One of the classic challenges of any horror story is getting the audience to not imagine how exactly things could have turned out more beneficially for all those characters who never made it to the end credits. With Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror masterpiece, a crew of unprepared space truckers face an invincible xenomorph that stalks them relentlessly in the confines of their cargo ship. Sure, the ship is the size of a few city blocks, but against that xenomorph, being trapped on the same continent with it is still too close for comfort. But in the years that followed Alien’s release, there begged the question: what would have happened if you were ready for that alien encounter? What if you were armed to the teeth? What if you could call in the Marines? Well, director James Cameron decided to answer all of those questions in his epic 1986 followup, Aliens, and the answer was still the same: everybody dies.
The story takes place 57 years after Alien, and a deep space salvage team finds the lifeboat of Ripley, sole survivor of the Nostromo. Unfortunately, her employer, Weyland-Yutani, doesn’t buy her story about an alien killing her crew, and being the reason for why she self-destructed a super-expensive ship. The planetoid she visited in Alien has been colonized by terraformers for 20 years, and they never ran into any creepy monsters. Suddenly, however, the colony loses contact and the Company sends a team of Colonial Marines to check things out with Ripley as a technical advisor. The Marines are a crew of salty badasses clearly up for a fight and not unfamiliar with alien species, either. But even they are woefully underprepared for the hell that awaits them. In short order, the Marine’s rescue mission turns into a desperate scramble for survival as they realize that an entire alien hive has propagated on the colony. As the Marines swiftly realize they have picked a fight they cannot win, they decide that sometimes, just getting off the battlefield is victory enough. The question is, will there be anybody left to enjoy it?
Alien and Aliens are a special pair of movies because while Aliens is indeed a sequel to Alien, it is so completely different in style, direction, tone and delivery that it feels like a chapter from a some other story. The two movies share the same universe and certain characters, but otherwise are antipodal approaches to the same source material. Alien is all about slow buildup and gradual terror. Aliens is all about camaraderie and adrenaline. Alien is the kind of terror that makes you stand shock-still while you die. Aliens is the kind of terror that makes you run like hell or fight to the death. To compare the two movies is almost meaningless, and proclaiming one to be superior to the other suggests more about the critic’s proclivity toward horror or action than it does about either movie’s intrinsic qualities. They are both masterpieces, just of different forms.
As for Aliens itself, the story is not all that different, at its heart, than any other siege movie. Our heroes, despite all of their skill and bravado, quickly are outmatched and must fight to stay alive. They are betrayed by their leader’s incompetence. They are betrayed by the Company. They watch their means of exfiltration vanish in a fireball before their very eyes. They turn on each other. They struggle to understand their enemy. They improvise an escape. They engage in a heroic last stand. They make a run for it. They lose people along the way. They refuse to leave one of their own behind. They get some much-deserved payback. And they eventually boil it all down to a savage melee between the Alien queen and Ripley driving a robotic forklift…which seems kind of stupid when you type it out but when you watch it on screen and Ripley makes her badass entrance, you cannot help but cheer. Never has watching two mothers fist-fighting to the death over their children been more visceral or satisfying.
And that, really, is why Aliens is so terrific. Throughout its entirety, Cameron and company engage in a perfect execution of action cinema. The way each shot is framed, the pacing, the constant misdirection, the inability to ever fully relax…it all makes for an exhilarating, exhausting and ecstatic experience. Cameron has said he was channeling the Vietnam War in his treatment of Marine vs. Alien, and in that, the gung-ho heroics of Aliens often feels like a quintessentially American answer to the quintessentially British horrorshow that preceded it. Perhaps, like Vietnam, this movie is all about looking for a way to declare victory despite suffering an obvious defeat. It’s hard to tell, once swept up in the clamor and chaos of the movie’s various set pieces, though, and that’s not such a bad thing. Aliens means to overwhelm our senses so we cannot make sense of things as they happen, only afterwards, as we catch our breath waiting for our ears stop ringing.
There are plenty of signature moments in Aliens, but its moment of truth isn’t the Marines’ first bloody encounter with the enemy, or the many earned moments between the Marines themselves, or the gratifying retribution paid to a traitor, or even Ripley’s iconic fight with the Queen. It’s during the last stand, when the sniveling short-timer Private Hudson suddenly finds his courage and goes out in a blaze of glory, redeeming himself for all the whining he committed beforehand. He doesn’t save the day or even save his colleagues. But he does preserve the notion that when faced with the ultimate horror, you may die screaming, but you can do it into the face of your killer, instead to the sky in search of help that isn’t coming. Neither will save you. But the first feels a hell of a lot better.