They Mostly Come At Night. Mostly.
A low budget film brimming with tension and atmosphere gets a sequel. The studio hands it to a second time director (first time with a major studio or a budget) and spins it as an action film. Just take grim and nihilistic science fiction horror, multiply the aliens by a hundred and throw some space marines into the mix. The result is a shitcake with extra peanuts so often that it's a rule of filmmaking that the sequel will suck. Unless that sequel is Aliens.
James Cameron wrote the script on the side while filming The Terminator and convinced Fox to give him the budget and backing for Aliens if The Terminator ended up being successful. Fox didn't want to pay Sigourney Weaver a real actress salary (she only made around $30,000 for her role in the original Alien) until Cameron refused to film without her, insisting that the script could not be rewritten with another character in her place. The filming itself was a legendary series of near disasters as Cameron (it is too kind to say that he is merely difficult to work with) faced mutinies from his British crew at Pinewood Studios. After filming wrapped, Cameron told the crew: "This has been a long and difficult shoot, fraught by many problems. But the one thing that kept me going, through it all, was the certain knowledge that one day I would drive out the gate of Pinewood and never come back, and that you sorry bastards would still be here," and indeed walked out the door.
The film itself is a masterpiece of pacing and action, remembered for its relentless violence and action, but in retrospect it is amazing how slowly the film begins. It takes its time building the characters, setting the stage for Ripley's psychology, the loss of her child, the memories of the nightmare in the dark. Action films should take a deep breath and not start the gunplay for an hour into the film. Milk out the time with the characters, make us recognize them on sight before throwing them into harm's way. Any good action or horror film needs to be a love story between the audience and the characters, so that we feel the emotional gut punch of their danger and deaths.
Once the action does begin, it's still the best science fiction action ever filmed. Close quarters, guns blazing constantly against an onslaught that never can quite be stopped, only hidden from for a time. But it's not just action, Cameron paces the film carefully with quiet tension between the firefights, hidden moments of dread that echo the first film. The marines exploring the abandoned colony, expecting something to jump out of every acid scorched hole in the wall. The moment they realize they're right beneath the cooling station and are ordered to unload their rifles for fear of an explosion, and the tension mounts even though you know exactly what's coming. Ripley waking up next to Newt, noticing that her gun is gone and the canisters holding face huggers are empty. The skittering of bony legs somewhere in the shadows. The stomach knotting "beep ... beep ... beep" as the motion detectors chime like an EKG, a cloud of dots moving closer than the walls should allow until the characters look up in horror at the ceiling.
The effects show a little wear around the edges these days, but only when it zooms out and away from the tight focuses on characters and their immediate surroundings. Oddly the thing that looked most fake was the armored personnel carrier as it rampages through the colony. It looks too light, like it's made of cardboard and lacking real substance, which is odd because it was actually one of those 40 ton tugs that tow airliners in and out of the gates at airports.
The actors are superb, even in the tiny roles. Sigourney Weaver got the Oscar nomination and put science fiction on the legitimate track. Newt, Carrie Henn putting in one of the most convincing child performances of all time, all flailing limbs and vacant eyes. It was the only film she ever was in, just an Air Force brat whose dad happened to be stationed in town when a call for auditions went out. Lance Henrikson, the android trying to redeem the sins of his predecessor. Michael Biehn playing much the same character he did in The Terminator. Bill Paxton constantly on the verge of losing it. Jenette Goldstein nailing the tough Vasquez fifteen years before Michelle Rodriguez started channeling her character in every role.
Cameron hits the theme of indifferent corporate evil that recurs in most of his films, but it's at a particularly brutal level here. Send the colonists out to investigate, but don't warn them, if you make a big deal out of it, you've just lost exclusive rights to the find. There's a substantial dollar value attached to the facility, you know. Paul Reiser is about a light year away from the light friendly guy he always plays in comedies, all snake-oil and manufactured charm. Would a squad of marines really have been sent to investigate a couple hundred presumed dead colonists if not for the bio-weapons division's interest in the matter? The parasitism of The Company is every bit as violent and horrific as the alien.
There is no question though that the alien itself is the main character, even with a hundred of them stalking through the shadows. The creature is a vile twisting of sexual metaphors. It rapes you down the throat and its bastard progeny explodes out of your rib cage. The double mouth both a phallus and a dentata. The creatures' violence is oddly bloodless, the fear not really of its claws or teeth, but of its embrace. Watch how the marines die one by one, not ripped asunder or torn apart but pulled into a final hug and then pulled away into the darkness. Goo, slime, drool, acid for blood. No fucking eyes, just the sense that it's watching you. Climbs walls, bends steel, slams right through blast doors like they're paper. There's not a chance that a Schwarzenegger clone could somehow fight it one on one, it'd casually rip his head off.
In the end, it's not anti-technology, it's not a screed of nature rising to murder us in our sleep. There's a sense that while organic the aliens are anything but natural, perfect killing machines designed in nightmare. They are machines just as much as the android Bishop, born of nightmare instead of intellect. The two are mirrors, foils to each other. One a perfect machine designed by the mind and programmed to protect humans, the other a perfect machine summoned by the reptile brain lurking beneath the intellect, programmed to massacre.
The other mirror is of course that of Ripley and the Queen, mothers fighting for a child, as their other grown offspring fall to bullets and claws all around. There's a moment of understanding near the end, in the depths of the hive, when Ripley shoots the flamethrower into the air and then points it at the piles of eggs. The Queen nods then, her warriors backing off into the shadowed tunnels, two mothers understanding each other, my child for yours. But Ripley is too far gone to retreat in peace, seen too much blood and horror. She burns the eggs anyway, pumps the grenade launcher all around the nest, not content to let the ticking reactor bathe it all in atomic fire in a few minutes. It has to be fire Ripley uses, that first discovery of ours, the first symbol distinguishing us from the animals. It's not just a weapon, it's the light that keeps the darkness at bay.
Newt survives for months on her own, not fighting but hiding. That's not a blunt message for saying that technology won't save us, after all Ripley only wins in the end by fighting the queen with primitive power armor. It's an echo of the fear that helpless children is all we really are once you strip away the fancy guns.
There are three great fears in a technological society, embedded in the great science fiction horror franchises of the eighties. The Terminator echoes the fear that technology will turn on us, the blade twisting to stab the wielder, the dark child growing to smother its parents. The Predator echoes the fear that superior technology will come along, that all our brains are for naught if we stumble across someone with better toys. The Alien is the ultimate nihilistic fear though, grounded in the horrific notion that the technology might not even matter, that lions and tigers and bears are grinning in the darkness beyond the campfire.
"These people are here to protect you. They're soldiers." -Ripley
"It won't make any difference." -Newt
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.