James Cameron’s Aliens, which gestated for years before bursting out of the proverbial chest cavity of 20th Century Fox, is the prototypical modern blockbuster sequel. It set the precedent for bigger, badder action, and has so thoroughly permeated pop-culture it feels like it’s always been with us—the Jack Torrance of monster movies. Produced seven years after Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, the film picks up a story that was, ostensibly, over. (Aliens also set the standard for unnecessary sequels in that regard.) Alien ended with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) having vanquished the then-unnamed alien, called a Xenomorph in Cameron’s film, drifting through the cosmos with the unnerving tranquility of Kubrick’s space fetus from 2001, albeit in tiny underwear. It was a perfect sign-off, serene yet deeply sad, and it harkened back to the film’s soporific opening to create the sensation that we’ve just experienced a scary story before bedtime.
Then Cameron, a design genius who wryly stuck boobs on the mothership (get it?) in the Roger Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Stars, came along. His low-budget The Terminator was an unexpected hit, and his 40-page treatment for an Alien sequel was quickly green-lit. (Fox had wanted a sequel back in ‘79, but a change in leadership put the movie in a hyper-sleep chamber.) The rest, as they say, is the future.
Aliens shares the same DNA as its progenitor, but it’s evolved to be a more predatory organism. Shot in the flatter 1.85 aspect ratio, which means more close-ups, a more shallow depth of field, and a more vertical image, and chilling the first film’s acid-green color scheme into a cool blue, it favors constant motion over Scott’s pensive stillness. Alien is pervaded by clean surfaces and stasis, but Cameron directs like the smartest kid in class who has a colony of ants in his pants, excited to unveil each new painstakingly-rendered moment. He crafted a ragtag film rife with DIY innovations about a motley crew of Marines who accompany Ripley back to LV-426, that forlorn, charcoal-colored planet on which her team unwittingly picked up a viscous space monster that consequently killed everyone except for Ripley and that cat, that goddamn cat. Instead of a crew of blue-collar denizens hauling space crap, Cameron gave us marines armed to the teeth; instead of one lone hunter, he gave us some 70 creatures and one bad-ass mamma alien; instead of philosophical musings on the perfect organism, he gave us, “Game over, man!”
And yet the movie is essentially a story of an adoptive mother fighting another, considerably ickier mother, each protecting her offspring. It’s a rebuttal to the perpetual pissing contest between Hollywood’s buff men. The Company, the insidiously named corporation that sends Ripley and her crew back to LV-426, is the real villain of the film. You don’t see the aliens “fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage point,” Ripley astutely points out.
Despite myriad advances in technology over the last 30 years, no genre movie has managed to engender the kind of visceral, humanistic excitement as Aliens. That’s because, as the kids say, they just don’t make 'em like this anymore. (Cameron’s proposed four Avatar sequels do not inspire hope.) Aliens, as well as its predecessor, have a corporeal quality: The action feels organic, as if the slimy, teeth-within-teeth-gnashing monsters could reach out and wrap a barbed tendril around you. Can anyone honestly say anything in the CGI-addled clusterfuck of Batman v Superman felt tangible? Well, maybe the heroes’ disconcertingly bulging muscles. Zach Snyder probably procured a higher budget for protein and laxatives than James Cameron had for his entire movie.
The advent of CGI and its endless possibilities has curtailed the creativity with which filmmakers approach action. With the first two Alien movies, the filmmakers had to make actual decisions: Scott decided to not show the alien often, keeping it shrouded in shadow and only giving us glimpses so people wouldn’t notice that it’s just a 6’ 10" dude in a rubber suit; Cameron, one of the most notoriously demanding American directors of the last half-century, wanted to flaunt his creations, not hide them; he even removed the translucent case from the creatures’ skulls to show off the ridges underneath. But he only had a budget of $18 million, which is around $40 million in 2016 dollars, not much more than the cost of a Melissa McCarthy comedy.
Cameron’s as thrifty as a Boy Scout, though, and he cobbled together bicycle parts, old military weaponry, the toilet seat of a dismantled commercial airliner, whatever he could find. With wires and mirrors and miniature models and good old fashioned craziness, the persistent bastard made the greatest action movie ever.
The Queen in Aliens in particular looks exponentially better than the generic, over-the-counter troll thing at the end of BvS, or anything in Terminator Genisys, a movie that costs $155 million but couldn’t afford a copy editor, or whatever Chris Hemsworth is doing in those Snow White movies. The Queen involved over a dozen puppeteers to bring her to startling life, as well as a crane to keep her from crushing said puppeteers. No post-production chicanery was used—everything you see was edited in-camera. (Compare the Queen to the laughably fake-looking shots of the alien running around in Alien 3, or the aliens swimming in Alien Resurrection, or anything in the Alien vs. Predator movies.) With their hunky heroes and apocalyptic destruction, modern blockbusters are just an arms race of biceps and mouse clicks and Gerard Butler.
Modern action filmmakers should study Cameron the way Ash and Bishop studied the Xenomorphs: He kept the scope modest, setting the movie mostly within the confines of one dilapidated factory replete with dark corners and hallways in which his monsters could skulk and stalk (Tim Burton would use the same set for Batman’s Axis Chemicals three years later), and he populated it with characters to root for. Instead of Gods and Men, he gave us Monsters and Women. Aliens makes this year’s crop of CGI-swaddled monstrosities feel as fake as Newt’s plastic doll.