There are two directors who have fairly substantial, lengthy and legendary careers despite not having the sort of filmography you’d expect: James Cameron and Terrence Malick. When Malick releases something it’s generally an event for critics; while he may not have the awards he has the prestige as a director of substance. He may not make a lot of films, taking years longer than the norm from the usual production cycle to finish, but when he does release something it’s worthwhile. Cameron is the same way … except when he releases something it’s a box office event.
Avatar, Titanic and Terminator 2: Judgment Day all set box office records and, in the case of the first two, wound up setting standards that would take the movie event of a comic book fandom’s lifetime (The Avengers) to beat. Cameron is Michael Bay but with substance; give him $200 million and get out of his way because he’s bound to give you something amazing in both story and substance. It’s odd to think he got his start as the director of Piranha 2 and wound up taking over the reins to the Ridley Scott Franchise Alien.
Scott had imagined the franchise as a horror film set in space … and Cameron took that same conceit and made a science fiction action film that set the standard as one of the greatest action films of all time.
Simple premise. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been in hyper sleep for almost 60 years following the events of the original film. Woken up by the Weyland-Yotuni Corporation, no one believes her story of aliens and the forced destruction of her ship. When contact is lost with the colony where she first encountered the aliens at, Ripley is sent back in with some Space Marines to see what happened. From there it’s a battle to stay alive as the Aliens have taken over and now Ripley and her band of Marines have to try to survive.
The film is a masterpiece of both action and suspense because of how Cameron sets everything up. His use of lighting, giving the film a dark look throughout, makes the entire film foreboding and intense. There’s a sense of dread from the time Ripley is sent back to the first encounter with the aliens because of the set up. Cameron, who had to fire his original director of photography over it, builds the film to that first encounter. We know what’s coming but no one else does; waiting for it is the sort of white knuckle terror that Ridley Scott brought with the original but Cameron did something different with it.
Scott decided to pick off members of the original in a dead teenager style and it worked because they weren’t warriors. They had weapons but they weren’t soldiers; they were normal people, nothing more, and that’s what made the film that much better. How would you handle the sort of menace presented? Cameron takes the same scenario and imagines a bunch of fully prepared warriors fighting against an unstoppable menace in their stead and having the same results, of course, but that’s what makes it interesting.
Seeing what armed men do against a menace is an entirely different from what the crew of a space ship would do and Cameron recognizes this.
It didn’t hurt that Cameron managed to find something interesting from Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. The first film was Ripley as a space ship crew member, nothing more, who had to find a way to survive against impossible odds. The second time around she knows exactly what she’s getting into and responds accordingly. One could make the argument that Cameron took Ripley’s story arc and duplicated it with Sarah Conner in the Terminator franchise, as her arc from the first film to Judgment Day (and the hardening of her) is similar to Ellen Ripley’s.
Conner is a survivor in the first, hardened for the war to come, in the same way Ripley is hardened for this war. Cameron brings Ripley along and gives her Newt (Carrie Henn) to give her an emotional arc as the young child survivor of the colony brings out an emotional arc for Ripley. It’s what takes the film from being a generic action film with a cool ambience into a masterpiece of the genre; it raises the stakes and gives us an insight into Ripley as more than this badass warrior chick.
Aliens has held up 30 years after its initial release in the same way a film like Die Hard has; it’s designed so well, and has such a well written arc, that the same emotional response happens.
The Blu-Ray has both the 1986 original theatrical release as well as the 1991 special edition, including an introduction by Cameron for the latter. Nothing else special is included with the release, though, but Aliens has been retouched for Blu-Ray and looks impressive in the format.
20th Century Fox presents Aliens (30th anniversary edition). Written and Directed by James Cameron based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Bill Pullman, Michael Biehn. Run Time: 137 minutes. Rated R. Released on: 9.13.2016
Tags: Aliens, James Cameron, Michael Biehn, Sigourney Weaver