The now-infamous pitch meeting for Aliens is one of the many grand and entertaining pockets of innovation James Cameron would offer audiences during the 1980s. Writing a dollar sign next to the title of the Ridley Scott feature is as good a marketing strategy as any, and it is as grand an idea to explore. One Xenomorph proved to be a chilling nightmare for the slow-burning brilliance of Alien, but to multiply the number and amplify the scale is to turn Aliens into an action-packed bit of brilliance that finds itself in comfortable company with the monster-clad action features of the time. Predator was to follow, The Terminator had preceded it, and when stuck in the middle of two great pointers of 1980s action, Aliens is not so tough a sell.
It helps tremendously that Sigourney Weaver is game for a return to the role that inspired such great results back in 1979. Her performance is expectedly stellar, with the usual rigmarole of iconic lines replacing the stacked cast that surrounded her last time. Ian Holm and John Hurt may not be backing Weaver’s leading performance, but Cameron does a solid job of bolstering the supporting cast with strong roles and well-remembered characters. It does pale in comparison slightly in building up its action star. Scott manages to bill Weaver as a tremendous, testing lead because the action is brief and necessary. It toys with the thriller elements too well and the isolation of Ellen Ripley presents a far greater depth to the retaliation against the Xenomorph than anything Cameron can offer.
But what Cameron offers is a greasy, disgusting and exciting bit of action. It is not as well-centred or even as depthful as the film that came before it, but Aliens does a marvellous job of conveying all the right action moments and proves itself a worthy successor to a film whose genre change is, initially, quite jarring. There are spotty bits of thriller elements intact, the scene where Newt (Carrie Henn) plunges into the water in perhaps the grandest scene of the third act possible, but Aliens is also keen to rely on Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton, whose expendable work is satisfying and engaging. That desire to pick off the near-nameless faces that litter the space marines is intense and good fun, but it also provides a good balance to the mindlessness of slasher features that plagued the 1980s. Name the character, slap a bit of a cliché or setpiece personality and that is far, far greater than the teens and screams that audiences had to drudge through.
Aliens at least gets that right. For all the expendable characters and one-time appearances, these space marines and those around them have personalities. Cameron was correct to slap a dollar sign next to the word “alien,” because there is not just the draw of cash but the acknowledgement of quality and the work that helped it out beforehand. Relying on what made the first so tense and exciting, but implementing the new wave of action that would form much of the next few years keeps Aliens alive and relevant, as well as in the right position to take a real hold on how the action genre would develop in its most formative years.