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Aliens (1986)
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ALIENS (1986)

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton

Written By: James Cameron (also story), David Giler (story), Walter Hill (story) Directed By: James Cameron

The Short Version

An all-time classic gets itself an extremely popular sequel to which it bears only a little resemblance.

Without question, there are some highly classic moments to be found here.

Looking beyond those specific moments, though, Aliens feels like slogging through a checklist.

Of course, if you measure fun purely by explosions, your mileage may vary.

I know that mine’s the minority view, but I just can’t get excited about Aliens.

The Long Version

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Even more overhyped and overpromoted today than it was back in 1986… just like Aliens.

“Get away from her, you bitch!”

To most of my colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, Aliens is easily the best film in the series it represents.  What’s more, it appears on roughly a million “Top 100” lists, and even sits as high as Number One with certain action fans and even some critics.  Entertainment Weekly magazine (which ranked Aliens at #42) hailed it as “the greatest pure action movie ever.”

I disagree with all of them.

Out of all of the Alien movies – including the Predator crossovers – Aliens is the one I’m most likely to pick up last.  If I bothered to make a “Top 100” list, I can guarantee that Aliens wouldn’t be on it, and I definitely wouldn’t consider it one of the greatest action movies ever, much less the greatest.

My, those are some shiny farm implements and pulse rifles many of you have pointed my way.

It’s not that I think Aliens is bad, really.  It’s just that every time I’ve watched it over the past several years, I’ve felt like I’ve been looking at an overblown Michael Bay movie made long before there was such a thing (though Bay could be found playing “Goon #3” on TV’s “Miami Vice” back in ‘86).  Not even a movie, really…

It’s like I’m watching a product.  And while I’m sure many of you will point out that in business terms, all movies are products, in artistic terms, they really aren’t the same thing.   (I suddenly have visions of long lines stretching around the corner waiting for the latest launch at The Aliens Store.  Apone 4S, anyone?  Now featuring the innovative “Mother” voice recognition system!  Beware Android imitators; Bishop must be a plant…)

Without question, Aliens is a product with some truly classic moments.  I do have a pulse, so of course I enjoy it when Sigourney Weaver steps out in her loader frame and utters the line up top.  I smile when Lance Henriksen’s Bishop pulls out the knife and starts the lightning round.  And I’ve certainly done my share of repeating the phrase “Game over, man!”

But outside of those moments and a few others, I just can’t get excited or enthused about Aliens.  Maybe it’s because every time I’ve seen this movie, I’ve come away with a headache.  One of the major catalysts of the praise-fests that are most of the reviews of Aliens is the fact that when this flick promises “non-stop action,” it means it once all of the setup has run its course.  It literally never stops; the cuts and cameras are chaotic, and if you want to breathe, forget it.  What I find curious here is that when Michael Bay would pull the same thing twenty years later, he’d be widely (and justifiably) slammed for it as “action overload.”  And while Cameron’s technique is generally superior to Bay’s (though some thanks, I think, must be given for the fact that at the time of Aliens, he doesn’t have the crutch of total CGI to fall back on), the principle – and the brain puree effect – is the same.  The best action movies always give the audience a chance to breathe and a chance to process it all from time to time, but that last hour-plus of Aliens?  Not so much.

It is, indeed, the antithesis of the movie to which it is supposed to be the sequel.

Of course, this is on purpose.  When James Cameron was asked to put together the screenplay, he deliberately made it a point to head off in a completely different direction than the original film went in, looking at more traditional sequels as “remakes,” which he didn’t want.  The thing is, though, he’s making a sequel to one of the finest pieces of horror/suspense ever made, and frankly, Aliens is neither “horror” nor “suspense.”  It’s just flat-out action that barely resembles the original film at all, and frankly, if you were already a fan of the first one, it’s jarring.  (Indeed, with but one exception, everyone I know personally who rates Aliens as the best in the series saw this flick before the original.  That, I think, is telling.)  I will certainly give James Cameron credit for keeping consistent where it counts – which is to say, with the character of Ellen Ripley – but beyond that… no, this is not the world I remember, no matter how many familiar names are used.  Change Ripley’s name and change the creature design, and this movie could be literally anything.  (Like, say, Heinlein.  Can you say Starship Troopers eleven years early?)  That’s how loose of a follow-up it is.  Marines?  Guns?  Really?

It also doesn’t help that there’s just no tension whatsoever here.  Seriously; is there anything about Aliens that doesn’t follow a formula and go exactly on schedule, be it a plot point or an explosion?  Is anything ever in doubt?  I’m always floored when I hear people say how deep this movie is.  This isn’t a plot; this is a checklist.  A very long, very exhausting checklist.  Of course these allegedly professional soldiers are going to open fire in a hazardous area when they’ve been ordered explicitly not to.  When the little kid falls through the vent system and into the middle of the aliens’ lair, I groaned, because you knew it was going to happen the moment she was introduced.  (The only reason to introduce a kid here is to threaten her later, which is a plot device that I am way beyond sick of.  Small children don’t belong in these movies.  They just don’t.)  You never wonder what’s around the corner; you always know.  And while predictability is commonplace enough in action films, it hardly defines anything that deserves to be called “the best,” and again, it just feels wrong as the follow up to one of the most suspenseful flicks ever made.

But… it’s not bad.  Sure, every character not named “Ripley” is flat, but they’re all decent enough to watch.  I’m certainly not going to complain about the acting, especially the good stuff from Lance Henriksen.  Sure, every explosion happens exactly on cue, but they’re nice explosions.  In short, Aliens is a fairly good, flashy action flick that ran a little too long even before the extended edition came out on home video but that’s worth the look anyway, provided that you’ve got some aspirin on hand.  It is a well-manufactured product made without any sense of irony at all by a man whose works – including this one – love to paint corporate giants as evil but who is himself flagrantly commercial in his approach to filmmaking.

It is Common Hollywood in a nutshell, with the emphasis on “common.”  It is good, for a middling value thereof.  What it is not is “the greatest.”

Of course, there are legions out there inclined to disagree with this assessment, and that’s fine.  But with that being the case, since those people would thus seem inclined to watch Aliens again at some point, I invite them just think about it while they’re watching.  That’s all.  Regardless of what conclusions may be drawn, if I can get someone to think, I’ve done my job.

Bottom line, though it has taken its place as the most popular film in the series, I just can’t sit through Aliens without getting a headache.  It’s perfectly serviceable as a standard if overblown action flick, but it’s definitely not making my “Top 100” list anytime soon.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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