Aliens gave us three things: Ellen Ripley the badass (where before she was Ellen Ripley the survivor), Cameron and Winston’s Alien Queen (greatest movie monster), and the fruit of colonial marines firing machine-guns at hordes of aliens, an idea so influential, it goes so far beyond this one film.
It in some ways gave birth to the first person shooter genre. The action of Aliens was going to be adapted to what became Doom. Never before had the future war action of Starship Troopers been realized on film — and unlike that novel, this was sans power armor. It was real. It was future soldiers, and their quarry, the ravenous aliens of deep mythology and classic aesthetic.
On a technical level, it’s truly an amazing thing. The editing is so quick, the gunfire so explosive, the aliens equally explosive — this is one of the finest action movies ever, and all the more impressive for competing with the likes of Die Hard and The Killer, which don’t also deal in horror and science-fiction. It’s thrilling, even in the moment. But with all the build-up of aliens and characterization, so acclaimed by critics, it’s transcendent.
It’s a visual feast, and although highly bleak (especially if we watch the director’s cut, and see just what happened on Hadley’s Hope), it’s pure escapism. It’s that particular brand of scifi fan who wants to be a space marine, because space is so cool. And you don’t even have to be in space. ‘Space’ here is more about the architecture, and the atmosphere. This is a young colony, the perfect setting for alien creepers whose mise en scen would inform the design of future journeys like Dead Space and System Shock 2.
Aliens is an allegorical movie as well, but this has never really struck me as particularly compelling. It’s another James Cameron exploration of man’s dependence on technology. The colony on LV-426 is barren, it’s a futuristic ghost town, a monument to our hubris. And here we go again, guns blazing, but are ambushed and destroyed.
And of course, the most socio-politically important thing put forth here is Ellen Ripley, who rises with a squadron of marines as her foil. Both she and Sigourney Weaver were anti-gun, and although she uses them, ultimately it’s a non-military ordnance in the Power Loader that saves the day. Does she weaponize something innocuous, or extend herself to take on an otherworldly threat?
The Power Loader is just a vehicle to put herself on the same level as a big monster, but truly, the weapon is her mind — and her heart. The story of Ripley’s daughter Amanda is now being chronicled in bestselling Alien: Isolation, but here, it drives her in an otherwise fantastical journey. This is how you get a badass icon in scifi — with a human foundation. Otherwise she’d be no more human than the Power Loader.
It’s one of the most important movies in terms of defining my science-fictional tastes and aesthetics. The formula is simple: guns and aliens. It’s easy to replicate, but impossible to better.