VHS Revival Revisits James Cameron’s masterclass in sequel making.
A sequel that lives up to an original picture is a rare thing indeed. Even rarer is one that in some ways surpasses it, but James Cameron seems to have the formula down to a tee.
In 1991 he in many ways bested his own sci-fi epic The Terminator with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and a few years prior he took Ridley Scott‘s seminal space horror Alien and made Aliens, which for many is the superior movie of the franchise.
So what exactly makes Cameron such an expert in delivering top-notch sequels? For one thing he is an innovative director of considerable talent, but more importantly he knows what can and can’t be altered. He understands that movies of this calibre are precious, and that very little needs to change in order for a sequel to work. Franchise spinning juggernauts like The Terminator and Alien are as close to perfect as you are ever likely to find in any genre. To stray too far from their original formula is a risky game that will invariably end in disaster.
Ripley – No. He’s gotta go back.
Of course, respecting what went before is not enough in itself, and a statement has to be made if one is to make the ascension to franchise heaven. As precarious as it is to try to emulate such an established classic, a director has to put his own particular stamp on it because a careful retread will always prove inferior. Once you have determined those essential elements that it is necessary to retain, you then have to take a punt of some magnitude if you are to impress the kind of audience who expect to feel cheated by their impulse to see a movie that is almost destined to disappoint.
With Judgement Day, Cameron altered two vital elements that set the movie apart from the original. Firstly, he ditched the standard slasher paradigm for a smash-mouth action extravaganza, the kind of movie that could be enjoyed on an entirely different level, while maintaining the necessary fundamentals of its antecedent. His other key decision was his use of his marquee actor. Nobody could play The Terminator like Schwarzenegger, and a simple retread seemed inescapable until Cameron took the inspired decision to make Arnie – by then accepting only good guy roles as he set about establishing himself in the world of politics – the movie’s protagonist, pitting his reprogrammed T-800 against a superior model, and altering the entire criterion of the movie without really changing it at all.
As for Aliens, it simply upped the stakes, and while the addition of a whole colony of Xenomorphs arguably cheapened Ridley Scott’s most fearsome creation by making them disposable and ultimately less formidable, Cameron’s intention was to steer the audience away from the excruciatingly paced shadows of the original, giving credence to his turbo action formula by introducing a platoon of soldiers with futuristic artillery to burn. Much like he would with Terminator 2, he also gave us a heroine of increased wisdom and fortitude, a Ripley reborn and ready to rumble, adding yet another fresh element to a largely familiar formula.
When we first meet Ripley she has been in statis for 57 years as the only survivor of the ill-fated Nostromo, and already the Weyland Corporation has designs on sending her back after losing contact with an investigative colony which had set up camp on moon LV-426. Of course, due largely to her previous run-in with a duplicitously programmed droid who went above and beyond in order to complete his mission, our heroine has her reservations, but her determination to wipe them out along with the promise of infallible military aid soon convinces her otherwise.
Private Vasquez – Look, man. I only need to know one thing: where they are.
Part of the beauty of Aliens, and one of the elements that sets it apart from the original, is that we can predict to a certain extent how events will unfold. Ridley Scott’s Xenomorph was a stealthy hunter with a patient appetite for destruction, an allusiveness that kept us very much in the dark, but by the time our macho platoon is geared up and ready for action in Aliens, we are already very much in the know, and we are able to share Ripley’s lofty vantage, can sympathise with her inability to convince others of the severity of the situation they are facing. As an audience, we feel gratified for sharing in our heroine’s knowledge.
As the first female action lead, Ripley was previously billed as the underdog, and that was how we perceived her until she outlived the crew of Nostromo to defeat the seemingly impervious. After Ripley returns to Earth she is still the underdog in the eyes of the rest of the cast because the events of Alien left no witnesses, and the Ripley who grew to conquer exists only in our memory. It is this intimacy that allows Cameron to step on the gas without having to put too much emphasis on characterisation. There is a love interest built on a mutual respect, but even Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks is light on development, with a supporting cast who are paper thin at best.
That’s not to say we don’t root for the characters. Each serve a purpose in a screenplay of great resourcefulness as we careen headlong towards the main event with the kind of macho camaraderie which proves infectious, and although they come thick and fast, each of those deaths mean something as the solidarity of brotherhood erodes like so much neon acid, while an underprepared lieutenant Gorman relinquishes the reins and finally understands what we have known all along. One of the film’s more memorable characters comes in the form of duplicitous corporate shill Carter Burke, played with sleazy panache by Paul Reiser, a human antagonist who almost rivals the Xenomorphs in his destructive ambitions, and whose very presence amps up our sense of uncertainty.
Ripley – You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.
Another character who is afforded more than just a bit-part is the crew’s android Bishop, played with wonderful dead-eyed integrity by Lance Henriksen, whose knife dancing act heads a whole host of playful gimmicks which help to make Aliens such an iconic experience. While acting as a clear distinction from the malevolent droid featured in Alien, Bishop is essential in unlocking those personality traits that a newly distrusting Ripley has all but abandoned. For all the qualities of the new and improved Ripley, her lack of trust and myopic ruthlessness sometimes portray her as an unlikable character, and it is Bishop’s redemption that reawakens her tender side as she heads toward a maternal climax.
Perhaps the strongest sub-narrative in Aliens is the relationship that exists between Ripley and juvenile stowaway Newt, and the parallels of motherhood that are drawn between our heroine and the Xenomorph queen. For much of the movie the aliens are cheaply throwaway, their indestructibility sacrificed as aliens explode from every conceivable nook, and although the tension is at times just as palpable as the original, a bigger test is needed as the movie approaches its finale.
That finale comes in the form of our egg-laying queen Xenomorph, who looks as impressive today as she did more than thirty years ago. Part of the movie’s durability is its refusal to look dated. Thanks to wonderful costumes, frenetic editing, and the kind of set-design that leaves you drooling in appreciation, the movie hasn’t aged one iota, and in fact in many ways looks superior to the CGI which followed due to its physical authenticity.
Aliens is packed with stunning, beautifully realised set pieces, which sometimes pay homage to the agonising tension of its predecessor as Xenomorphs pursue our soldiers through claustrophobic spaces, often careening toward their prey in a manner befitting the sequel’s action formula, while sometimes emerging from beneath the water in the kind of ‘he’s behind you’ shot you would expect from John Carpenter’s Halloween. There is also the wonderful addition of the motion tracker, whose incessant bleeping ramps up the tension in a way that almost eclipses the quiet foreboding of the original.
Ripley – [when the alien queen threatens Newt] Get away from her, you bitch!
Another iconic gimmick is that of the walking power loader, a giant yellow machine which Ripley mans as she takes on our vengeful queen in a rather elaborate bout of hand-to-hand combat, elevating our heroine from resourceful warrior to absolute badass. So subtle was Ridley Scott’s vision that less was definitely more, and although similar in the nature of its conclusion, after almost two hours of breathless action, Aliens would up the ante in a way that set it apart while adhering to the blockbuster action trend of the period.
What makes Aliens such a winning sequel is its ability to both retain and alter, maintaining the kind of palpable tension which defined the original, while upping the pace and tempo to deliver an altogether different experience. Cameron was astute enough to retain the fundamentals, particularity the Xenomorph’s design and behavioural patterns, while the unprecedented concept of being alone in space is essential to the franchise.
But fundamentals aside, this was Alien for a new era, a fresh take on a familiar character which never betrayed the original movie’s essence, and which in many ways set a precedent, adding to the concept’s legacy instead of merely subtracting. And so for the burning question: which is better, the seminal, atmospheric Alien or its balls-to-the-wall successor? Personally, I couldn’t choose between the two, but the fact there is even a debate speaks volumes about arguably the greatest sequel there ever was.