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Aliens is nothing like Alien—and all the better for it

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

Aliens (1986)

Alien is not an action movie. You probably already knew this. It’s also only barely a sci-fi movie. Instead, Ridley Scott’s 1979 original is a primal-horror movie, a movie about confronting death and the vast, screaming unknown. It’s about being forced, in an instant, to contemplate the idea that there are forces at work in the universe that you will never understand and that these forces will be happy to kill you. It’s not thrilling. It’s dank and nasty. It’s slow and contemplative and in love with its set design, and it will absolutely prey on the lizard part of your brain. It’s a powerful piece of work, but it is absolutely, categorically not an action movie.

Its sequel, on the other hand, is very much an action movie. Moreover, it’s a great action movie—one of the best ever made—and it’s a transparent product of an era when action movies had been getting faster and flashier and more overblown. James Cameron’s Aliens, from 1986, is a movie full of gigantic guns and gleaming muscles and gallows humor one-liners. It’s a story of triumph over impossible odds, and of bullets being fired into anonymous hordes of quickly killed evildoers. It has moments of near-unbearable tension—like the scene where the face-huggers are loose in the medical lab—but it’s a fist-in-the-air movie, not a creeping-dread movie. And like Rambo: First Blood Part IIa movie that Cameron wrote at the same time as he was writing Aliens—it’s got that weird post-Vietnam intensity that affected so many American action movies of the era.

Sigourney Weaver has talked about how she played Ellen Ripley, heroine of Aliens, as Rambolina, and Ripley and Rambo have more in common than you might think. They’re both hardened warriors, reluctantly but willingly returning to the war zones where they were lucky to survive the first time. Like Rambo, Ripley gets a chance to kick spectacular levels of ass, something she never really got to do the last time she met an alien. Ripley’s also got something in common with a Cameron hero who would show up later: The Sarah Connor of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Like Connor, Ripley is a tough, cold-tempered mother-warrior, her warnings of apocalypse ignored by corrupt forces.

Because Aliens is so transparently an action movie, you will come across people who will tell you that it’s bullshit, that it’s a violation of everything that made Alien great. Do not trust these people. They are wrong. Aliens is about as perfect as a sequel can be, in part because it’s so distinct from the original Alien. The two movies share a central hero (though Ripley doesn’t really emerge as the hero of Alien until more than halfway through), and a central creeping terror (the incredible H.R. Giger-designed xenomorph drooling-bug monster). They’re both built on the inherent, body-level revulsion at the idea that there’s something unknown in the dark, something that means you harm. But Aliens does what sequels, ideally, are supposed to do. It never retells the original story. Instead, it expands on that story, introduces new characters and new wrinkles, and uses that original basis to tell an entirely different kind of story.

Sigourney Weaver got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Aliens. Infuriatingly, that’s the only time the star of one of these movies—the movies I’m writing about in this column—will earn such an honor. The Academy Awards, historically, do not give a flying fuck about the rip-shit action movies that I love, and something like the lifetime-achievement Oscar that Jackie Chan will get next year, or all those technical-achievement awards for Mad Max: Fury Road, are usually the best we can hope for. But if only one of these performances was going to get nominated, I’m glad it was this one. Weaver (who lost to Children Of A Lesser God’s Marlee Matlin) is all hard, icy control in Aliens. Surrounded by gung-ho space marines who don’t believe there’s anything in the universe they can’t destroy, she radiates calm, seething fury. She’s the toughest person in whatever room she’s in, even if those space marines take a while to notice. But Ripley also glows whenever she’s in the presence of Newt, the one little girl who survived the alien attack on the settlers’ colony. And while it shouldn’t be remarkable to see a female action-movie hero both as heroic and as maternal as Ripley, nobody has ever played that role better in a movie.

People talk about Newt as if she’s some gaping flaw at the center of the movie, as if she’s Short Round. She’s not. Carrie Henn, the girl who played Newt, is numb and flat and terrified, and that is her role. But she knows the war-crazy soldiers around her are not going to protect her, and she instinctively gravitates toward the one other person who’s faced these aliens and survived. She speaks with a weird precision, but that’s sometimes just how kids talk. And the tragedy that she’s lived through and her connection to Ripley are absolutely central to the movie. When she calls Ripley “mommy” at the end of the movie, the camera and the score don’t dwell on it, but it’s there, and it’s earned. Henn had never acted before Aliens, and she never would again. (She’s a teacher in California now.) She was right to quit. Her filmography is already perfect; there’s no improving on a batting average of 1000.

Cameron’s aliens might not have the sticky, mysterious power that Scott’s one beast did. But Cameron couldn’t just make the same movie, and he did amazing things with what he had. Working with a mere $18 million budget and a level of special effects technology that necessitated rubber monster suits, Cameron worked miracles. His aliens scuttle and hiss and drop down from ceilings, and even though they seem to get killed fairly easily—they are, after all, facing down marines who are carrying giant future-cannons—they still overwhelm through cunning and through sheer numbers. (They also have the unwitting assistance of Burke, the excellently slimy corporate functionary who wants to smuggle one back to earth and get rich. After watching Paul Reiser be such a massive piece of shit in this, it’s hard to watch Mad About You.)

While Cameron was using Giger’s design, Cameron himself gets credit for designing the Alien Queen, the massive and terrifying creature who gives Aliens its great showdown finale. The Alien Queen might be a creation of pure puppetry, but it gets real character moments. It acts like an honest-to-god dangerous animal, enraged over the destruction of its eggs, and so the ending plays as a standoff between two protective mother figures. The life-size model that Cameron used for the Alien Queen has been on display in museums before, so maybe you’ve seen it in person. I have, and even frozen in one spot, it’s a thing to behold.

Everything about that final fight is just incredible, if you can forgive the scientifically implausible sight of Ripley climbing out of the deep-space airlock. The movie has already set up Ripley as a working-class drone who knows how to operate that huge fuck-off exoskeleton, and while she’s not as fast as the Queen, and she doesn’t have as many ways to kill you, she knows how to bait her enemy and win the advantage. Given the special effects of the time, really, all the action scenes are top shelf, and they’re more convincing and linear and coherent than most of what we get today.

But the action itself isn’t what sets Aliens apart. It’s the storytelling. There are so many great little touches in the movie, and even all the peripheral characters get complete stories. Lance Henriksen’s eerie Bishop becomes a self-sacrificing hero and, in doing so, manages to overcome Ripley’s deep-seated distrust of androids. Michael Biehn’s Hicks, calmer than his fellow marines, watches Ripley handle herself and understands that this is the person to follow, and he gets to survive to the end of the movie as a result. Bill Paxton’s Hudson comes off as a loudmouth asshole at the beginning of the movie, and as a simpering coward when shit gets real, but then he goes out in a blaze of glory, taking out as many aliens as possible. William Hope’s hapless Gorman gets most of his squad killed by freezing up and panicking in the face of the unknown, but he realizes his mistake and redeems himself in one last, self-sacrificing gesture. And Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez simply gets to be the most badass and commanding supporting character in the history of action movies.

Generally, this column is about highlighting the most important and influential action movie of every year. And 1986 was the year of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, ground zero for Hong Kong’s explosion of bullet-ballet crime movies. Aliens certainly has its imitators; it’s hard to imagine a movie like Starship Troopers or Pitch Black without it. But it’s not the focus of this column because it’s an influential movie. It’s the focus of this column because Aliens is a shining example of what an action movie can be, of all the different ways in which it can work while still kicking you in the ass. This was a piece of lucrative summer entertainment, a guns-blazing sequel that made a whole lot of noise and a whole lot of money. But it’s also an absolute masterpiece, and those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Our summer action movies can still be this good. They should be. Maybe, one day, they will be again, and we won’t be left with this October 2016 feeling that we should nuke Hollywood from orbit.

Other notable 1986 action movies: The aforementioned A Better Tomorrow is the moment when John Woo found his artistic voice, and when Chow Yun-Fat became a movie star. It was a huge hit in Hong Kong, and after it, the floodgates opened. The movie’s stylized, melodramatic violence would influence Hong Kong movies for decades to come, and it’s a pretty badass movie in its own right. The only real problem with it is that it isn’t Aliens. But John Woo will get his just recognition in this column soon enough. Even without A Better Tomorrow, though, Hong Kong would’ve still had a big year, with Jackie Chan’s chaotically fun stunt-fest Armour Of God and Tsui Hark’s lush and fantastical Peking Opera Blues.

Hollywood action movies, meanwhile, were still in their absurd golden age. With Cobra, Sylvester Stallone essentially rewrote Dirty Harry as a full-on ’80s exploitation movie, with his Harry Callahan stand-in Marion “Cobra” Cobretti taking on a stab-happy cult of serial killers, dispensing great one-liners the whole time. Meanwhile, Raw Deal asked us to accept Arnold Schwarzenegger as a small-town American sheriff, sending him up against the Chicago mob. As it turned out, old reliable pulp genres like the cop movie and the mafia movie looked very, very different in the mid-’80s.

Highlander was a different and specific form of ’80s cheese: an era-spanning, sword-clanging fantasy that invented its own rulebook and then sustained those rules over four more movies and a TV show. With The Delta Force, Chuck Norris and Cannon Films seemed to be attempting to make a serious, prestigious issue movie about Middle Eastern terrorism—or, at least, it seemed that way until Norris started riding around on a motorcycle that shot rockets. The Hitcher, a vastly underrated piece of low-budget nastiness, got as much as it could from its simple, primal killer-drifter story. Maximum Overdrive, Stephen King’s directorial debut, had a lot of coked-out fun with the perfectly ridiculous idea of a world where trucks are coming alive and trying to kill us.

The hits kept coming. Running Scared set the interracial buddy-cop table for Lethal Weapon and dared to envision a world where Billy Crystal was a credible action star, something that turned out way less embarrassing than it should’ve. The Wraith turned Friday The 13th into an action movie by making its mysterious avenging demon into a drag-racing teenage superhero protagonist. And the deeply and entertainingly shitty No Retreat, No Surrender introduced Jean-Claude Van Damme by making him the Russian villain of a sloppy teenage karate-hero movie. (Unless I’m mistaken, it would be the last time Van Damme played a villain until The Expendables 2.)

The biggest earning American movie of 1986 was Top Gun, but that wasn’t an action movie. It was a romance in an action-movie setting, and it never even really threatened to erupt into a full-on war movie. If you’re looking for a 1986 action movie about hotshot military pilots, I would suggest the immortally cheap Middle Eastern romp Iron Eagle. Best of all, Big Trouble In Little China found John Carpenter and Kurt Russell eviscerating the ’80s action-hero archetype that they’d helped to create, throwing a clueless oaf of a wisecracking truckdriver into a mystical gonzo kung-fu fantasia, pointing and laughing as he fucked up again and again.

Next time: In a banner year that includes Predator and RoboCop, Lethal Weapon launches Shane Black’s career and establishes the buddy-cop gold standard.