This article originally appeared in the July 22, 1986 issueof the Boston Phoenix.
Aliens is a horror-film spectacular, a dark and exhilarating epic that keeps building. The first Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, was so viscerally upsetting it seemed to thrust the genre into a new dimension of clinical creepiness. The film evoked primal fears: a scaly crablike creature plastered to a man's face, a snarling, gelatinous fetus ripping through his stomach, a skeletal demon with teeth that shuddered and dropped and moved forward to eat you like some organic machine -- Alien was a gothic psycho-sexual nightmare, a compendium of acid-trip terrors designed to grip your intestines and wreak havoc on your subconscious. James Cameron, the writer/director of Aliens (at Cinema 57 and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs), has made a canny but daring movie: he's elected not to up the ante on the first film's aura of apocalyptic dread, it's whole this-can't-be-happening atmosphere. (If he'd tried and succeeded, devising even gaudier mind-fucks, they might have had to cart people away from the movie in ambulances.) Aliens is more of a straightahead action film, with Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and a team of Marines hitching up their flame throwers and grenade launchers to take on an entire army of oozing, teeth-baring creepy-crawlies. It would be a mistake, though, to infer that the movie is simply a gunfight at monster corral, a Rambo with extraterrestrials. This is a horror film. Cameron understands what the makers of the Friday the 13th potboilers have long forgotten -- that true horror buffs want a sense of revelation mixed into the brew. Between the shocks and the thrills, the showdown between human good and supernatural evil, we want to taste a little awe.
There was a trap built into the first film's structure. Part of what so terrified you was the idea that the parasitical creature was ever-changing; you never knew what it was going to look like next, or what part of the body it was going to invade. But by the second half it had undergone its final metamorphosis, and the story settled into too predictable a pattern: alien approaching on the beep meter, crew member being devoured. Cameron, who made The Terminator, isn't a science-fiction poet; he doesn't have Ridley Scott's genius for setting, for bringing out the sinister, claustrophobic beauty of rainy-decadent high-tech landscapes. A far sunnier fellow, Cameron is probably the first filmmaker to make a retro-future universe feel spunky. (That's one of the reasons The Terminator had such mass appeal: for a movie about a humanoid destruction machine, it was essentially light-hearted -- a deadpan comedy.) Apart from that, the story Cameron has devised for Aliens is more sustained, full of more satisfying surprises, than the one in the first movie. He also does what Scott, with his fondness for bathing everything in shadow and silvery light, didn't allow: he let us feast our eyes on the aliens in all their yucky glory (and the plural title is no joke -- there are hundreds of these suckers).