.
Plagued by terrifying nightmares, it’s clear that Ripley now carries the weight of the Alien disaster which no one believes happened on her shoulders. After loosing contact with the colonists of LV 426, Ripley returns to the planetoid that destroyed her life, as an advisor to a group of colonial marines’ on a rescue mission. But Cameron digs deeper here with this return, as from the very onset of the mission, no matter how many promises of safety and protection Ripley is given, we can’t help but feel her distrust and absolute fear to return to LV 426, and with these sharp emotions Aliens embarks upon a ride through hell.
In the director’s cut of Aliens, Cameron says that the film is supposed to operate with ‘40 miles of bad road’, but it’s really not until the marines doomed descent to LV 426 that this build up of suspense becomes so very intense. The glimmering blues and dark greys that seem to accent all of Cameron’s earliest works (The Terminator 1984, Aliens 1986, Terminator II: Judgement Day 1992)are all evident here, and indeed provide a unique visual aspect to the film. While moving from the corridors of the colonial marine’s warship, the U.S.S. Solaco, then to the terraformer colony, Cameron uses bright reds and cool blues to emphasize scenes with sharp and distinct visuals which make Aliens an experience all of its own.
Even more telling of this direction is the great volumes that contrast of colour speaks: no longer are we on the clean and crystalline decks of the orbiting space station. Instead the darkness that invades the screen like a thick cloak harkens back to Scott’s original imagining of the silent and spooky depths of space. As the Solaco creeps ever closer to LV 426, Cameron really reminds us that we’re no longer in the close safety of our planet. Instead, we return to the silent no man’s land that the characters of Alien succumbed to.
A large part of Aliens success is carried on the backs of the excellent chemistry of the rough-and-tumble marines: badass with a heart Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), spazy-joker Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), lady Rambo Pvt. Vasquez (Janette Goldstein), and Artificial Human Bishop (Lance Henriksen). Still, hearing Ripley try to brief the marines on their mission is a frustrating scene, as Vasquez and Hudson laugh off this as just another ‘bug hunt’. No one is laughing when the marines enter the innards of the wrecked, barricaded, and desolate colony in fighting formation. Here, the feeling of great discomfort that Cameron edges at when Ripley finds out about the colony on LV 426 comes full circle: something very wrong has happened here and at nearly an hour into the film, we still don’t know what.
Its hard to imagine that any one director could top the great eerie wonder that Scott created when he gave a first glimpse into the infamous derelict space craft in Alien. But when the marines come across the Alien’s nest, tucked away under the atmosphere processor, the footage we’re fed makes you drool with a very similar awe and curiosity. However, the wonder that we feel here slips away into absolute discomfort as we see colonists cocooned in slime, Alien eggs waiting for them to awake in order to latch onto their faces and plant the hostile seeds.
This is the first time seeing this nest outside of the Space Jockey’s marooned space craft, and it’s here that Aliens makes one of its boldest statements. When Dallas, Lambert, and Kane come upon the ship on LV 426 in Alien, the species are nowhere to be found and everything on this ship is long dead- leaving us to wonder what happened here in vain. With the more recent nest and disappearance of colonists in Aliens, Cameron places us in the midst of this evil that is still underway, and still horrifically unseen.
By using P.O.V. combat cameras, Aliens not only places us right over the marines shoulders as they come to uncover the horrors of the xenomorphs, but also makes combat scenes that adroitly eerie and intense. Over distorted monitors, we see nearly all of the team get wiped out in blurry haze of screams and gun fire, but the carnage here speaks louder to something else. Although more than one team member die at the hands of the Aliens, one marine is sent to a fiery grave after accidently being set ablaze by another’s flame through.
This is the first case of friendly fire in the film, but certainly not the last as many times blasts from misplaced grenades, or misguided pulse rifle rounds are the cause of death for other marines. The teams newby Lieutenant Goreman (William Hope), is really the personification of these errors as it’s his initial miss direction and refusal to command a retreat that causes the marines to parish. Here Aliens makes it quite clear that the sense of bravado and arrogance which seems to command human actions is not only dangerous, but deadly in a place like LV 426- a place that was never meant for human feet to tread.
With a double climax, Aliens also manages to maintain excitement because the film continually turns over on itself. Shifting from a bizarre rescue mission to a Science Fiction survival/action epic, we see Ripley take charge of the marine’s downward spiralling situation and eventually going head to head with the tyrannical Queen Alien in exhausting final blowout.
This is important however because Aliens spends quite a bit of time (considerably more than Alien at least) developing Ripley’s character. In Alien Ripley’s role only becomes prominent once Captain Dallas is killed, leaving her as next in command of the Nostromo. Aliens goes to show that the bravery Ripley displayed 57 years prior was not a one shot, and when it comes down to it Ripley kick some serious ass. But it’s really not until Alien 3 that the quadrology makes it blatantly clear that in this morose warning of space dread that spans decades both onscreen and in film, Ripley is just as important as the Alien.