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Nothing about this movie is not cool. Nothing, I tell you.
We'll start with the title. In these days of Alien Resurrection and Aliens vs. Predator, I think we've forgotten how cool that title was. First film: ALIEN. Second film: ALIENS. Man, that's nearly beautiful.
You want horror? It's as scary as any three horror movies, but it's exciting too. Its cast is more interesting than that of Alien, with far stronger emotional relationships. (Admittedly this kind of emotional relationship would have been wrong and jarring among the crew of the Nostromo, but that doesn't make the statement I just made incorrect.) It's a much broader film than Alien, just as Terminator 2 is a broader film than Terminator, but unlike that other James Cameron sequel it doesn't sacrifice terror for the sake of action-adventure.
On top of that, the characters are splendid. Carter Burke is indeed, to quote Hudson, a "ratfuck son of a bitch" and it's great to see him get what he deserves. That's a punch-the-air moment. The marines aren't just action hero dickheads with macho one-liners, as they could so easily have been. I love 'em all, but especially Sergeant Apone played by Al Matthews, of whom I'm in awe. "Look into my eye!" Apparently Al Matthews really was a marine sergeant in Vietnam, while everyone playing a marine (except Michael Biehn, who won the part late in the day) did two weeks' training in Britain with the SAS. How cool is that?
But of course the star of the show is Ellen Ripley, aka. Sigourney Weaver. I don't think it's sufficiently acknowledged how much the Alien franchise's success is down to Sigourney. She's terrified and vulnerable, yes, but she's also tall, intimidating and doesn't take any shit. When she shoves Carter Burke up against a wall and threatens him, it doesn't look stupid (as it would with many actresses trying to play that scene). If it came to a fist fight, you'd put your money on Ripley. In all seriousness, I have a lot of respect for Sigourney Weaver's presence, strength and intelligence as an actress. She also has a hard, angular face that she can soften when she chooses but looks perfect as a co-star for the Aliens. (When she shaved her head in Alien3, she looked tougher than the convicts and as scary as the monster.) She can also carry a gun like she means it, another skill that shouldn't be taken for granted.
Personally I think Sigourney Weaver is the nearest thing Hollywood has to Clint Eastwood, now that Eastwood has acknowledged his age and gone into gentler actor-director mode. I'm being serious. Look at today's wannabe action heroes. Sylvester Stallone? Lara Croft? Don't make me laugh. Clint Eastwood was an icon, and Weaver is pretty much the only actor working today with that kind of iconic status. And that, my friends, is due to Ellen Ripley. No, let's be more specific. It's due to this movie, and particularly its last twenty minutes. "Get away from her, you bitch!" That's an all-time classic movie moment. (Lesbians certainly thought so, anyway.)
Okay, I also think she's sexy. Let's move on.
There's a big motherhood theme. The Alien Queen loves her children, while Ripley loves Newt (who in her turn carries around plastic Casey). There's also lots of birth (the entire Alien lifecycle from egg-laying to hatching facehuggers to chestbursters, plus the Company's terraforming of planets). Apparently Sigourney saw Carrie Henn's character as like a younger sister rather than a daughter, but among the material reinstated for the Special Edition was Ripley learning about her own dead daughter. She'd have been eleven at the time of the first film, and in real life Carrie Henn was ten. She even calls Ripley "mommy" at the end. This is a great film for children, especially little girls, and I've tested this statement empirically. (I watched this with my sister and her friend many years ago, and we were all in awe.)
Michael Biehn trivia...
(1) he won the part at the eleventh hour when James Remar, the original Hicks, departed due to "artistic differences" with James Cameron.
(2) Biehn's hand gets bitten in all of his Cameron movies - Aliens, Terminator and The Abyss.
(3) the shotgun Biehn pulls out "in case of close encounters" is the same one he used in The Terminator.
The Aliens never looked better than here. They're so damn big! They're not weird dog-Aliens (Alien3) or mundane CGI (Alien Resurrection). What's more, the developments of Alien lore are logical and interesting, e.g. the scuttling facehuggers or the Alien Queen. You gotta love that Queen! But again, think about how badly this aspect o' the film could have turned out, as it did in Alien Resurrection or Gremlins 2 ("been there, seen that").
Even if Ripley hadn't returned for Newt at the end, Aliens would be awesome. But that final act is what raises Aliens from being a kick-arse sequel to being one of the greatest films of the eighties. Aliens will be remembered when 99% of Hollywood's nonsense has been consigned to history's rubbish bin. Show it to your grandchildren.