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The Complete Works Of James Cameron

Total Film - Supplement

February 2010

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Director James Cameron
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser
Cert 18

Rating *****

In space, James Cameron will make you scream…

In the wake of the ruination heaped upon the franchise by the muddled and miserable 3 and Resurrection, it’s crystal clear that James Cameron’s messianic devotion to the original’s immaculate simplicity is what gave Aliens its splendor and potency. Multiplying Alien’s claustrophobic premise of one murderous ET locked up with a hapless crew, Cameron widens out his sequel to an entire space colony and pumps it full of a militaristic machismo, tempered by Sigourney Weaver’s maternalising and the mounting panic of hard-bitten Marines who come to realise they’re fighting an implacable foe. 

The first two Aliens sit atop the pantheon as the most nerve-shredding space-monster movies ever made, the chilled formalism of Scott’s ingenious shocker countered by the precise, impeccable craftsmanship injected by Cameron, who was blooding himself in big-time filmmaking. And where Alien was infused with ‘70s malaise, Cameron’s brasher beast is a full-tilt Reagan-era action movie. The result is a near-masochistic experience that melds machine-tooled bedlam with primal terror as double-jawed beasties rain down from ceilings, burst out of ventilation shafts and silently uncoil in dark corners.
Rescued from her cryogenic chamber 57 years after becoming Alien’s last (wo)man standing, Weaver’s Ellen Ripley became the prototype for every subsequent action heroine – and is still arguably the greatest. This is Ripley at her buff, badass pinnacle, before the haunted chrome-dome of 3 and greaseball hybrid of 4. Here she is shaded and deepened beyond the first film’s grumpy taskmaster into a surrogate mother for Newt (Carrie Henn), herself an only survivor of the terraforming colony that was established on the alien planet during Ripley’s space-slumber. From unexpected survivor to resilient, sympathetic spine, Weaver gives Aliens a pulsating humanity that leads unswervingly to her battle royale with the alien queen – a furious face-off of mothers defending their young that’s still a career touchstone for Cameron.

The filmmaker spliced an extra 17 minutes into his director’s cut, fleshing out Ripley’s distress and the colonist’s annihilation, but Aliens didn’t need it. Meaty backstories aren’t why James Cameron is a genius – it’s the masterful control he wields over visceral shocks and character empathy, knowing the exact measures of each to dole out for maximum impact. Plenty of filmmakers can deliver exquisite jolts, but Cameron knows that if we don’t give a toss about who’s getting the kiss of death, we might as well go watch a Michael Bay movie.

From the chaotic first attack to Ripley and Newt’s struggle to avoid face-huggers in the sound-proofed lab, Aliens is a series of mini-masterclasses in sublime suspense. Cameron also spreads the love among his motley crew of techies, grunts and androids, each getting their own memorable highlights – not least Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson, who turns jibbering wreck in the face of xenomorph onslaught but also turns out to be Aliens’ sagacious muse. “Game over, man!” is surely the pithiest line of dialogue in the whole quadrilogy.

As tautly-paced action movie, awe-inspiring science fiction and touching character study, Aliens reigns supreme. From the ominous set-up to relentless final push, Cameron maintains a pitch of nerve-shredding intensity that’s as exhausting as it is exhilirating. Bitchin’.

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