Nothing says Christmas like some good old xenomorph action, so I figured it was time to revisit my all-time favorite Alien film. The last time I watched James Cameron's Aliens (which was more than a decade ago) I wasn't too impressed with the characters and special effects, needless to say I felt a little apprehensive watching it again. My relationship with the Alien franchise is complicated, but for all its issues I think Aliens is still a worthy addition to the canon and still tops the list of all Alien-related films.
The Alien franchise is enormous, spanning movies, comics and video games, alongside the original Giger artwork of course. It's one of the few movie franchises that succesfully crossed over into the world of video games (and was probably even surpassed by them). I'm a big fan of Giger's artwork, I loved some of the core games (namely Alien vs Predator and Alien: Isolation) and consider the xenomorph to be the most kick-ass monster ever created. Just to say that when I sat down to watch Aliens again, there was quite a lot of extra baggage to consider.
There's a lot of nostalgia connected to this film that isn't directly Cameron's doing though. Most specificially the sound of the motion tracker, which still sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it. Not because it was used so well in Aliens (though it does make for some of the better moments in the film), but because I spend ages lurking behind my keyboard whenever I heard that single, ominous beep while seeing the little white dot closing in on me. It's small details like these that makes it a little easier to ignore the film's faults.
The plot is little more than an excuse to get Ripley back onto the xenomorph-infested planet. If you watch the Director's Cut you'll get a lot of extra character exposition during the first half of the film, but since none of the characters are actually worth exploring you can save yourself some time and simply watch the original theater cut. Once the xenomorphs make their appearance you have Ripley and her crew running between different industrial-looking sets, again paying little attention to whatever plot points are introduced.
On a technical level, the film is degrading pretty quickly. The special effects look quite unconvincing, exposure of the xenomorphs in particular looks rushed and more than a little crude. A shame because they are the main attraction of the film. On the upside, the setting is still extremely atmospheric, with lots of metal, alien biomechanical structures and smoke creating a grim and hostile-like looking planet. The cleaned-up Blu-Ray edition adds a little extra detail too, so overall the balance is still positive. I'm just not sure if this film can survive another 10 years.
Sound-wise its pretty hit and miss too. The score is rather cheesy and overdone. Too much Hollywood blockbuster, not enough atmospheric sci-fi horror. The sound effects on the other hand are beyond epic. I already mentioned the beeps of the motion tracker, but there's also the swooshes of doors, the klangs of metal and last but not least, the mean screeches of the xenomorph. Add to that some very sample-friendly dialogues and once again the balance comes up positive.
The acting is more clear cut, but not in a good way. I've never been much of a Ripley fan (in part because of my xenomorph bias, but also because I think Weaver isn't that great an actress), so spending another two and a half hours with her is hardly satisfactory. That said, the marines are even worse, forming a group of annoying alien fodder that greatly outstays its welcome (especially when watching the Director's Cut). The only one doing a half-decent job is Lance Henriksen, which is quite telling.
Aliens is considered the more action-oriented of the first two Alien films. While accurate, it's surprisingly tame by modern standards. Technically there are a lot more xenomorphs here (versus the single one in the first film), but most of them are assumed. They are either offscreen or they flash by real quick. People with a xenomorph fetish are sure to be disappointed by the lack of true, full-screen xenomorph action. It isn't until the very last act (when the Queen is introduced) that the creatures appear in full glory.
Regardless of its diminishing appeal, Aliens is still a film I love revisiting (though the next time I might just ditch the Director's Cut). Not because James Cameron is such a superb director or because the film is so well-made, instead the film survives mostly on borrowed nostalgia and greater-franchise impact. Without Giger's original artwork and various heart-stopping video games, I'm not sure if I would still consider this a masterpiece. That said, there's still plenty of nitty, gritty xenomorph action to enjoy and none of the films do a better job at paying hommage to one of the world's meanest horror creatures than Cameron's Aliens.