Ridley Scott’s Alien is pretty universally considered a sci-fi horror classic. It’s tense, it’s strange, it’s dark, and it’s fairly original. It was so good, it sparked the thirst for sequels. This thirst was not quenched until the fourth installment, wherein the reincarnated Ripley kills her weird-looking, lumpy, pink, giant alien baby by letting it get sucked through a tiny hole in a space window. And after that weirdness, there was still enough interest in some quarters to spawn two AVPs and one prequel (so far). But we’re not going to talk about all that. Instead, let’s take a look at the only direct sequel I can stand: Aliens.
The Shift in Vision
From the ground up, Aliens is totally different than its predecessor. Directorship shifted from the gifted hands of Ridley Scott to James Cameron, fresh off of the success of Terminator and the second Rambo movie. With this change of directors we received a change in genre. Where the first movie was a claustrophobic nightmare, the second would be an action-packed adventure complete with space marines. The tension of slow pace and a monster wreathed in darkness was replaced with a guns-and-talons, race-against-time shoot-em-up. The apple falls far from the tree, and the consequences are profound.
Conservation of Ninjitsu
There is a theory of fight scenes running around the internet called “The Conservation of Ninjitsu.” It runs like this: in any given fight, the amount of ninjitsu (general combat awesomeness) for any given side is finite. This means that while one ninja might be extremely deadly, a hundred ninjas will get mowed down indiscriminately.
When Aliens set itself up as an action movie, this law took effect. In the first movie, one Alien took out the entire crew of the Nostromo, and was only defeated when Ripley opened an airlock so that it was sucked out into the vacuum of space. In the sequel, any given soldier is able to take out several of the beasts. Heck, they come crawling in a giant mass through the ceiling and still people manage to get away. Let’s not forget that a child survived for ages in a part of the compound we are later shown the aliens can easily get to.
When Ridley Scott introduced us to crew of the Nostromo, it was sort of a slow unrolling of their personality. Each scene tells us a little more about the characters, and some of their motivations are not fully explained until the show is almost over. James Cameron did something different, and I can’t pin it down exactly, but if you watch the movie you can feel it. There’s a lot of noise and multiple conversations going on early in Alien, making our growing understanding of the crew seem almost incidental. Those scenes are as much about setting the mood as they are about introductions. In Aliens every new character is distinct, loud, and showy. We are getting a performance. That, at least, is how it came off to me.
Sexual themes and gender roles are a big part of the series in every incarnation. There are other themes, however, equally worth exploring. The very word “alien” refers to a concept of “the other,” of something foreign. The people involved in the production of both movies were very aware of this concept.
The driving force behind the horror of the first movie is that we fear what we do not understand. Scott seems to deal with this consciously not only in how he treats the monster, but also in how he deals with the crew. Two of them work below decks, and they are not getting equal shares with everyone else. This causes tension as they try to get a better deal. Early on, one of the two men comments that “It’s us versus them. That’s how they see it.” This minor rivalry between the grimier workers below decks and the skilled laborers pales in comparison, however, to the big reveal concerning Ash. Ash is an android, a robot put there by the company who is ultimately willing to kill off all the humans or just let them die to ensure that the monster makes it back home to be studied.
Throughout the first movie, the invasion of the creature and the eventual reveal concerning Ash all serve to unite the crew. They must confront their rivalries and differences in the interest of surviving. This is because their differences are nothing next to the horror of the unknown which confronts them.
In James Cameron’s take on the mythos, this is not so much the case. A minor point is made that Vasquez is Hispanic and a woman, but it never gets in the way of the unit’s working together. Like Ash, Bishop is an android, but the movie goes to great lengths to teach Ripley that he is to be trusted. The man she cannot trust, Burke, is not an “other” so much as he is a jerk. Even the aliens aren’t really an unknown, seeing as the space marines have all killed off aliens before. This is just a particularly nasty variety. The whole idea of the uncanny other generally gets set aside in favor of a more action-movie ethos.
Was It Worth It?
There is no doubt that the first sequel was very different from the original. It does very well as an action movie, though it is far from a masterpiece of the genre. On the other hand, the first movie was truly groundbreaking and has a timeless horror to it. It might be said that shifting genres and undercutting the original themes did a disservice to Alien, but I doubt it. What Alien did was unique, and trying to recreate that would have just been a cheap disappointment. The changes may have prevented Aliens from living up to its predecessor, but that is not something it ever could have done. Indeed, because it was so different, it gave the brand a chance to live on through further sequels and crossovers as that universe was explored from different angles by different directors. So, yeah. While I can’t say I loved Cameron’s take on Scott’s creation, I have to say he did a good job.