#94 – Aliens – dir. James Cameron – 1986
I read once that Alien and Aliens aren’t actually science fiction films; Alien is a horror film set in space and Aliens is a military action film set in space. This writer posited that these two film adhere to those other genre conventions more so than they adhere to the conventions of sci-fi and that that cheapens their worth in the history of film. While I would agree that these two films are not the greatest science fiction films around, the way that they blend genre conventions for both visual spectacle and narrative depth send them high up my list. Deciding between the two was difficult because they are both films I can watch repeatedly and be scared out of my wits over and over again. However for a few reasons, Aliens came out on top and made it on to my top 100.
Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ripley and she has just arrived back at Earth after her ordeal from the first film. There she finds out that she has been in cryosleep for 57 years, her daughter is dead and gone, and she has no one left. So when a terraforming colony on LV226 loses contact with their colony, she agrees to go back to the planet as a consultant in case the worst has happened. And the worst did happen; Xenomorphs killed everyone on the base and start systematically wiping out all of the marines over the course of the film.
James Cameron is a visual director as is evident by his two most recent efforts (Avatar, and Titanic) and he consistently shows that with big settings he can make big things happen. However, the reason that Aliens is his best film is what he is able to do with small spaces. He takes a remote colony on the farthest edges of space and puts you there with one of the most terrifying aliens ever brought to screen. Through lighting and a brilliant use of night vision cameras attached to the marines’ helmets, Cameron creates a claustrophobic nightmare to house his intense action sequences. The visceral action through this movie compliments the series’ origin in the horror genre and adds an element of fear to the mix. Cameron takes the science fiction setting and the horror inspired memory and blends them with some brilliant action to make it one of the best cross-genre films ever.
However, it is the performance of Sigourney Weaver that brings this film above both its predecessor and the usual sloth of science fiction action films. In Alien Weaver plays the quintessential final girl. She could compete with Jamie Lee Curtis (in however many of her films) for the perfect final girl in the history of film and of course that means that her development isn’t great. Ripley is strong in Alien if but her development is stunted by the story. Alien is a classic horror film because it sets up the plot, unleashes the monster, kills all the characters, and then lets the final character triumph. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for complex characterization and Ripley suffers. In Aliens though, Weaver gives a truly Oscar worthy performance because she is given the chance to develop Ripley.
Ripley was a contract officer on the ship from the first film and was in it for the money. She arrives back at earth and has lost everything she held dear (her daughter mostly) and then goes back to the planet for the good of humanity and her anger towards the Xenomorph. On the ship she shows that she isn’t just a useless observer out of her time and works alongside the crew of marines. In the film, she encounters a child left from the colony named Newt. Ripley’s chemistry with this child is both motherly and sisterly in depth and communication. The obvious maternal instinct comes from the loss of her daughter but when she interacts with newt it’s as more of an aunt or a sister. Offering consolation and friendship and never trying to replace Newt’s mother. The icing on the cake for her performance though is her final role as an action heroin. Facing off against the Alien Queen, she isn’t the scared reluctant hero from the first film. It’s anger and repulsion that drive Ripley in that final confrontation, a turn from typical heavy handed righteousness usually found in this genre. Weaver’s performance is subtle, strong, and groundbreaking for female characters in sci-fi. Totally worthy of the nomination she received at the Oscars, and the primary reason for appearing on my top 100 list. Ripley is one of the best action heroes ever to grace the screen, and that’s the fact.