"Aliens"

Released July 18, 1986
Directed by James Cameron

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

We’ve cheered for many cinematic heroines over our lifetimes, particularly in the past few years, as women are headlining action, adventure and superhero films more and more. But even more than 30 years later, Sigourney Weaver’s journey as Ellen Ripley in “Aliens” uniquely stands tall among her peers.

Ripley was introduced in 1979’s “Alien” as a member of a space mining crew in middle management. The team is in cryosleep at the beginning of the film, only awakened by the ship’s computer “Mother” when they near a planet with a downed spaceship. They’re ordered to investigate, and it isn’t long before the mining team is in completely over the heads as a predatory xenomorph is on their vessel with them.

As we are introduced to the Nostromo crew of “Alien,” we learn that Ripley is quiet but firm and pragmatic. She’s not always heard. When command of the Nostromus falls to her and John Hurt’s character has been snared by a facehugger, it’s Ripley who follows the procedure for quarantine. Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) ignores the order and let’s Hurt and crew back on the ship. Later on when the alien xemomorph is reeking havoc and Ash’s motives are revealed, it’s clear that Ripley was right, although she barely escapes with her life as a reward.

As “Alien” concludes, Ripley puts herself into cryosleep, but as “Aliens” opens, she’s been asleep (and adrift in space) for decades. Once she’s found, the Corporation she worked for questions her, and she remains traumatized by the events of the first film. Nobody believes her, and there’s even a settlement of 60 people living on the planet where the original ship was found, and they don’t seem to have any problems.

Until they do, months later, as communications with the settlement have gone silent. The Corporation wants to send a team of space Marines to investigate, and Ripley to consult on the mission. But going back is the last thing is the last thing Ripley wants, as she still wakes up terrorized by nightmares from her past trauma. The Corporation has also unofficially demoted Ripley to dock work since she’s been back.

“It’s good that you’re keeping busy,” says Burke, a rep from the Corporation who asks Ripley to return to the alien settlement, passively insulting Ripley into doing what he wants. “Also, I know it’s the only job you could get. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Burke’s pitch to Ripley opens a chance to face her fears and move on with her life, and she takes it. Soon, she’s waking up next to a group of space Marines (amusingly commanded by Apone, who wakes from cryosleep and immediately starts chomping on the cigar he kept in the pod with him) en route to the settlement. The Marines are confidant and cocky, ready to demolish their obstacles on what they assume is another routine mission.

But Ripley fears the Marines are underestimating how capable the alien xemomorph is. Once again, she’s proved right, as the Marines are completely outmatched by not just one xemomorph, but an entire colony filled with aliens.

Female heroes are standing tall in films and television these days, from “Game of Thrones” to the Star Wars, Marvel and Wonder Woman franchises. In many cases, the women who rise to the occasions are always ready for action and capable of handling themselves from the outset. Sure, they will have obstacles and challenges they must overcome in their journeys, but more often than not, our action heroines have already seen some action. Wonder Woman, after all, is already born an Amazon.

Ripley endures as a hero not because of her kung fu skills or superpowers, but because she is remarkably human in the way she faces her doubts and fears to overcome them. While she’s wary about returning to the settlement in “Aliens,” the group comes across a small girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) who survived the aliens roaming about and becomes a maternal figure for the child. It is in that relationship where Ripley centers herself with a small mission to care for Newt, and finds the courage to do whatever it takes to protect her.

The story is all there, but it may have been forgotten if not for Weaver’s extraordinary performance as Ripley. Watch her face as she explores the human colony behind the Marines for the first time, eyes wide with terror as she scans the darkness to try and see through every corner she can. Fast-forward 90 minutes, and there’s a visible difference in emotion as Ripley prepares herself to walk into an alien nest alone. It’s inspiring, an undeniable historic performance that netted Weaver a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards.

Ripley’s journey in “Aliens” is enough to make this a great film, but as it happens, everything else in the movie is executed so well that it’s still lauded as one of Hollywood’s best sequels. Director James Cameron, fresh of the success of 1984’s “The Terminator,” was handed the reigns to the “Alien” sequel six years later. Cameron makes one of the best decisions of his career to pivot the genre of the original film – sci fi horror – to action, with the addition of multiple aliens and Marines, thereby raising the stakes while keeping audiences on their toes. Over 30 years later, it’s amazing that it worked so well, and that the studio 20th Century Fox even let it happen. Hollywood sequels, even when done well, demand more of the same, so the side step of “Alien” and “Aliens” feels like an Indiana Jones movie about a murder mystery, or maybe the Avengers showing up in a Conjuring film.

We also can’t talk about “Aliens” without mentioning how excellent the cast is as well, from Michael Biehn as Hicks, Lance Henriksen as Bishop, Jenette Goldstein as Vasquez and Paul Reiser as Burke. In a supporting role, Bill Paxton delivers his breakout performance as Hudson, and damn near steals the movie with reactions and quotes. Everybody quotes “Game over, man!” but I’ve always been a fan of “We’re in some real pretty shit now.”

In fact, as the shit gets really pretty for everyone involved, Ripley rises to the occasion and becomes an authority to the surviving Marines, now led by Hicks. Hudson’s fear after the attack threatens to overwhelm him at times, but he finds a way to pull it together when it matters. Newt, a little girl, controls her fear as well as anybody can be expected to, as it becomes a means to her survival.

Again and again, the characters of “Aliens” are knocked back into impossible scenarios, and they show that courage is not the absence of fear, but dealing with fear and moving forward anyway.

Ripley faces her ultimate test in the climax of the film, as she heads into the nest of the xemomorphs alone only to discover they have a queen of their own. In that moment, we see mother face off against mother; the Alien Queen amongst her progeny, and Ripley with her surrogate daughter in her arms. That’s when rage and vengeance take over, and two mothers contend for their own survival as the other demands blood for sins past.

From start to finish, “Aliens” goes big for Hollywood blockbuster status, and it excels in its task at every level. It manages to become a perfect flip side of the coin it shares with “Alien,” as two different approaches to the material have combined to become science fiction cinema’s ultimate one-two knockout punch.

While 20th Century Fox continued to return to the Alien franchise in the future, it never matched its critical success after “Aliens.” There are plenty of reasons for this, but one rarely mentioned: None of them ever completed Ripley’s journey.

In “Alien,” Ripley becomes a survivor. In “Aliens,” she becomes a hero.

The Legacy: As mentioned, other Alien movies have continued the franchise, but none of them ever come close to matching the canonical first two. Ridley Scott, director of the original “Alien,” returned to helm a few prequel films that have their moments, but ultimately fail to be consistently intelligent and innovative as the first two.

Cameron follows up “Aliens” with the underrated “The Abyss,” and then basically becomes the biggest box office director of all time with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “True Lies,” “Titanic” and “Avatar.” He’s currently directing several additional Avatar films, but if “Aliens” and “T2” are anything to go by, Cameron has established high standards for sequels for himself.

The Weekend: Blockbuster fanatics often look to the first weekend of May, Memorial Day or the July 4th weekend for the major releases, but the third weekend of July has become a stealth release date for acclaimed blockbusters. “There’s Something About Mary” was released on July 17, 1999, “The Dark Knight” was unleashed on July 18, 2008 (Director Christopher Nolan would release three more of his films during this weekend in the future as well), and “The Conjuring” bowed on July 19, 2013. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Girls Trip” also debuted here during their respect releases in 2009, 2011 and 2017.

Next Week: “Die Hard”