It’s interesting to consider the massive array of talent that was suckered into the Aliens franchise. The fire was kick-started by Ridley Scott, a man who would go on to do incredible things with the sci-fi genre. James Cameron then delivered the first sequel, another bloke who would go on to do some mind-blowing things. A youngling David Fincher got his first proper ropes with Alien 3 and he’s gone on to do incredible things. The last director I won’t even mention because Alien Resurrection doesn’t exist.
The first film was largely a retread of the old-age horror formula with a few twists. There was a neo-gothic, alien architecture and setting along with injecting a bit of age into all the main characters. The main heroine wasn’t shrieking or screaming or fainting every five seconds, nor did she perish horribly. In fact she came out of the ordeal a complete badass. Aliens is not a ‘horror’ movie. It doesn’t have scuttling monsters around air ducts, it’s a war movie. It has its moments of suspense but it’s otherwise a very action-heavy affair.
Aliens is a film with robot-sentries and Alien queens and giant stretches of the xenomorph anthology. This is definitely a super-sized sequel. For the first time you get a real feel for the universe, for the place that the films have taken place within. The silence of the first film’s soundtrack is replaced by this bombastic score and it’s all done to show just this vast universe. Refineries and factories, hospitals and apartments, ships in outer space and the original’s plot fits in nicely. Ripley’s grown a lot since the original, she’s been having nightmares (which I’ll discuss in detail tomorrow) and it’s time to beat the nightmares to death. With bullets.
Any vulnerability that Ripley had before has now been shed away. If you compare the times that Ripley encounters the xenomorph in the original with her encounter with the Queen then you get a very different character. But it feels like a progression of the same person. Over the course of these films she slaughters them like butter and then, in the end, feels herself able to go toe to toe with the biggest and baddest.
There’s still the themes of innocence (the pursuit of a cat replaced with the pursuit of a child) and there’s suggestions that the film is quietly self-mocking. The lines of “Game over man! Game over!” and “Get away from her, you bitch!” seem incredibly exaggerated, but this is an 80s action flick and not a late-70s horror flick anymore. But the film is still incredibly clever and, I would argue, a lot more emotional. The moments when Ripley discovers she has outlived her own daughter, the ‘Mommy’ moment with Newt and the team-effort ‘last stand’ that goes on. The film is rich in tension but not of the ‘horror’ kind, we’re just wondering when the bad guys will show up.
I noted before that the theme of innocence pervades in a different way and indeed both films are rich in symmetry. They both end practically identical to each other, there’s still a sweeping silent shot of the ship as the crew cyrosleep and Ripley still goes into a closet at the end to escape a nasty. Except this time instead of coming out shaking in a spacesuit she dons a loader and ices the queen-mother-motherfucker. The genre flip of ‘horror’ to ‘action’ is probably at its most explicit during the final half-hour. There’s explosions, larger sets and a completely different tone to the original. There’s still elements of claustrophobia and a neo-gothic feel to some of the film but the lighting, the sets and the mixture of characters feels completely alien.
I think it’s incredibly interesting to watch the series flip from its sci-fi horror roots, imbued with traditional elements and set-ups, to then into one of the most bombastic action sequels of all time. Cameron would later show again what he could do with massive budgets with his sequel to the Terminator which I would argue is the greatest action sequel of all time. Aliens isn’t worse for wear for having an action-gun-ho sequel, it’s still often quite terrifying, I’d say it feels a lot more fresh.
The series somewhat nosedives in the next flick and takes on a ridiculous mixing of both the original and the sequel. The final film in the series, that doesn’t actually exist, just amps up the horror to disgusting Saw like ‘revolting’ levels. It isn’t fun. But Aliens is where the series went from a clever horror into a bombastic and incredible action vein. There are few series I can name that actively ‘genre flipped’ like Aliens did.