Happy 25th Anniversary, Aliens! Let's Reflect on its Genius

A hot July day exactly 25 years ago yielded one of the best films of the 1980s: Aliens, James Cameron's sequel to the Ridley Scott's classic Alien seven years before it. It holds up all this time later, and arguably may stand up as the most solid work Cameron and his ensemble ever did. Let's pay it the anniversary respect it deserves.

Sigourney Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for reprising her role as Ellen Ripley, the erstwhile Nostromo warrant officer plucked from hypersleep limbo and once again inducted into service for The Company. Paul Reiser played the sleazy corporate stooge overseeing a military-industrial mission to restore contact with colonists who may or may not [ahem] have encountered some unfriendly forces on the desolate rock below. Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Jeannette Goldstein led the grunts into battle with the title creatures, deploying pretty much all the one-liners and zingers Cameron had -- and would ever have -- in his screenwriting bank. ("Hey, Vasquez, you ever get mistaken for a man?" "No. Do you?") Carrie Henn appeared as Newt, the young lone survivor of the ravaged colony and surrogate daughter whose disappearance down an air shaft sends Ripley into the alien queen's slimy crucible. And of course Lance Henriksen rocked it as Bishop, the android of the hour with his knife tricks, nifty piloting and unfortunate positioning on the business end of a vengeful queen's tail.

I remember this movie like it came out yesterday -- one of the last R-rated films I really had to beg my parents to let me see, and one of the first films I ever attempted to write anything about. Nothing's been the same since for the principals, either, for better or worse: By the early '90s Cameron's grandiose vision would wholly consume his early knack for story and character, and only Paxton would really emerge from the supporting cast to develop as a leading man. (Henn never acted onscreen again.) The Alien franchise would stumble with the likes of David Fincher's bloated, murky Alien 3 and glorified B-trash Alien vs. Predator. The forthcoming prequel, Prometheus, pledges a return to Scott's style and mood, but for my money, Aliens set the bar unimpeachably high for what a sci-fi film can be: Brilliantly choreographed action, sympathetic characters, exquisite cinematography and set design, awesome creature, and unexpected detours into horror, dark comedy, proto-Avatar/Reagan-era social commentary ("You know, Burke, I don't know which species is worse: You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage"), and even feminist chamber drama. It's got everything! And it sticks the landing in the third act. Such a classic.

Anyway, your mileage may vary. Send along any anniversary regards or differences in the comments.


  • Jeri says:

    Aliens best Sci-fi movie ever made. I watch it whenever its on. Congrads

  • Serg says:

    A couple other points, the James Horner score is beyond classic. How many movie trailers later were made using the same music from this film, lots.
    Also, it is interesting to point that Weaver actually acquired a Best Actress Nomination for her role as Ripley. But most interestingly for me is how it was one of those rare films for me that brought the attention of the double climax. Particularly giving the movie audience the illusion that the movie has ended with the villain's demise, only to show that the queen has hitched a ride to the Sulaco making it necessary for Ripley to battle it once more.
    Awesome stuff.

  • CiscoMan says:

    The fact that Weaver got an acting nomination for a film in this particular mix of genres speaks volumes about the strengths of the film, and in particular Cameron's writing. Every now and again I'll see films try to cobble together similar elements and fall flat. I'm looking at you, Michael Bay.

  • Bonny Appaswamy says:

    Funnily I only finished watching James Cameron's Aliens exactly three days ago after about 20 years. I thought it still kicked ass it did all those years ago when I first watched it. Ms. Weaver was impressive as usual. One of the best sci-fi movies ever.

  • The double climax is so fantastic. It's like a noir ending: You think they've wrapped it up, and there's one more twist. And the callout to earlier, too -- with Bishop's blood dripping before the reveal -- is utter genius.
    I mean, is there _anything_ wrong with that movie?

  • Dimo says:

    There are very few movies where 25 years later I can still remember the exact date I saw it. August 29, 1986. Oh man, I fucking love this movie! For me, it's Cameron's true masterpiece. I feel like I had a full on junior high school love affair with it. I bought a Laser Disc player just so I could see the extended version. So yeah, I was clinically insane for Aliens...still am!

  • i agree. this is one of my favorite sci-fi movies, ever. by a landslide.

  • Tommy says:

    My brother took me to see Alien³ in the movie theater and I enjoyed it. I had seen the first movie on cable and thought it was the best horror film ever made. But I hadn't seen the second movie, so I didn't know who the people were that Ripley was so torn up about losing. I went to see Alien³ again a couple of weeks later with a friend of mine. I really enjoyed that film.
    Then a couple of years later, I finally saw Aliens. And I have never been able to sit through more than 5 minutes of Alien³ since. Aliens was the perfect movie, mother vs. mother, a chance at love for Ripley (why the hell does Michael Biehn have to die in every sci-fi movie?), and easily the best action movie ever filmed. I cannot understand why David Fincher felt the need to kill everyone - especially Newt - when that was what made the second movie so phenomenal.
    Sorry to rant, but every time I think of Aliens, I think of how Fincher destroyed it afterwards.

  • Anon says:

    Serg, the Aliens Making Of disc in the Quadrology is outstanding and has an amazing interview with James Horner where he bluntly explains how Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd made unrealistic demands on him as a composer. The climactic cue of Ripley pulling herself up the airlock ladder was written at the very, very, very end of post-production. I believe Horner was on some sort of 60-hour writing/composing session, then tacked what he had onto the movie less than two weeks before it was released. And, as Hurd notes, that cue was subsequently used in every movie trailer for most of the 90s.
    Stu, for me, there's one thing wrong with the movie, specifically the director's cut. Showing Newt's parents go to the ship was a mistake. It robs Newt of her mysterious survival instinct. Seeing her early in the movie -- teasing her brother, screaming when her parents come back -- adds narrative value, I suppose. But I don't really need to know that her parents brought the first face-hugger back to the terra formers, nor do I need to meet Timmy.
    And what we lose from her character is invaluable. I don't believe the Newt in that scene is tough enough to survive an alien onslaught. Just like I didn't believe the annoying kid in Jurassic Park 3 could survive long enough for William H. Macy and Tea Leoni to rescue him. But in the theatrical cut, when we meet Newt at the 40 minute mark, she's much more interesting and believable as an already shell-shocked orphan.
    That having been said, there's a lot to the director's cut that is all kinds of awesome. Ripley seeing a picture of her daughter as an old woman is now an essential part of her dramatic arc to me and those motion sensor guns kick major ass.
    I was obsessed with this movie through middle and high school. Because I didn't have a laserdisc player, I was consigned to a bad VHS dub of the movie off HBO. So I watched the CBS broadcast premiere just to see a decent pan-and-scan version of the movie. And I couldn't believe what I was seeing when the motion sensor sequence played out. It's like when you hear an early outtake of your favorite song and you're like, "There's two extra verses?!"

  • The WInchester says:

    After years of wearing out my VHS copy, and scratching up my disc from the Quadrilogy (These movies are so awesome, we gotta make up a new word for them!), I finally managed to see Aliens on a big screen about 6 years ago, and I'll be damned, I found myself gripping my seat with tension during key scenes. Key scenes I had seen countless times before and knew the outcome of, but I'll be damned what masterful filmmaking on display.
    And Tommy Marx, there are a LOT of cooks in the kitchen that ruined part 3, your ire shouldn't stick solely to Fincher as there is plenty of blame to go around.

  • Does it make me any less of a fan if I've never seen the director's cut? I specifically avoided it upon hearing about the Newt-family arc. Noooo thanks. The rest sounds cool, but I hold that initial viewing experience so dear that to compromise it in the slightest seems nothing less than heretical.

  • Allan says:

    Alien 3 wasn't a bad film, it just wasn't as great as the first two. Nonetheless it needed to exist. Without Alien 3 there would be no Seven. The lessons learned from making Alien 3 allowed Fincher to give us Seven. It's worth it.

  • Dimo says:

    I hear ya on not mucking up your original experience, but the Alien freak in me had to see it. Like Anon stated, when It was broadcast on CBS, and I had no idea the added scenes were coming, I went bananas. (They did not include the opening with Newt, that was only on laser disc) I had read the novelization, and knew what was missing. Having said all that, the original cut is still the best.
    Also, the soundtrack has some of the same music that Horner used in Wrath of Khan.

  • Anon says:

    Actually, I think it makes you MORE of a fan. It's worth watching, though, as an object lesson for Cameron's head-scratching choices later. Jamie Lee Curtis' sexy/rapey pole dance. Act 3 of The Abyss. And it's a reminder that some of the best editorial choices are accidents. In the Making Of, Hurd explains why the "Newt parents" sequence was cut: Cameron's director's cut came in too long and they had a contractual obligation to deliver a shorter cut so 20th could get in 5 screenings a day.
    You know what? Just watch the Making Of, you'll get the idea without having to sully your memory of the film. Plus, you'll see Carrie Henn talk about getting teased in college for "They mostly come out at night... mostly." And Cameron gives the BEST smackdown to 3 and 4 when he says (quoting very roughly), "Sigourney gave me her script notes. First, she wanted all the guns taken out. Second, she wanted to have sex with one of the aliens. Third, she wanted to die at the end. I said no, no and no. For the sequels, she basically got her way on everything and... well, you can see how that turned out."

  • Tommy says:

    Good to know.

  • Tommy says:

    Seven was an excellent movie. Fight Club is one of my favorite movies of all time. But I wish he hadn't had to kill Newt to get to make those movies. I really loved that kid.

  • John says:

    I'm an absolute nut for this movie. I've seen it dozens of times, including 4 times on the big screen; the summer it came out I saw it at West point with a theater full of bloodthirsty cadets who screamed and cheered every time someone cut loose with a Pulse Rifle.
    I just attended the anniversary screening in LA at the New Beverly, and Biehn, Henrickson, Goldstein, Rolston and Ross were there (aka Hicks, Bishop, Vasquez, Drake and Frost). It was a great Q&A and they told some really funny (and off-color) stories.

  • Lorie says:

    "I remember this movie like it came out yesterday..." Me, too! Thanks for reminding me of the anniversary. Roger Ebert complained once how theater owners turned down the aperture to save money. He used to carry a light meter and if it was too low would make management change it. I never knew how dark my particular theater had shown "Aliens" until much later. Now when "Aliens" is on tv, I'm still surprised at how much of the movie I missed in the theater(to see the background during the rain before and after the Marines entered the complex is one example). Nevertheless, "Aliens" is one of the greatest movies I've ever seen.

  • KevyB says:

    Aliens was so good that Steven Spielberg remade it! Saving Private Ryan! Military fighters arrive in weird vehicles onto a foreign soil and one-by-one get killed off by the nasty aliens until the final battle where our hero saves the little blond sole survivor of a family all killed by the nasty aliens. Except he made the android who gets killed in the end into Tom Hanks and gave him a stupid speech, and he made Newt into Matt Damon and made him an attempted rapist d-bag.

  • casting couch says:

    An absolute classic. The theatrical version is by far the superior movie -- the pacing is just perfect in the original cut (and the branching DVD is the model all director's/special editions should follow).
    Only the Bishop stage hole at the climax of the movie needs fixing with a CG assist. This is another example of movies they unfortunately don't make anymore.

  • Shaheen says:

    The first 18 rated movie i saw at the pictures , i was about 15 (shhh) , and it blew me away . Still love it . That summer of 1986 was great!!!