Motherhood is the movie's fulcrum: Ripley becomes Newt's selfless protector, and the demon at the end of the rainbow turns out to be a mother herself -- the gargantuan queen-bee alien, who towers over the premises like some black-boned pterodactyl exhibit come to life, as eggs come plopping out of her tunnel-like womb. It's fitting that the movie leads up to a monster this obscenely grand, because the other creatures -- her endless brood -- don't constitute the spine-chilling threat the alien did in the first film. That single monster was essentially invincible; here, one good shot in the solar plexus with a 10 mm bullet and each alien is history (though you do have to watch out for the yellow-acid blood that comes spraying out of their wounds). What makes Aliens so scary and satisfying is Cameron's direction: he's a suspense virtuoso, and the multileveled industrial maze (designed by Peter Lamont) where most of the action unfurls becomes his neon-blue playground.
The first half builds slowly; Cameron knows that most of us have seen Alien, and so the tension is practically built in. Then he introduces disorientation tactics. His camera placement can make a viewer feel as vulnerable as the crew members, and when he shows you the action through infrared video monitors (a terminator-eye view), it evokes a queasy sense of helplessness. In Alien, the way the thing kept showing up in different parts of the ship seemed a bit of a cheat. Here, there are so many of them, the sense of shock and horror doesn't flag, it escalates. In the single most terrifying sequence, Ripley and Newt have to fight off one of the intermediate-stage "face huggers," which whips around the room like Speedy Gonzales. It comes straight at Ripley, who holds it just inches away from her face, the spiderish fingers clicking back and forth, the icky gestation tube aiming right for her mouth. And that's only the beginning. In the final 45 minutes, Cameron holds the audience in a kind of spell -- poised between fear and amazement. The aliens poke around corners, they go surging through endless air ducts a few steps behind our heroes, and, in one bravura moment, they come trooping in atop a metal-grid ceiling, as quiet as mice. In this superbly unsettling vision, at once ominous and funny, Aliens achieves what only the best monster movies do -- it makes terror rhapsodic.
The film would be even better if there were a little more meat to its interpersonal drama. Cameron is best with thumbnail-sketch characters, like the heroine's ditso roommate in The Terminator, always plugged into her Walkman. Here, the platoon members fade too quickly into the background. Aside from the charismatic Michael Biehn, the standouts are the cartoons: Lance Henriksen's polite, popeyed android and Paul Reiser's Burke, who's the same sort of buttoned-up saboteur Donald Pleasence played in Fantastic Voyage. Making this character a 25ish yuppie was an inspired idea, and Reiser does an impeccable satirical turn: this slimy corporate go-getter is so utterly amoral he doesn't even get scared. (He's the real droid.) And Cameron knows how to strew an action film with deadpan one-liners that keep the atmosphere crisp. When the Marines, surrounded by aliens, are instructed not to fire their weapons lest they set off a thermonuclear explosion, one of them shoots back, "What the hell are we supposed to use -- harsh language?" The only gag I think backfires comes late in the film, when Ripley, facing off against the queen alien, screams "You bitch!" It's too cute, like those perennial jokes in which the punch line refers to God as "she." But Cameron's missteps are few. The final showdown is a brilliantly staged variation on Ridley Scott's capper. As she battles the monster from within the armor of a power loader, Weaver, who gets to keep her clothes on this time, emits grunts of strain and triumph that are downright sexual. (When she looks at the monster and taunts "Come on!", you know you're watching the climax.) And the alien, at last, gets yanked into the light, a squirming, malevolent mass of limbs posed against a white airlock door, the ever resourceful Ripley struggling to evade her clutches. It's a star showdown if ever there was one.