James Cameron is about to spend the next eight years immersed in the world of Pandora creating four Avatar sequels, which, considering they just cast Cliff Curtis in a major role in said sequels, means it looks like these Avatar follow-ups are actually finally happening after nearly a decade of development. Cameron himself is no stranger to sequels having started his entire directorial career with Pirhana 2: The Spawning, a cheapie 1981 horror movie he directed with Ovidio G. Assonitis. A decade later he would helm Terminator 2: Judgement Day which is widely considered to be one of the best blockbusters of the 1990’s. In between those two sequels though came Aliens, a direct follow-up to Ridley Scott’s earlier Alien film.
Cameron is the one taking the reins from Scott in the director’s chair, and while he does continue onward from the ending and protagonist of Scott’s earlier feature, James Cameron very much has his own ideas and concepts he’s eager to toss into the previously established world of Alien. His story in this universe begins with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) being found in the escape pod she and a cat managed to sneak away in during the climax of the original Alien movie. When the two are found and awakened, Ellen Ripley discovers something shocking; she’s been asleep for 57 years. In that time, colonies of human families have been set up on the planet where she and her co-workers discovered the deadly Xenomorphs that devoured everyone else in her crew.
Though she has understandable reluctance concerning this potential mission, Ellen Ripley travels across the galaxy with a gaggle of soldiers to assist the colony and take care of the Xenomorph problem. Once they arrive there though, there’s only one survivor of the entire colony; a small girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). She’s managed to survive for a few weeks all on her own…but the majority of these soldiers won’t be as lucky. It’s a fight for survival, one that drives the entire narrative from there as Ellen Ripley attempts to take care of Newt and survive the vicious extraterrestrials hunting everyone around her.
James Cameron gets some flak from critics for his writing, with some saying he does over-the-top caricatures (like Billy Zane in Titanic or Stephen Lang in Avatar) at the expense of doing fully formed character. But a caricature can be as entertaining as a more three-dimensional creation in its own right if utilized properly. Cameron has some misfires in that department (I’m actually a big fan of Avatar and even I’ll be the first to admit that a few too many supporting characters in that movie end up being overly simplistic) but he can usually be counted on to make characters whose personalities and motivations are both concise and interesting.
The various soldiers seen throughout the story (including one played by a young Bill Paxton, who reteams with Cameron after the two worked together on the original Terminator movie) certainly are one-note individuals but they’re amusing one-note individuals, one whose more simplistic nature comes off as a byproduct of their younger nature. They’re inexperienced in the world of combat and eager to engage in an incorrect assumption of what battle really is. That actually makes for a strong contrast with Ellen Ripley’s personality in this movie, which is that of an experienced vet whose seen it all and is the only one who knows what’s in store for all involved once these Xenomorphs begin devouring people.
Those are the kind of layers in James Cameron’s seemingly straightforward characters in Aliens that make me remember he’s a better writer than we all give him credit for (knock his dialogue all you want, we’re still quoting “I’M KING OF THE WORLD!!!” twenty years later). Cameron also proves to be a strong director in the movie showing signs of being the maestro of explosion-laden spectacle he would become on Terminator 2: Judgement Day five years after Aliens release. Here, he takes Ridley Scott’s slow-burn suspense atmosphere from the first movie and injecting his own more action-packed rhythm into it. We get the best of both worlds here tonally, with Cameron maintaining essential tonal elements of this universe while bringing his own traits as a filmmaker to the table.
Those action facets are super well-handled and also never forget to maintain the character element amidst the human vs. Xenomorph mayhem, especially during the climax where the losses of human lives really hit home (though there is a giddily well-deserved demise for a human baddie). The visual effects and sets team on this Alien movie also do an excellent job in creating the habitats that the Xenomorphs lurk in, you seriously get an uneasy sense just by looking at locations like the Alien queen’s egg chamber. One gets the immediate sense from the way these sublime sets are made that humans don’t belong here, though certainly anyone who loves an exciting and well-made science-fiction movie certainly belongs with James Cameron’s Aliens.