Aliens was released during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. It changed my life.
All my friends from that time can attest how obsessed I became with the movie, nearly wearing out the used VHS copy I bought from a video store for the then-crazy price of $19.95.
Bill Paxton became my hero - and he still is, to this day. And the movie made me decide to apply to screenwriting programs for college. I was accepted to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
I wrote this piece in 1987.
Copyright Christopher Stanton
“How Could They Cut the Power, Man? They’re Animals!”
Sigourney Weaver Scraps With the Aliens
Millions of moviegoers remember the scene in the 1979 film Alien when a horrible chittering creature bursts out of John Hurt’s chest. That nightmarish moment set the chilling premise for the movie – a huge commercial towing ship (the Nostromo) unwillingly takes on a malevolent alien that devours the members of the small crew one by one. The movie ended with a heroic duel between Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the bloodbath; and the big, bad creature itself. Weaver headed a strong, impressive cast of talented actors in the film, and by the end of the movie, audiences were on their feet – screaming, pleading for Ripley to kill the terrifying beast. She eventually “blew it out of the goddamn airlock” into the deep abyss of outer space.
And that was the end, right? Wrong. James Cameron has written and directed a masterpiece of a sequel seven years later. The movie is Aliens and it is the most relentlessly terrifying and compelling science fiction thriller I have ever seen. At the beginning of the film a deep-salvage spaceship finds Ripley drifting through space in the Nostromo’s lifeboat. She awakens after spending fifty-seven years in hypersleep. Ripley soon learns that the planet LV-426, where the Nostromo picked up the alien in the first movie, has been colonized by “sixty, maybe seventy families” who have set up massive atmosphere processors to make the harsh air of the planet breathable. Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), who represents ‘the Company’ also informs Ripley that all radio contact has been lost with the colonists. Burke asks her to accompany a squad of Colonial Marines to the planet as an advisor. “It may be just a down transmitter,” he speculates. “But if it’s not, I want you there…as an advisor. That’s all.”
Plagued by frightening nightmares of the Nostromo massacre, Ripley decides to go, knowing in her heart that the colony has been overrun by the aliens.
The Marines find the sprawling colony structure seemingly quiet and deserted. Yet there is evidence of a violent “last stand” – slimy metal pipes have been ripped from the walls and gaping holes have been blown in wrought-iron walkways. Ripley immediately realizes that what she had feared is true. After the troop finds the lone survivor of the alien attack, a traumatized little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) hiding in the ventilation shafts, all the Marines become believers in Ripley’s story.
From then on, director Cameron tightens the screw ever so slightly, doggedly building up the suspense until the film escalates into a roller-coaster ride of flat-out terror. The last forty-five minutes are so intense and horrifying that I dare any viewer to even try to come up for breath. The aliens attack again and again from all directions, knocking off the humans one by one until a small group of Ripley; Newt; Bishop (Lance Henriksen), a helpful android; Gorman (William Hope), an incompetent lieutenant; Hicks (Michael Biehn), a calm corporal; Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), a tough Chicano private; and Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), a skittish coward, remains. These unlikely comrades band together and try to survive.
I have never seen a film so accomplished in so many areas. Sigourney Weaver’s Academy Award-nominated performance depicts a career woman forced to utilize her basic survival instincts in the face of danger. Her character is strong yet sympathetic, and Weaver lends an aura of majestic serenity and humanity to her portrayal.
Ripley becomes a ‘mother’ to Newt, taking her under her loving wing and using her as an outlet for affection- affection that he had for her lost family and friends of the past that perhaps she never had time to display. Cameron is very subtle in letting the relationship develop, slowly letting the desperate circumstances shape the bond between them. “I’m not gonna leave you, Newt,” Ripley assures her. “That’s a promise.”
Equally as impressive an actress is Jenette Goldstein, who plays Vasquez as a tough, no-nonsense soldier succeeding in a profession dominated by men. Her imposing presence often alienates several of her fellow Marines. “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” Hudson asks her, eyeing her sleek, muscled body.
“No…have you?” she replies, resuming her rigorous chin-ups.
But the best performance of the film belongs to Bill Paxton (as Hudson.) He gives true meaning to the term ‘supporting actor’ – realistically displaying a wide range of emotions while playing off his fellow actors (especially Goldstein) beautifully. Blessed with some of the funniest and most creatively colorful lines of dialogue in recent cinema, Paxton’s wide-eyed delivery has helped him emerge as a cult hero among repetitive viewers (like me) who relish every moment he appears in a scene. He commands the screen with some unique quality that glues the audiences’ eyes to his expressive face, watching for his reaction – a sneer; a gasp; a rollicking expletive—to every twist of fate.
Aliens is technically accomplished as well. Filmed partly in an abandoned water station in London, the colony sets are a miracle of modern art direction. The tunnels are a maze of corroded, winding metal stairways; dark, cramped corridors echoing with the sound of dripping water; and stark, impersonal rooms abandoned by the fleeing colonists. The sense of oppressive claustrophobia and ultimate, inescapable death is so prevalent that viewers will be squirming in their seats.
The Oscar-winning special effects are frighteningly effective, from the fourteen foot tall slobbering mother alien to the mechanically awesome dropships. Finally, the rapid-fire Oscar-nominated film editing skillfully blends frame after frame in the tense, exciting battle scenes. A particularly effective sequence has the group frantically combatting the aliens in a labyrinth of dark, stifling air ducts.
Those three elements combined with the superior cinematography, vibrant sound and sound effects, and an understated paramilitary music score enhance the witty, imaginative screenplay to produce one of the best science fiction films of all time.