After the events of Alien, Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returns to Earth and no-one believes her story. In fact, the planet is being colonised. Soon however, they lose contact with the colonists and a rescue mission is mounted. Ripley reluctantly agrees to go along as consultant.
In the mid-1980s, sequels were not as expected as they are today and the only truly successful ones were often part 2’s of a continuing story (Empire Strikes Back for instance). So I feel confident in saying that Aliens is the best “unnecessary” sequel ever made.
Although it lacks the grace and unique atmosphere of the peerless Alien, it expands on the original without compromising its themes, rather it emphasises them, using the familiar motifs in new ways. In Alien, the creature was so perfect it represented a shift in the food chain. Marines armed to the teeth should be able to kick nature in the nuts and force the balance back, but the cocky soldiers (all with their own personalities rather than faceless grunts) are on the back foot from the first attack and need rescuing by Ripley who is only there as an advisor on the “bugs”.
One of cinemas icons, Ripley is the one who evolves to find a common ground and a foothold to survive. Not as the kick-arse Ripley everyone remembers because she was clearly that by the end of Alien and comes back pretty quick here to take charge of the disintegrating military. Here, more importantly, it’s as a mother to runaway Newt that will get her through this time. The Alien lifecycle may be perfect, but that humanity is the best weapon they have. Sigourney Weaver was deservedly Oscar nominated for the role. Newt (Carrie Henn) is a brilliantly written child character, something that is frequently mishandled and annoying. Cute, but tough, she gets some great lines and her expression is faultless at conveying real terror.
The mother angle is what brings Ripley face to face with the Alien Queen. Stan Winston’s fantastic creation still causes a shiver down the spine. I’m not sure if a Queen was actually envisaged in Giger’s original bio-mechanics and simply not used in Alien, but either way, its development here is perfectly handled and honours the original cycle. She’s truly the stuff of nightmares.
Aliens greatest trick though is that all this worthy psychological extension of the themes in Alien is wrapped up in one of the best and most influential, balls to the wall action films, peppered with quotable one-liners. It’s a brutal masterpiece that leaves you exhausted and gets the adrenalin pumping, and that’s before the final act! The power-loader sequence is superb. The music and editing build to a crescendo few other films can match.
The fact that the Aliens theme is used time and time again in trailers is proof alone of the enduring power of this rollercoaster.