Directed by: James Cameron Written by: James Cameron, 1986 » Region/Time: U.S.A., 137 minutes, 154 minutes (director’s cut).

Starring: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley » Carrie Henn as Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden » Paul Reiser as Carter Burke » Lance Henriksen as Bishop » Michael Biehn as Cpl. Dwayne Hicks » Bill Paxton as Pvt. Hudson » Jenette Goldstein as Pvt. Vasquez » William Hope as Lt. Gorman.

“God damn it, that’s not all! Because if one of those things gets down here then that will be all! Then all this – this bullshit that you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye!”

The original Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, was an above average, but still typical monster-from-outer-space movie, in which the crew of a spaceship is stalked and killed, one-by-one by a stowaway creature. What made the film interesting, apart from the workmanlike execution of the movie itself, was the concept of the monster itself. This alien lays eggs which hatch into “facehugger” larvae that, in turn, attach to humanoid creatures and lay embryos in their oesophagi. These embryos grow in the host, eventually bursting out of the chest, killing the host. The adult creature grows rapidly, has acid for blood and is a masterful hunter. As a horror film, this exotic monster allowed for a examination of pregnancy, as transferred to a male. It is notable that the only survivor of the film was the female lieutenant, Ellen Ripley. Aliens, directed by James Cameron, is one of three sequels on my list of 100 films and I believe it to be superior to the first instalment.

Aliens opens in deep space with the salvaging of Ripley’s escape shuttle. She is returned to Earth, but due to cryogenic deep freeze and relativity, 57 years have passed. Her daughter and everyone she knew in her previous life are dead. She is blamed for destroying The Company’s spaceship (in the previous film) and her story of a killer alien is laughed at, primarily because there has already been a colony on that planet for 20 years without any sign of trouble. She is living alone, haunted by nightmares, when The Company’s Mr. Burke arrives, telling her that they have lost contact with the colony on LV426, and would she be willing to go along with some marines as an advisor. She eventually agrees, on the condition that the mission is to destroy, and not to study or bring back, the aliens.

Cameron’s script is careful to spend time delineating each of the marines in Ripley’s company, creating characters that we recognize and care about before we arrive at the colony. Highlights include Pvt. Vasquez as a macho musclewoman, Bishop as an ominous android, Pvt. Hudson as the confident joker of the group and Lt. Gorman as the group’s leader, whose lack of field experience is obvious.

When the group arrives on the planet, the film begins to ratchet up the tension. There is no sign of life, although there are many signs of battle. The prolonged search of the base allows the tension to reach a fever pitch, whereupon we are introduced to the lone survivor, ten-year-old Newt. Both Ripley and Newt suffer from textbook cases of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), characterized by recurring imagery of a traumatic event, attempts to sleep, drink or work away thoughts of the event, a preponderance of terrifying nightmares, trouble sleeping and irritability or outbursts of anger. Cameron had done enough research to see that many Vietnam vets, faced with near-death situations, frequently returned for a second tour of duty. In the same way, he imagined Ripley returning to the aliens to face her fears in conjunction with the first film. In an interview at the time, he explained that Ripley physically survived the first film, but not mentally.

Eventually, the location of the rest of colonists is discovered and the marines set out to confront the aliens. With clear echoes of the U.S.A.’s experience in the Vietnam war, a crew of highly trained soldiers, equipped with the latest technology suffer extreme casualties from a low-tech enemy. While not native to LV426, the aliens of the film represent the antithesis of the organized soldier, disguising themselves in the environment in order to ambush the marines. Notably, many of the casualties inflicted on the marines in the initial battle are the result of military mistakes, overconfidence and poor preparation. The confident joker, Pvt. Hudson, falls apart in terror. After the first confrontation, for the survivors to escape the planet there is a breakneck race against the aliens and a nuclear meltdown.

As the alien life-cycle is similar to that of many wasps and other social insects, Cameron posited a new creation: the Alien Queen. Thus the stage is set for a show down between the egg-laying Queen and Ripley and her surrogate daughter, Newt.

In his 1986 review of the film, Roger Ebert said this, “The movie made me feel bad. It filled me with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety. I walked outside and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was drained. I’m not sure Aliens is what we mean by entertainment. Yet I have to be accurate about this movie: It is a superb example of filmmaking craft.” Indeed, the film was nominated for numerous Oscars, including a Best Actress nomination for Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, rare for action movies. James Cameron, who had already directed Terminator, would go on to direct some of the most successful movies of the past twenty years: Terminator 2, True Lies, The Abyss and Titanic. His next movie is the highly anticipated Avatar, currently scheduled for release this December.

Note: If possible, see the original theatrical release, as opposed to the Director’s Cut. The original moves much faster and skips an early scene that gives too much away regarding the colonists.

Up Next in the Film Canon: The mobster world goes from one populated by honourable scoundrels to dangerous and frightening criminals.