Far in the future, a deep space salvage team find a lone craft floating aimlessly through the stars. On board, there's just one human inhabitant in suspended animation — Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the Nostromo, a mining ship that disappeared some 57 years earlier. Back on Earth, she tells her employers what happened, of the huge ship discovered on a deserted planet, and the alien parasite that was brought back onto the Nostromo and wiped the crew out one by one. Since this planet has now been colonised for some 20-odd years, Ripley’s story isn't believed and she loses her job. But when contact with the colonists is lost, Ripley is recruited as an advisor and sent back to the distant world alongside a platoon of trigger-happy marines.
Given that Aliens is a sci-fi film made in the mid-80s, it’s remarkable how little James Cameron’s thunderous sequel has dated. James Horner’s edgy orchestrations (in an age of nasty synth scores), the army uniforms, the fuck-off big machine guns and refusal to show too much technology (nothing ages a sci-fi film faster than computers that looked high-tech at the time but ridiculously old-fashioned 20 years later) all contribute to convincing futuristic effect. Maybe some of the ships and vehicles do look a little bit like models, but for those of us who don’t believe that CGI is always best, this is no bad thing.
With a lengthy running time (154 minutes in the DVD special edition), Cameron refuses to rush things — we’re nearing the hour mark before we even get a glimpse of an alien, and the marines’ slow search through the seemingly deserted colony is unbearably tense. But once these hideous black beasties begin their attack on the hopelessly outnumbered marines, there’s no let up. Unlike the stalking, indestructable predator of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), Cameron's creatures are fast-moving, slime-drooling killers, easily blown apart by a burst of automatic fire. Problem is, there's just so damn many of 'em! Previously invincible soldiers are reduced to hysterical wimps and it’s up to Weaver’s no-bullshit Ripley to fight back.
The visuals, pacing and intensely violent action are as impeccable and exciting as you’d expect from Cameron, but the real surprise here is the dialogue and characters... the writer/director is obviously a lot more comfortable humanising foul-mouthed marines than, say, the dewey-eyed lovers of Titanic. As a result, the likes of Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and William Hope have great fun playing macho and scared in equal measure, while Paul Reiser is suitably slimy as the company man sent to supervise the mission. The relationship between Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn), the little girl found alive on the base, is nicely handled, and Weaver herself plays one of the most distinctive female roles of modern cinema as a captivating mix of sexy and seriously bad-ass.
Canadian director and writer responsible for some of the most successful - and expensive - films of all time. Cameron, like many before him, began his career working for Roger Corman, for whom he made his directing debut in 1981 with the throwaway Piranha 2: Flying Killers. It was his second film, The Terminator, that revealed his talents as a director of intensely exciting action, making Arnold Schwarzenegger a movie star along the way. Aliens was that rare thing, a sequel as good as the original, while if The Abyss was an overambitious flop, then 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a superbly realised action epic featuring groundbreaking use of CGI.
Cameron teamed up with Schwarzenegger for a third time for the Bond-esque thriller True Lies, before releasing Titanic on the world in 1997, which despite a decidedly mixed critical reaction quickly became the biggest grossing film of all time. His TV venture Dark Angel wasn't wildly successful, but ever keen to push back the envelope of film technology, 2003's Ghost of the Abyss is a spectacular 3D documentary exploring the wreck of the Titanic, made for I-Max cinemas. After over a decade away from fiction, his sci-fi epic Avatar was such a success that it gave him two films in the top ten highest-grossing of all time list.