VHS Revival Locks and Loads for 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. To stray too far from their original formula is a risky game that will invariably end in disaster. In recent years, both franchises have been criticised for breaking those rules, but back then Cameron rarely put a foot wrong.
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, 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 horror 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 quite 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 though 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 narrative.
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 duplicitous droid who went above and beyond in order to complete his and Weyland’s actual mission, our heroine has her reservations, but her determination to wipe out the alien species 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. We watch events unfold as a smug insider.
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 that 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, an unprepared lieutenant Gorman relinquishing the reins and finally understanding what the audience has 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 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 faith and stony facade portray her as an unlikable character in the eyes of those who know nothing of her past experiences, and it is Bishop’s redemption that reawakens her compassionate 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 xenomorph are cheaply throwaway, their indestructibility sacrificed as aliens explode from every conceivable nook, and though the tension is at times just as palpable as the original, a bigger test is needed as the movie approaches its finale.
That test comes in the form of our egg-laying queen, 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—particularly the alien species itself, which is still arguably the most terrifying creation in all of cinema. Thanks to wonderful costumes, frenetic editing, and the kind of authentic set-design that maintains your suspension of disbelief, the movie hasn’t aged one iota, and in many ways looks superior to later CGI efforts due to its physical tangibility (just imagine how dated this movie would look if it featured early CGI). But even if CGI had never existed, H.R. Giger’s most famous creation was head-and-shoulders above the majority of creature designs. The Thing came close, but what else even rivals the xenomorph? Remember those aliens from Independence Day? No, me neither. But go back and take a look at them. They were designed a decade after Aliens and look positively cutesy by comparison.
Crucially, the movie also also tells a great story, expanding on our understanding of the xenomorph in a way that strengthens its legacy rather than detracting from it. Its new role as ‘survivor’ and ‘protector’ is mirrored beautifully by Ripley’s expanding character, a sense of personal vendetta replacing the motiveless action of the first movie, resulting in a blockbuster finale that is lent added relevance. 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 at one point emerging from beneath the water in the kind of ‘he’s behind you’ shot you would expect from John Carpenter’s Halloween. The movie also makes added use of an updated motion tracker, the device’s incessant bleeping ramping up the tension in a way that almost eclipses the quiet foreboding of the original, acting as an extension of the xenomorph’s colossal aura.
Ripley – [when the alien queen threatens Newt] Get away from her, you bitch!
By the mid-1980s, Hollywood was all about bigger is better, which in itself is a precarious philosophy for producing a quality sequel, particularly for something as patient and as exquisitely paced as Alien. The original Ripley was an innovative and groundbreaking character, a ’70s woman heading for the newly chauvinistic ’80s. Cameron was clearly aware of the dulling of the women’s liberation movement, and Aliens takes our resourceful heroine and transforms her into a badass to rival the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, a sagacious character who deflects the belittling war cries of her condescending allies with a wry smirk. This ‘take no prisoners’ persona is best exemplified by the movie’s iconic power loader, an extension of Ripley’s courage that allows her to challenge the xenomorph queen head-on in a familiar yet distinctly ’80s face-off. So subtle was Ridley Scott’s original vision that less was definitely more, and though similar in nature in its climax, after almost two hours of breathless action, Aliens ups the ante in a way that set it apart, while adhering to the blockbuster action trend of the period.
Whenever a discussion about those rare sequels that live up to, or arguably surpass their antecedents arises, Aliens is always right up there with the most popular choices, and it’s easy to see why. What makes it 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 isolation of space, which is key to the xenomorph’s power. He also focuses on the movie’s two biggest draws – Ripley and the Xenomorph – and exploits an audience who are in the know, essentially making us the heroine’s biggest and most loyal ally. In doing so he puts us with her every step of the way. We’re cautious as she is, suspicious when the chance arises and hellbent on exterminating cinema’s most remorseless species by any means necessary.
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 ever conceived.