Why It Works: Aliens

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


With ALIEN: COVENANT less than a month away, the fact that we recently had to wish a far too early game over to Bill Paxton, and the misfits-in-space sequel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 out next week, it seemed like a good time to look at one of the first sequels to really expand upon the original and explore new territory while still staying true to the source. Where Ridley Scott's ALIEN is a claustrophobic horror movie pitched to the studio as JAWS in space, James Cameron's ALIENS plays much more like a shoot 'em up action flick- while also exploring the unexpected theme of motherhood along the way. Here's why it works:

NOTE: We'll be looking at the director's cut of the film, as according to James Cameron, "this is the ride that we intended you to take."


We don't have to have seen ALIEN to understand Ellen Ripley's situation. She survived a traumatic experience, suffers from nightmares as a result, and rather than being heralded as a hero for surviving and killing a monster, is ostracized by her skeptical employers for destroying a ship for no good reason. What's more is Ripley's discovery that she was in stasis for 57 years, during which time her ten year old daughter lived to the age of 66 and passed away. Yeah. From here, there's a sense of aimlessness to Ripley, as she takes a menial job in the cargo bay and doesn't really know what to do with her life, so when she finally decides to accompany the crew to LV-426, we not only accept the choice she makes but are happy to see her finally find a purpose.

I mean...

As for the rest of the characters, they all have something to set them apart. Newt is the quiet but clever survivor at Hadley's Hope, Hicks is the swoon-worthy Marine who can actually keep his cool under pressure, Hudson is the cocky class clown, Vasquez is the token female who can go toe to toe with her male counterparts anytime anywhere, Gorman is the nervous wildcard, Apone is their take-no-shit leader for like a second, Bishop is the possibly not to be trusted android, and Carter Burke is the corporate tool we love to hate.

"I may be synthetic, but I'm not stupid."


With Ripley's existential rut, the first hour of ALIENS is a bit of a slow burn but necessary to earn the rest of the film. First of all, the question of what happens to a hero after she survives a monster is fascinating, and so we get a glimpse into Ripley's mind as she recovers from her previous ordeal. Not surprisingly, she has no interest in going back to LV-426 until she realizes it's the only way she can put her fears to rest. Of course, once Ripley and the Colonial Marines reach the surface of the deserted colony, ALIENS takes on a much different shape. Every moment from here to the end of the film drips with tension, as our heroes look for, run from, hide from, and fight the xenomorphs. Of course, once Newt goes missing, the stakes are raised yet again from here through to the final showdown.

"I can handle myself." "Yeah, I noticed."


At some point early in the mission, the concept of a queen is mentioned, but it's a fairly throw away moment, so we're not necessarily waiting for her to show up. When Ripley rescues Newt and realizes they're surrounded by eggs, however, we get an excellent holy shit moment as the mother of all xenomorphs is introduced. Ripley and Newt make a daring escape- only to find Bishop and the ship are nowhere in sight. Right at their darkest moment, Bishop comes to the rescue, and all is well.

"Close your eyes, baby."

Oh, wait. Did you learn nothing from your first go-round, Ripley? Of course the queen managed to stow away on the ship to strike out when all seems peaceful. As Bishop takes one in the chest and Newt scrambles to safety, Ripley emerges in her exosuit for the final big brawl. Ripley manages to drop the queen into the airlock but goes tumbling down with her, she hangs on for dear life as the queen finally shuffles off into space (because science), the top half of Bishop saves Newt from an unwanted spacewalk, and our heroes are free to sleep all the way home. There are a lot of fun twists and turns here, and while ALIENS is a fun film, the last 15 minutes really take it to another level. It's also nice that four- well, three and a half- characters survive instead of just Ripley this time, and as long as ALIEN 3 never happens, we can assume they all live happily every after.



While Dan O'Bannon wrote the original ALIEN as an allegory for sexual abuse against men, there is almost no direct reference to gender in the film. Hell, Ripley isn't even the main character until she's the only one left. In ALIENS, however, not only does Ripley turn from sole survivor to badass protagonist, she also becomes a mother. Not only do we learn she had a daughter who since passed away, but she becomes an adoptive mother to Newt (who touchingly calls her "Mommy" after being saved from the queen). Finally, the film's main villain is a mother, who only wants to protect her babies- and get revenge when the nasty lady torches them all. Adding this element to the story is a huge part of what makes ALIENS more than just a sequel with bigger guns and more monsters. In fact, say what you will about the rest of the quadrilogy, but one thing they got right was continuing to explore this territory, with ALIEN 3 seeing Ripley kill herself rather than give birth to an alien embryo and ALIEN: RESURRECTION bringing that weird-ass looking Ripley/xenomorph lovechild to life.

"Newt... my name's Newt. Nobody calls me Rebecca... except my brother."

ALIENS also stands tall as hands down the most quotable film in the franchise, with "get away from her, you bitch," "game over, man; game over!" and "they mewstly come at night... mewstly" still among some of the most quoted lines in movie fandom. Along with writing a fun script, James Cameron also directs a tense, exciting film, with plenty of tight shots and movement to keep us feeling unsettled and on edge. Adding to the anxiety are James Horner's excellent score, the dark and grimy production design, and of course the xenomorphs themselves, an extension of H.R. Giger's original design. Finally, ALIENS is nothing without its stellar cast, with Sigourney Weaver fiercely leading the way and Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, and Al Matthews all delivering colorful, entertaining and memorable characters. While I have no doubt the ALIEN franchise will continue to exist in some form for as long as movies are being made, it will always be Ridley Scott's ALIEN that originally planted the seed in our heart... and James Cameron's ALIENS which brought it bursting out of our chest.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Extra Tidbit: While this isn't the first sequel I've written about for Why It Works, it is the first sequel where I've previously written about the original, so if you're ready for round two, check out Why It Works: Alien!
Source: JoBlo.com



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