In the opening scenes, Ripley, who's been drifting through space (in hypersleep) for 57 years, is rescued and put up in a cramped, fluorescent-lit way station. She keeps having nightmares about things bursting through her stomach, and her mood isn't helped when she's dragged before company investigators who don't quite buy her story about why her ship, the Nostromo, disappeared and why she was the only survivor. As it happens, the alien planet has since been colonized by a group of 60-odd families, who haven't reported any trouble. But now something mysterious has happened: all communication from the colony -- known as LV 426 -- has ceased, and Ripley is asked to accompany a platoon of Marines to the site and act as their "adviser." (Her decision to go, after a minimum of arm twisting, is the one contrivance -- it would take a lot more than bureaucratic threats to make someone who's lived through what she did go back for more.) The Marines are a bracingly up-to-the-minute, B-movie bunch. There's the cigar-chomping black commanding officer (Al Matthews); a Latino female bodybuilder (Jenette Goldstein) who can outmacho her comrades; a wisecracking Southerner (Bill Paxton) who turns out to be a shivery coward; and the cool-headed blond hero, Hicks (Michael Biehn, from The Terminator), who becomes Ripley's brother in arms. Also along for the ride are Lance Henriksen as a quizzical, android ("I prefer the term 'artificial person; myself," he explains) and Paul Reiser (Modell in Diner) as a smarmy young corporate type who clearly has some horrendous scheme up his sleeve.
In a brash comic move, Cameron satirizes the Reaganite bravado films like Top Gun serve up shamelessly straight. He doesn't even have to put a spin on the military-hipster boasting; all he does is show the soldiers, who think they're going to demolish whatever's on that planet pronto, loading up their guns and dropping locker-room patter like "We're ready to rock and roll!" as we sit there and think "Cool it, folks -- the alien is about to rock and roll your ass." This section helps take any gung-ho edge off the combat that follows. When the members of the increasingly disoriented platoon succeed at knocking off one of the spindly, nightmare creatures, you're caught between cheering and letting out a sigh of relief. Like the first movie, Aliens is about the folly of male braggadocio. It's the woman -- Sigourney Weaver's Ripley -- who has the know-how and the sheer tight-lipped will to see the ghastly battle through to its end. This is Weaver's finest screen work to date. She was smashing in Alien, too (her first movie), but here she gets to express not only the cool-headed daring that was so winning before but the deadly fear that comes of having lived through an alien battle already. Weaver's patrician reserve makes her an ideal action heroine, but she's no strutting tomboy. Her wide jaw and bright, alert eyes frame a face that's startlingly open; it becomes a canvas for expressing primal emotions. She's the pillar, the soul of this movie, whether she's taking in horrors unforeseen, letting a hint of romantic warmth seep into her scenes with costar Biehn, or playing surrogate mother to the only surviving human in the colony, a tough, pretty, bedraggled little girl of about five who goes by the name of Newt (she's like a counterpart to The Road Warrior's Feral Kid, and also may be a nod to the little girl in the '50s giant-ant thriller Them!).