Hear Them Scream: Aliens and the Rise of the Xenomorph

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 director James Cameron managed to produce two of the most astonishing of any era in an incredibly short time period. In 1991, he in many ways bested his horror-infused sci-fi epic The Terminator with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, an action spectacular that kept Arnold Schwarzenegger front and centre by flipping the script and casting him as an obsolete terminator reprogrammed to take on a more modernised threat in Robert Patrick’s deliciously coldblooded T-1000 model.

A few years prior, Cameron took Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi-horror Alien and made Aliens, which for some is the superior movie of the franchise. Rather than giving us a straight-up sequel in the same vein, the commercially shrewd filmmaker gave us a thrilling picture that ditched the quiet foreboding and creeping shadows for a heavy-artillery extravaganza that put action at the forefront, and all while retaining the essence of one of cinema’s most terrifying creations. So what made Cameron such an expert at delivering top-notch, high-profile sequels?

For one thing, he knew how to thrill audiences in a way that prevented us from making too many negative comparisons to the first movie, but more importantly he understood what should and shouldn’t be altered. He knew that movies of this calibre were precious and that very little needed 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 within their particular genres, and to stray too far from an 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. Of course, respecting what went before is not enough in itself. A statement has to be made if one is to make the ascension to franchise immortality.

Aliens 5

As precarious as it is to try to emulate such an established classic, there has to be significant change because a careful retread will always prove inferior. Once you have determined those essential elements, you then have 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 upped the ante on both sides, giving the now hard-ass Sarah Connor her very own pet Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator, a newly creaking beast who would protect a species it was once programmed to eradicate. It was like witnessing a past-his-prime gunslinger hobbling into battle for one last stand-off, pulling out every trick available to him in the face of a younger, fitter adversary.

Cameron’s other key decision was the handling 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, altering the entire criterion of the movie without really changing it at all.

Private Vasquez: Look, man. I only need to know one thing: where they are.

With Aliens, Cameron basically applied the same logic. By introducing Lance Henriksen’s dubious but ultimately subservient android Bishop, he switched Alien‘s coldblooded saboteur, Ash (Ian Holm), with a superior model free of the homicidal twitches of past models, giving our protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) a valuable ally to aid her against a vastly superior threat. He also gave her a pack of lock and load marines eager to make alien stew out of the fiercest natural predators ever to grace humankind. Though the addition of a whole colony of xenomorphs in some ways 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 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. Due largely to her previous run-in with a duplicitous droid who went above and beyond to complete 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. 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, all elusive shadows and barely glimpsed pay-offs, but by the time our macho platoon is geared up and ready for action in Aliens, we are already very much in the know, are able to share Ripley’s lofty vantage. We can sympathise with her inability to convince others of the severity of the situation. As an audience, we feel gratified for sharing in our heroine’s knowledge. We watch events unfold almost as a smug insider.

As arguably the first female action lead — though Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown can lay claim to that title on a less mainstream level — 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 our 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. Even with the added meat of the equally superb Director’s Cut, this is a smash-mouth affair almost from the get-go. Our characters barely have a chance to interact before their very lives are thrown into jeopardy, and even before then Ripley is strictly an outsider in a realm of macho marines, a reluctant hero who appears to be out of her depth. 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 barely have time to breathe.

That’s not to say we don’t root for the characters in Aliens. Each serves a purpose in a screenplay of great resourcefulness that careens toward its main event with the kind of macho camaraderie that goes from borderline reprehensible to hugely infectious. Though they come thick and fast, each character’s death means something as their squadron erodes like so much neon acid. Characters who begin as blazing assholes achieve redemption in the eyes of the audience. An unprepared lieutenant Gorman, relinquishing the reins and finally understanding what we have known all along, sacrifices himself and female ass-kicker Vasquez in a wonderfully tense instance of martyrdom, the two going out in a blaze of solidarity and taking a few screeching xenomorphs along for the ride. The once cowardly Private Hudson (Bill Paxton) is suddenly transformed into a one-man killing machine, selflessly taking out a rabble of aliens before ultimately succumbing to to their relentless onslaught. Bishop, though scrutinised based solely on the suspicions of Ripley and her knowing audience, also sacrifices himself and wins his detractor over — no mean feat following the reprehensible and downright terrifying disposition of his predecessor. For all the qualities of the new and improved Ripley, her lack of faith and stony façade 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 towards a maternal climax with the movie’s ace in the hole.

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.

The ace in question is juvenile stowaway Newt, a somewhat dressy, commercial embellishment who forms the basis of the movie’s strongest narrative, her relationship with Ripley drawing parallels of motherhood 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 a hive mentality and evolving tactics on both sides create the kind of palpable tension that pays due homage to Scott’s innovative masterpiece, a bigger test is needed as the movie nears 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 remains arguably the most terrifying monster in all of cinema. Thanks to wonderful costumes, frenetic editing, and the kind of authentic set-design that maintains our 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 fearsome 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.

In order to maintain Alien‘s excruciating sense of distrust and moral ambiguity, there has to be a traitor in the pack, a scourge to rival Giger’s monstrous killing machine, and that traitor comes in the shape of duplicitous corporate shill Carter Burke, who almost rivals the xenomorph with his destructive ambitions. Burke is played by perennial ’80s support Paul Reiser, who threatens to steal the show along with the lives of our ill-fated heroes, or ‘grunts’ as he blithely refers to them. Burke is the very embodiment of the Wall Street 80s, a lickspittle concerned only with wealth and personal advancement. Here he takes the place of Ash, and what he lacks in brute strength he more than makes up for with sleazy panache, the kind so slippery it makes him a prime target for the remorseless monsters he sets out to protect. Deep down, we love to be scared, and as a result we are in awe of the xenomorph. We quietly respect and admire them, regardless of their threat to our very species. Our connection with the doomed and helpless cast is the only thing preventing us from fully embracing that admiration, and it is through Burke that we are finally able to indulge. The xenomorph may be reprehensible in spirit, fearsome and terrifying in stature, but a guy like Burke deserves their devastating brand of retribution and then some.

With a whole colony of xenomorphs let loose, there are moments of excruciating tension that match those of the original movie. The best moments come when the xenomorphs, constantly adapting to the tactical manoeuvres of their human adversaries, pursue in packs through ever-tighter spaces from all directions, establishing a sense of deep uncertainty. Aliens is packed with stunning, beautifully realised set-pieces that pay homage to its predecessor’s formula while maintaining its own smash-mouth identity, presenting our protagonists with a newly cultured beast that applies logic and teamwork in numbers, easily besting the tactical expertise of our own species with a mixture of patient savvy and reckless abandon. There is one specific moment where a particularly sly xeno creeps up on the lost and lonely Newt, literally drooling at the prospect of her capture and emerging from the water in the kind of ‘he’s behind you’ shot you’d 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 and seeming omnipresence.

It is this omnipresence and the isolation of space, both inner and outer, which is key to the xenomorph’s power and horror in general. Cameron expands 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 own 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. It is during that finale that Ripley symbolically emerges from her own cocoon, giving birth to an insatiable warrior who will stop at nothing to rid the colony of the xeno scourge forever, even if it means embracing a little hand-to-hand combat in the movie’s climactic scene. The sight of Ripley embarking on a brutal bout of fisticuffs with the fearsome alien queen is redolent of the action-obsessed 80s, forging a new variation of heroine, one who is not afraid to tackle her indomitable aggressor head-on. The sight of Ripley emerging in a giant, walk-in loader is one of the most iconic and satisfying of the decade. Cameron is a master when it comes to forging those fist-pumping, spine-tingling moments of audience solidarity, and in Aliens he surpasses even himself.

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 and product of the Women’s Liberation Movement heading for the newly chauvinistic ’80s. Aliens takes our resourceful heroine and transforms her into a bad ass to rival the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, a sagacious character who deflects the belittling war cries of her condescending allies with a wry smirk and ultimately wins their reverence. The iconic power loader is merely an extension of her ‘take no prisoners’ persona, exemplifying her battle-hardened evolution and proving that, as a woman in a male-dominated arena, she can go toe-to-toe with the best of them, and as a sequel that matches the expectations of its predecessor, Aliens is no different.

Whenever a discussion about those rare sequels that live up to, or arguably surpass their antecedents arises, Aliens is right up there with the most discussed, 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 Ripley every step of the way. We’re cautious as she is, suspicious when called for, 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.

Aliens Logo

Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron
Music: James Horner
Cinematography: Adrian Biddle
Editing: Ray Lovejoy

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