|Aliens, 1986. Directed by James Cameron. Sigourney
Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton,
While it is possible that writer/director James Cameron may one day equal the job he did here, he hasn't yet. Aliens is a rare sequel which manages to step out of the shadow of the original by sheer force of vision. In it, Ripley is found drifting in space 57 years after the events of the first movie and returned home to a disbelieving company and a world 57 years further on. The planet where the Nostromo originally set down in the first movie has been colonized in the interim and when contact with it is inevitably lost, Ripley is convinced to return in the company of colonial marines to investigate. When they arrive, the colony is abandoned except for one little girl and, ignoring Ripley's warnings about the nature of the threat, the marines wade into a full scale war with the aliens. This is a different idiom than the one in which the first film dwelt--the original Alien was an old dark house movie reworked and redesigned in the wake of Star Wars as high-tech Lovecraftiana; the sequel is closer in spirit to Sam Fuller's grunts-on-patrol movies (Steel Helmet, et al).
The intent, however, remains the same: to scare the audience silly. Here, Aliens succeeds like few other modern movies. Once the battle with the aliens is well and truly joined, Aliens takes off like a rocket and maintains one of the most consistently gut-wrenching levels of suspense and outright horror in the genre. It not only goes for the throat, it clamps onto it and thrashes around a bit once it get there. The amazing thing about this, though, is the depth of interpretation and symbolism the movie is able to explore while it maintains its high-octane pace. Good as the original movie is (and for what it wants to be it is certainly the equal of any other horror movie one could name), it is a shallow movie--it is all surface gloss; what symbolism it attains stems from its (admittedly stunning) designs; the sequel goes deeper than that.
Aliens sacrifices the design sensibilty in favor of myth patterns and allegory--it is an opera, really. It is a metaphor for Vietnam, it is a post-modern Inferno (complete with demon), it is a paean to motherhood run amok, it is a commentary on racism--my personal favorite theme is the motif of sleep: Ripley's nightmares pervade the movie, many characters are shown sleeping at key points, and the movie is framed by sleep; is the entire thing a bad dream? It leaves open the possibility. The ability to juggle all of these elements and integrate them into a movie as involving and stomach-twisting as Aliens certainly is displays a rare level of ability on the part of director James Cameron. In digging deeper than the surface of things, Cameron is able to do something that his predecessor was able to do only with imagery: he pushes the movie into the territory of myth--which is territory a horror movie must occupy before it has any hope of enduring.