Rewind about twenty years, find the right school playground in a suburb on the outskirts of south London, and you will find the childhood form of That Film Punk. Step a little closer, and you will notice that little TFP is circling the painted lines of a netball court , holding an invisible pulse rifle and chirping out a pitch-perfect imitation of its gunfire. Two of his friends are creeping up behind him, their bodies contorted into a strange insectoid gait, while two other friends are laying down suppressing fire with their invisible smartguns. Every so often, the mime-gun-wielding children will bark out phrases such as They’re coming out of the goddamn walls!, or Game over, man, game over!. Quite a vocabulary for a group of eight-year-olds.
What you witnessed on your journey (good time-travelling, by the way “ you should patent that) was my favourite childhood pastime: a good game of Aliens. To say that this film has been a significant part of my life would be an understatement. Where other boys would find themselves playing army, we played Aliens. If you ask me, this reflects quite perfectly why James Cameron’s explosive blockbuster sequel deserves such acclaim and longevity.
As an action film, Aliens is second to none “ it rattles along at a fantastic pace, following ingenious set-piece with ingenious set-piece, each one begging to be acted out by kids in school yards and back gardens everywhere. From the initial battle with the aliens, invoking the guerilla-warfare mayhem of every Vietnam film ever, to the never-bettered powerloader bitch-fight, this is a film that squeezes every last drop of raw action joy from its settings. Let’s dwell on that word for a moment: setting. This is where the science-fiction element comes in, but “ more importantly “ this is where Cameron’s skill as a writer and director are given room to flourish.
Aliens was initially cooked up as the now-standard response to any critical and commercial success in Hollywood. That is: Make A Sequel Oh God Make A Sequel Quickly MORE MONEY MAKE A SEQUEL. But that would in fact be far too cynical a judgement to lay at the feet of this particular example. As both Cameron and his producer Gale Anne Hird (at the time his wife) have frequently stated, the desire was always to avoid merely repeating Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece. The decision was made from the outset to make, in Hird’s words, a combat movie set in the world created by Scott. And Cameron clearly had a ball being given this wonderfully-realised playground in which to dabble. Almost every part of the world created by Scott is explored further and smartly utilised in the pursuit of Aliens’ white-knuckle thrills. The aliens’ acidic blood becomes a combat tactic, echoing the booby-traps of Vietcong fighters, while the creatures’ life cycle is examined to its logical conclusion, with Cameron asking (and superbly answering): who laid all those eggs we saw in Alien?.
Cameron does not stop at merely an action-orientated exploration of Aliens’ world, for he is also smart enough to recognise and build on some of the previous film’s thematic concerns. ‘The Company’ is fleshed-out, plastering the Weyland-Yutani logo across the various company-built structures in the film, and giving us a physical representative in the slimey Burke character. The role of the company is much the same: as Alien gave us a working-class crew begrudgingly obliging the orders of their distant employer, Aliens shows no change in the world of corporate expansion. The marines are this film’s hapless pawns, ambivalent to the company’s ideals “ although distracted not by the promise of money this time. No, their drug is the high of machismo and hardware. Witness, for example, the superb Bill Paxton as Hudson, excitedly offering to protect Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley with all sorts of impressive-sounding weaponry.
Ah, yes: Ripley. Arguably Aliens’ greatest achievement in narrative terms is how Cameron builds on the first film’s powerful female lead. With Ripley mourning her absence from the life (and death) of her only daughter, we are given a heroine driven by a need for revenge and one hell of a maternal instinct. Cameron throws in an orphaned girl, Newt, to give Ripley something to fight for, also providing moments of tenderness between the two. Cleverly, this prevents the film from turning into a case of ‘angry woman versus dumb macho types’, helped to no end by Sigourney Weaver’s astounding turn. Weaver expertly balances the strength and raw willpower of Ripley with a sensitive, hurt soul who is trying desperately to find a reason to keep going.
Weaver is, of course, one of many superb performances in what is a fantastic ensemble cast. Michael Biehn’s Hicks provides a calm, quiet counterpoint to Ripley’s dominant role, for example, but the rest of the marines are what had my friends and I fighting over characters every lunchtime in the yard. Bill Paxton is the standout supporting turn, all gum-flapping and muscle-flexing, but elsewhere we are given a wide range of character types. Lance Henriksen plays android Bishop as an effusive robot butler, eager to please but still not quite human, and Sgt Apone is given a near-paternal sense of authority by the the excellent Al Matthews. Much of these performances are indebted to a crackling, brilliantly quotable script that manages to never stray into the familiar 80s trap of cheesy dialogue or corny catchphrase fare.
There is a very real argument that Aliens is simply the perfect action film, but to compare this to the Rambos of this world would be to do it a huge disservice. It is, after all, still firmly rooted in science-fiction, and nowhere is this more important a distinction than in considering the magnificent production design. Owing much to the concept art of Syd Mead and Ron Cobb, the film simply looks fantastic at every turn. The function-before-form philosophy that gave such strength to the ‘truckers in space’ brief of Alien is taken to another level here. Every space is claustrophobic walkways, pipes, girders and air vents, feeding off the ambiguously industrial design of the aliens themselves. Even the first appearance of the titular beasts has them appearing from the walls (an echo of the finale in Alien), and reminds us that they could be anywhere.
It seems pertinent that I should end with such imagery, for it ties back into this concept of the aliens themselves as guerilla warriors, fighting with stealth and surprise against a technologically-superior foe. That the film should repeatedly echo this classic Vietnam-war scenario is no coincidence “ Ron Cobb even admits that much of the marines’ outfits and hardware were designed with the conflict in mind. Aliens is, in its purest form, a war movie, one in which we are told a cautionary tale of the follies of macho, technological arrogance.
Of course, to my childhood friends and I, Aliens was another Where Eagles Dare, Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket; another battle to re-enact in the yard, another classic line to bellow as we fired our imaginary rifles. And there can surely be no greater recommendation for an action flick than that.