A favourite film tells you a lot about someone’s personality. We all have guilty pleasure watches (Coyote Ugly; no judgement here please), but 99% of us have that one movie which perfectly matches our temperaments and will give us a lift no matter where we are in life or how bad a day we’ve had. It could be any film, and from any genre. But the one commonality these films will almost always share will be the richness of the storytelling and the world that is built.
As a man who earns a living from telling stories, that catches my interest .
Although I like a wide variety of films, thrillers are my favourite genre, particularly action thrillers. In studying such movies, I’ve come to realise that for a thriller to truly stand the test of time, it needs to be about more than just the action. The characters must come first and foremost. Often the best scenes in the best thrillers are quiet, characters talking about their hopes, dreams or feelings, giving reasons for us to understand who they are, what made them that way and what they are fighting for. Captain John Miller explaining that he’s a school-teacher in Saving Private Ryan. De Niro and Pacino discussing their bad dreams and fears in Heat. Kyle Reese telling Sarah Connor he fell in love with her photograph in The Terminator.
Or Ripley telling Newt she’ll never leave her in Aliens.
As time goes on and the Avatar sequels roll up on the horizon, it’s easy to forget that James Cameron made his name as the best sci-fi action director in the world. Many people cite Terminator 2 as both his greatest work and the best sequel ever made, two opinions which are hard to disagree with. However, I believe Aliens is his pinnacle, the Queen to the self-proclaimed King of the World, my favourite film and in my opinion the best movie ever made.
With the following, I’ll try to explain why.
In 1986, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking Alien was released to the world. The film had a lot going against it from the outset; fans of the 1979 original were terrified that the legacy of the first film would be tarnished. Sequels were, and still are, notoriously hard to craft, many great films ruined by sub-par follow-ups. Much of the effect of the first film is in the unnerving build-up and then the absolute horror of what we see, from the derelict spaceship, the face-hugger and then Kane’s son himself, all the way through the systematic sticky end of every member of the crew until it's just Ripley and a ship set to self-destruct in T minus 5 minutes.
But then James Cameron has never been a director to be easily intimidated. Loading up his camera with as much vigour as the space marines in the movie load their pulse rifles, he went to war to create a worthy sequel to Scott’s classic.
The result is absolutely astonishing.
A brief note: some (though few in number) dismiss this movie as a sub-par, mindless shoot-em-up, the titular antagonists reduced to mere cannon fodder. Though they are entitled to their opnion, in my view there are many elements that make this film so much more than that, elements that are sometimes so skilfully melded into the background that it’s easy to miss them.
From the opening title sequence, there is an atmosphere of cold, blue-tinged menace that permeates the entire movie. As the tiny escape craft from the Nostromo floats through space, it is suddenly latched onto by some metal machinery. Switching to the inside, we see the hull door breached, followed by a metallic arm that enters, sweeps and scans before anonymous figures in protective suits and masks move inside silently, James Horner’s soundtrack adding to the mystery and threat. As one of the figures wipes ice off the surface of a cryo-sleep pod, we see a familiar face, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, just as we left her in the 1st film, asleep with Jones the cat on her lap. However, the crew who breached the ship aren’t as happy to see her as we are. ‘There goes our salvage, guys,’ one of the new arrivals mutters, pissed off that this woman is alive. That sets the tone of what is to come.
Once Ripley is awake, it soon becomes clear her fight with the alien from the 1st movie is far from over. Suffering nightmares every night and discovering that she’d been floating out in space for over 50 years, she finds that her daughter already died back on Earth, no-one believes her story (save for one slimy corporate character called Burke) and she’s treated like a basket case. Even in these early scenes, the presence of something sinister is felt, if only from Ripley’s mind. By its end, Alien was Ripley’s story, but this is Ellen Ripley’s story. We see the terrifying effect the ordeal of the 1st film has had on our heroine. She is safe but far from well. In Alien, the question was what the hell is out there. In Aliens, Ripley knows what’s out there.
But it’s still out there.
No sooner does she discover in horror that the moon from the 1st film has been colonised then we cut the colony, Hadley’s Hope, on said moon, LV426, which is all howling winds and dark skies punctuated with jagged rocks. An eager colonist, following an order from above to go check out a grid reference, stumbles upon the derelict ship from the 1st film. ‘Shall we take a look inside?’ he asks his wife, as the audience shouts no!
She of course says yes.
Back on the space-station above Earth, all it takes is one silent scene to show that Ripley is a shell, farfrom the planet physically but unable to escape it in her mind. Sigourney Weaver articulates that wonderfully without saying so much as a word, a cigarette burning itself up as it sits unused between her fingers. A knock on the door sees the first introduction of a military figure standing there with Burke, who tells Ripley they’ve lost contact with the colony on LV-426 and that a military squad have been ordered to investigate. Burke wants her there as an advisor. Ripley tells him where to get off, but after another final blood-curdling nightmare she decides that she’s in. The premise is set; this is a rescue mission.
Now we need to meet the rescuers.
We come in peace; or not.
Not long after, we see a ship floating through space that literally looks like a giant gun, Sulaco printed on the side. Wonderfully echoing the slow camera work of the 1st film, we see the empty, creaking interior of the ship, the white corridors and navigation systems from Alien replaced with steel military lockers and enough stacked weaponry to stage a revolution. The same universe, but two very different movies.
When the crew on the Sulaco wakes up upon arrival above LV426 the Space Marines are introduced, the blue-collar camaraderie and humour evident immediately. By the time the squad are descending to the moon below, we feel like we are part of the team, right there with the loudmouth Hudson, the fiery Vasquez and the quiet Hicks, who from first introduction Cameron hints at being the only person on the mission who takes Ripley’s warnings seriously. Called up as a late replacement to the cast, the softly-spoken Michael Biehn excels in the role, much like his work in TheTerminator, his late arrival to the set echoing the reported problems of the production, which played out like the nightmare on the screen. That the finished product is so good makes this movie all the more remarkable considering the tension going on behind the camera.
The descent to the planet and the following discovery of what is (or isn’t down there) is masterfully done. The elemental fears that the series preys on with the nature of the villains are beautifully evoked in the atmosphere. Long, terribly damaged corridors with the only sound a whisper of wind, the dripping of water and the Marines' quiet footsteps. Motion trackers that remain silent for long stretches, then start to beep, the sound gathering in speed gradually as something comes closer and closer. A place that should have been thriving with activity is completely deserted. Bear in mind this movie is called Aliens and apart from one feisty (Special Edition only) face-hugger, in almost an hour we haven’t seen anything of the sort.
As they move deeper into the complex, the Marines encounter a lone survivor, a young girl who only Ripley and Hicks treat with any real friendliness. Ripley instantly sees a kindred spirit, someone who is talked at rather than listened to. These people are soldiers, she tells the child, sweetly nick-named Newt. They’re here to protect you.
It won’t make any difference, she replies, echoing the tiny fear whispering at the back of Ripley (and the audience’s) mind.
When the Marines do finally encounter the enemy, the results are as catastrophic as Newt predicts, and the MO changes from lets save the colonists to we’re getting the hell out of here. When that option is explosively taken away, the small group of survivors are forced to batten down the hatches inside the Operations section of the colony as the meagre light on the planet goes down, the team running out of ammo, options and time.
'They mostly come at night...mostly...'
Now trapped, our protagonists try to think of a way to escape, the antagonists making their presence known as they repeatedly but unsuccessfully try to breach Operations. The tension never lets up, the valve only released momentarily by Hudson’s increasingly sweaty meltdowns and that touching, quiet scene I mentioned above, where Ripley promises Newt she’ll never leave her as she puts her to bed. The lighting in this particular scene is a sharp contrast to the darkness of the picture, golden and warm, highlighting the humanity of the two characters and their growing bond. For a film of this sort, it is a scene that instantly elevates it above its competition. Not many monster films dare to be so honest or emotional. Even fewer succeed.
'My mummy told me there are no monsters, no real ones. But there are, aren’t there?'
'Yes. There are.'
Although their barricades hold out (just), as expected the shit hits the fan when it becomes clear that there is a traitor among the survivors. After a terrifying ordeal inside the Medical Bay, Ripley, Hicks and co prepare to handle the problem when suddenly all the lights in the facility go out.
And a few moments later, the motion trackers start to beep.
From this moment onwards, the last forty five minutes of this movie are truly special. The build-up (‘Four metres. Three!), the subsequent shootout in Operations, the chase through the vent ducts, Vasquez and Gorman’s final exchange and Hicks getting acid sprayed as he saves Ripley in an elevator that just won’t close its doors are all classic scenes. Following all this, the group's rescue ship is ready to leave but there’s a problem; little Newt is lost after falling down a vent duct. Just prior to Hicks’ acid splashing, he and Ripley almost rescue her from under the flooring but something else gets there first. Undeterred, Ripley is convinced the girl is still alive, taken to the hive. All she has is a locator, 15 minutes and a flamethrower/machine gun to go find out.
'I can handle myself. '
'Yeah, I noticed.'
Ripley going into the Hive to find Newt is my favourite sequence in movie history, every element done to perfection. The arming up, the first-name exchange with Hicks (‘Don’t be gone long, Ellen’) and the trip down into the bowels of the melting-down colony are mind-blowingly tense, James Cameron’s direction and James Horner’s score again pushing the movie to new heights as Ripley descends into the hive, dressed in just a thin t-shirt and jump suit but with a surrogate daughter to save and the darkest of fears to confront.
Then the doors open. All alone, in a place where the entire Marine squad were decimated, Ripley edges out of the elevator and further downwards, the hissing of the pipes matching the hissing sound of the aliens, disguising them as the walls and shadows do. An automated voice gives a constant reminder of how long Ripley has left until the colony explodes, which is less than 15 minutes. The camera work here is close and intense, the fear on Ripley’s face constant but not always visible, appearing between the pulsing lights and the concealing shadows as she creeps her way into the hive. We’re right there with her, our knuckles as white as hers on the flamethrower.
But what else is in there with her?
After a wonderful false denouement, she finds Newt just in time, killing a number of the aliens who suddenly appear, and prepares to flee only for an explosion to force her and Newt backwards into a room next door. Now we get to the special part, the rabbit in the hat, the piece de résistance of a movie already pushing greatness.
The reveal of the film’s real villain.
Cameron said that he wanted to surprise the audience with something they hadn’t seen in the first movie, and by God does he deliver. Standing there in a face-hugger egg field, holding Newt tightly, Ripley senses something watching them both. Turning slowly, she sees an egg sac, the only sound the flamethrower on her hip. Taking a deliciously long time to move, the camera finally settles on a monstrous giant form, the apparent head of this alien colony, who looms over Ripley and Newt with terrifying menace.
The Alien Queen.
As Ripley stares up at her nemesis it becomes one mother confronting another, one a killing machine and the other a mistress of survival, their respective offspring at stake. All males would be well advised to leave the room immediately. Several do, pulling back on the Queen’s silent orders after Ripley makes it clear what she’ll do with the flamethrower if they attack her and Newt.
Those who’ve seen the movie know what happens in the next final twenty minutes, and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t. Needless to say, by the time the credits roll I’m always left slumped in my seat staring at the screen, exhausted, spent, thrilled and trying to absorb what I’d just seen. That’s what the best kind of story-telling in the thriller genre should do to an audience. That’s the only way it should be.
It’s not a coincidence either. When I was writing one of my books a year or so ago, I compiled a list of the top human fears from various sources and then noticed something fascinating. Every single one of those basic fears makes an appearance somehow in Aliens. The dark (most of the film), suffocation (face-huggers anyone?), being trapped (the Colony), loneliness (Ripley), ridicule (the reaction to Ripley’s warnings), death (most of the cast) and failure (their attempts to survive/escape the colony). That’s just skimming the surface too; the atmosphere, design work, costume and pacing are phenomenal. In my opinion, what makes this film all the more complete in its vision is that Cameron both wrote and directed it, something no other director in the series did. It’s not a coincidence many consider it to be the best out of the Alien films. As polarising as he may be, when he’s at his best Cameron is a hard storyteller to top.
Make a sequel to one of the best movies ever made and then actually surpass it? Raise those damn arms!
So there you have it, a brief opinion/explanation about why Aliens is my favourite movie of all time and one of the best films ever made. As an author of action thrillers there are endless lessons in this movie for me, and is the benchmark of quality to which I always compare my work and aspire to match. The attention to detail and passion on display should be a standard for all story-tellers, the film told with a rising intensity that the audience feels just as much as the characters.
In an early scene from the movie we see a young boy riding a tricycle along one of the corridors of the colony. He passes the company logo on the wall, the motto underneath Building Better Worlds.
As writer and director of this wonderful film, Mr Cameron built just such a world for me.
As the writer of my Sam Archer series, my hope is to one day do the same for you.