Given the current debates over Prometheus, and its kind-of prequel relationship to the rest of the Alien franchise, I thought it’d be worth revisiting one of the original films from that series. While Ridley Scott’s original Alien might seem like the best place to start, Aliens actually works better in some respects.
I was interested in seeing whether my experience of Prometheus meant that I saw these films in a new light. I also wanted to test my theory that Prometheus probably didn’t need to revisit a mythology that was never the most interesting aspect of the original films. Most of all though, I wanted to watch and re-appreciate one of the best science fiction films of all time.
In terms of making a comparison with Prometheus, Aliens is notable to re-watch because the producers could have decided that they wanted to expand on and explain some of the mysteries of the original Alien. Where did the Aliens come from? What was the Space Jockey that they find fossilized at the start of the film? These are questions that eventually became the basis for Prometheus, but ones that, while touched on, aren’t ever really dealt with in depth by Aliens.
When James Cameron took on the project, the pitch was to multiply the claustrophobic atmosphere of Alien into a war movie with a Vietnam subtext. So, we have Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) being rescued after over 50 years in suspended animation, and eventually being brought along as an advisor to a team of Colonial Marines investigating the disappearance of a colony on the planet where Ripley first experienced the Alien. Most of Aliens is concerned with pitting an increasingly desperate set of marines, Ripley, and little girl survivor Newt (Carrie Henn) against a swarm of vicious aliens and one enormous Alien Queen.
It’s hard to think of a film that hits the ground running as effectively as Aliens, which never lets up in terms of sheer tension and bursts of violence. Even with Cameron’s Director’s Cut adding back story, the mechanics of a corporate sabotage, and the history of the Alien planet are secondary to keeping the action rolling along. Moreover, although Cameron’s never quite going to nail believable dialogue, Aliens has an intensity and an intimacy that makes you care about its characters.
What works, then, about Aliens is that it doesn’t need a convoluted mythology to tell its story, but also doesn’t ignore some of the broader mysteries surrounding its narrative world. Prometheus worked best for me when it wasn’t straining to tell a universal tale about creation, which made it a mediocre science fiction epic with some memorable sequences.
For me, the whole basis of the Alien series, at least for the first two films, was its primal, simply constructed plot and construction. Compared to the head scratching mysteries of Prometheus, Aliens is still as straightforward and thrilling from start to finish as it ever was.