There is little doubt that Aliens is one of the best films in the massive American filmography. Like its predecessor, it is one of the few genuinely and universally appreciated films in the horror genre. As I share this similar sentiment for this film, I am spending this session of Hindsight Review less on reviewing the film itself and more-so on reviewing the film’s effect on cinema trends itself. Unlike The Babadook, in which I purposefully avoided spoilers due to its very recent release, I will not share such discretion on this older film, so be lightly warned if you’ve been living under a rock.
A quick review
Aliens was a genre-bending film by the now-revered/controversial James Cameron. Cameron is responsible for the two highest grossing films of all time, Titanic and Avatar. The former is critically acclaimed, while the latter is critically panned. Aliens was not Cameron’s first rodeo in the realm of action-horror, as he was the eye behind The Terminator (and its highly successful sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Some would argue Terminator isn’t really horror, but I would argue it had a rather horrific impact on some viewers during some of its more intense scenes. With Aliens, Cameron established a blend between the two genres that has never been equally repeated since. His vision brought to life some of the best practical effects we have ever seen put to film, creating a visceral, tangible environment that allowed the viewer to be fully engaged in the horror and action at the same time. It allowed the blend to be seamless, reaching a broader target market, rather than clashing with two separate target markets. Like a fine wine, Aliens has aged well, holding a timelessness that rivals that of Jurassic Park and Jaws. And while Hollywood has slaved over the formula, it has struggled to match the balance and overall quality of Aliens.
Aliens became the quintessential film for the action-horror genre. A relatively untouched genre combination, Aliens was setting the standard, placing the bar at Olympic heights. The film was taking the [steel] skeletal structure of Terminator and fleshing it out with acidic blood and bony protrusions. Cameron found a way to embrace the chills and atmosphere of Alien, while also applying a tight-knit war epic that eased off the horror just enough to make it bearable to those looking for a summer blockbuster. This model has been the base of many Hollywood stews, but the flavor has always been left wanting, shallow, or just downright despicable. Some films have found success, others have found a cult following, but all have been attempting to reach the status set by Aliens and nearly all fall short significantly of hitting the margin. The closest film was Predator, finding a blend of horror and action that has been appreciated more with time. It lacks the horror-edge of Aliens, focusing more on the soldier leads it has set up, but finds a balance that works for it and embraces it throughout. Films like Underworld, Resident Evil, Blade, and Pandorum have fallen short, all in different degrees and for different reasons. Resident Evil‘s direction led to a campiness that was irredeemable beyond its cult following that spawned countless exponentially-worsening sequels. Blade has the excuse of attempting to be loyal to its comic background, and of having the Spanish Sam Raimi (Guillermo Del Toro) as its director, which just added to the cheese of the franchise. Pandorum was determined to feed on its own psychosis to establish the balance, but it only alienated itself from the audience it was attempting to grasp. Underworld almost found the blend to reach Aliens status, but instead of stopping at the line in the sand that Predator did, Underworld lightened the horror so much and layered the action so heavily, that the scares and atmosphere miss their marks to the point of diluting any chance of establishing a proper blend. That was a really bad run-on sentence with a really good point. Re-read that.
Aliens not only established a genre that has never been fully realized except by its own accord, it also set the standard for what a sequel should be. Aliens took the original, punched it in the face, put ice on it, cleaned it up, then took it out to dinner. It paid homage, it paid its respects, then unabashedly took forks in the road the original was unable to take. It established claustrophobic atmosphere, it opened up the bloodgates, it pushed at every boundary to make it its own, while still providing vicious flashbacks of what was still haunting our nightmares. It tore out the pages of the original and pieced them together like a ransom note holding Ridley Scott hostage. There was a flawless balance between it being its own standalone film and being a perfect follow-up entry. Perhaps no sequel in history established such a strong beginning, middle, and end, that it was good enough to stand next to the original and not on its shoulders, while also making any sequel to it unwarranted. This model, again, Hollywood has failed to duplicate far more often than it has succeeded. What Aliens accomplished in one film, many now require two films to complete. Today’s obsession with trilogies has forced everyone to view films in threes. And as much as I enjoy Alien 3, it was an unnecessary mirror of the first film that didn’t push any new ground canonically or genuinely bow to the predecessor in any original way. Aliens made this virtually impossible, as the one-two punch of the first two films nullified the need for the uppercut to get the knockout. Audiences were already in love and already satisfied, that they did not need this last bottle rocket to finish the fireworks show. The middle film of a trilogy has become the mundane bridge between the origins and the climax of our protagonists. With only the Empire Strikes Back to rival its glory, Aliens established itself as its own film. It uses the soil that came before it to grow something new, but doesn’t need to wait for the weather of the third to blossom into its own. It is a craft that has become dead, or at the very least dormant. Sequels today, even decent ones, nearly admit they are riding the wave of the originals. The money-grabbing schemes are cheap, if effective. But it leads one to simply look back on the classic that was Aliens and truly appreciate grand film-making at its finest.