Tough love takes charge

True heroic spirit evident in Ripley's return

Published: Aug 16 2014, 01:01:am

Monday, July 21, 1986
ALIENS. Based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Schusett. Music by James Horner. Written and directed by James Cameron. Running time: 135 minutes. 14 Years Limited Admittance with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some frightening and gory scenes, very coarse language and swearing.
MOVIES NEED HEROES. When the Duke died, everyone agreed that motion pictures had lost a great one, an  actor who embodied much of what was positive, dynamic and good about America.
    Since his death in 1979, the John Wayne presence has been sorely missed. Tough and right-thinking, he played the kind of take-charge individual who combined wholesome attitudes with steely-eyed competence.
    Despite the best efforts of the Sellecks, Stallones, Schwarzeneggers and Norrises, no man yet has been able to fill his boots. Perhaps no man can.
    But wait! The Duke's spirit is suddenly abroad in the land again. Aliens, writer/director James Cameron's stunning sequel to Alien (1979) has a star in the best Wayne tradition — a lantern-jawed performer with enough strength and integrity to take on an archetypically heroic American role.
    No man, she is Sigourney Weaver, the purposeful stage actress who made her screen debut playing warrant officer Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of the space freighter Nostromo
in director Ridley Scott's Alien. Her return bout with the monstrous xenomorphs of planet LV-426 establishes her as a bona fide hero of the first rank.
    Cameron's film opens with Ripley, and her ginger cat Jones, being picked up by a deep space salvage crew. Fifty-seven years have passed since their escape from the Nostromo, and corporate representative Carter J. Burke (Paul Reiser) finds her story of acid-blooded creatures a little hard to believe, especially since the planet in question has recently been colonized.
    Burke has second thoughts when communications with LV-426 suddenly cease. Together with Colonial Marine Corps Lt. Gorman (William Hope), he visits Ripley to offer her reinstatement with the company, if she will accompany them on a rescue mission.
    Director Cameron, whose 1984 film The Terminator was non-stop action, spends the first hour of Aliens establishing his characters, their hardware and personal conflicts. Fans of Robert Heinlein's no-nonsense science fiction style will appreciate the Starship Trooper camaraderie  of Cameron's space marines, and the careful attention to design detail in every scene.
    Arriving on the planet, the marines find the colony's buildings deserted. During their tense, careful sweep, they find a single survivor, a traumatized child named Newt (Carrie Henn). The relatively long establishing time is necessary because, once the H.R. Giger-designed extra-terrestrials make their appearance, the battle is joined and the action is non-stop for the rest of the movie.
    A sequel that matches the original for imaginative shocks, jolts and edge-of-the-seat excitement,  Cameron's picture is a breathlessly paced thriller that never lets up. What's more, it's an action film with a star performance that gives it a vital human dimension.
    It is Weaver, doing what a hero has got to do, who turns the Aliens special-effects show into a solidly involving fantasy-drama.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1986. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Aliens established Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley as the essential heart of the franchise. The second actress to be nominated for a best actress Oscar for a performance in a science fiction feature — Jane Alexander's nomination for the 1983 post-apocalypse drama Testament was the first — Weaver built her career on alternating fantasy roles with solidly mainstream features. She appeared in two more Alien sequels: Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997), as well as both Ghostbusters features (1984 and 1989) and the fan-convention-goers' favourite, Galaxy Quest. In 2009, she was again directed by James Cameron in his blockbuster hit Avatar. Three Avatar sequels are currently in pre-production, all of them featuring Weaver. As for the Alien franchise, it went sideways for a time, generating two crossover features in which the title creature found its way to earth and into an adversarial relationship with the extraterrestrial villain from 1987's Predator. The aggressive uglies battled one another in 2004's Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007), as well as in spin-off comic books, paperback novels and video games. As to who won, I honestly couldn't care less.
See also: For more on James Cameron, read my reviews of The Terminator and The Abyss.