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On July 18, 1986, Fox brought Aliens to theaters with an R-rated thriller by director James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
As Aliens, the sequel to 1979’s science fiction-horror hit Alien, worms its way into the heartland of America, it will likely be bursting box-office records everywhere.
Writer-director James Cameron shows himself to be a careful study of the original film, reprising much of the original’s basic concepts and structure. The film begins with Alien‘s sole survivors, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her cat, finally being picked up by a spaceship.
The company that sent the “truckers in space” crew of the Nostromo to pick up the creature in the first film now blames Ripley for destroying a multimillion-dollar spaceship and breaks her command. A company toady named Burke (Paul Reiser) offers her restoral of her rank if she will act as an adviser on a mission to rescue a space colony that has been established on the planet where the Alien was discovered in the first film.
What follows is largely “marines in space” versus a squad of the same deadly ET featured in the first film. Most of the marines are interchangeable, exchanging cliched complaints and vainglorious threats. The hero to be is Michael Biehn, the underrated star of Cameron’s The Terminator; Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is another synthetic humanoid a la the character played by Ian Holm in Alien; Lt. Gorman (William Hope) is the mission’s inexperienced and indecisive leader; Apone (Al Matthews) is the traditional black master sergeant and Hudson (Bill Paxton) is the archetypal complainer.
The jutting-jawed Ripley once again proves the most able crewmember as she keeps a cool head and forms a strong attachment to Newt (Carrie Henn), one of the last survivors on the Aliens’ planet who ends up serving much the same function as the cat did in the first film (i.e., the one thing Ripley cannot allow to be left behind).
Conceptual artists and designers Ron Cobb, Syd Mead and Pete Lamont have come up with plenty of futuristic hardware, though at times the backgrounds do not seem far removed from that of a modern-day aircraft carrier or oil refinery. The smoky opening scenes photographed by Adrian Biddle recall the look created by Ridley Scott on the original but afterwards Cameron takes a far more straightforward and less flashy approach.
The film suffers from a prolonged buildup which mistakes dragging things out for suspense, but after an initial encounter with the title characters, Cameron switches to high gear and reverts back to the relentless action and suspense approach that helped make The Terminator such a massive hit. Cameron isn’t as concerned with scares or atmosphere, the staples of traditional horror films, as he is with setting up difficult situations for his characters to get out of, leaving audiences deliciously on edge.
James Horner’s score contains elements of Goldsmithian militaristic marches and borrowings from his Star Trek III score, as well as a touch of “The Gayne Ballet,” as used in 2001, making it seem more of a rehash than an original from this talented composer. Stan Winston has done an excellent job of making H.R. Giger’s original Alien design quicker moving and more mobile, adding a hitherto unseen form of the Alien for the climax.
Aliens ends up as a wild and woolly roller-coaster ride of a movie which should attract anxious crowds of thrill fans as it cuts a swath through theaters from here to Alpha Centauri. — Dennis Fischer, originally published on July 8, 1986.
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