Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
There’s no doubt that the 1980s represented the first golden age of what we collectively have come to think of as the classical “film sequel.” We’re talking about the era of endless numerically titled sequels—your Rocky IVs and Friday the 13th Part VIIs—unified by a simple, common ethos that could be roughly translated as “bigger” and “more.” A sequel of the 1980s was expected to take a potential franchise into new territory, forever raising the stakes and upping the production value, body count and sheer wow factor. It was an era where there could be little doubt that bigger was better, and there may be no more perfect example than James Cameron’s Aliens, frequently hailed as one of the best pure film sequels of all time.
And yet, Aliens is also more than just a money-grubbing sequel that struggles to justify its own existence, of which this decade had too many to count. It’s also a textbook example of its director’s strongest assets as a filmmaker, and a readymade example of how one can “raise the stakes” in a franchise sequel by reframing the story of the original within a new genre twist. Where Ridley Scott’s Alien horrified the audiences of 1979 with its slow-burning, claustrophobic tension, pioneering production design and cat-and-mouse finale, Aliens instead raised heart rates with an injection of pure adrenaline, balancing morbid humor and endearing characters with a second helping of H.R. Giger-inspired nightmare fuel. “Action horror” has never truly been codified as a subgenre, but if it was, Aliens would no doubt be considered its foundational text.
Key to the whole thing is of course the starring performance of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, featured significantly more prominently here than in the original Alien. From its first images of our protagonist in cryo-stasis, a Rip Van Winkle who awakens to learn that her old life has long since passed, and even her daughter has grown old and died during her silent voyage, it is clear that Cameron intends for Ripley to become an iconic heroine. Brusquely capable, unwilling to be spoken down to, but understandably shaken with trauma after the horrific events of the Nostromo, she wants no part in another misadventure involving acid-blooded aliens, but is insidiously roped into the mission by a carrot of redemption dangled by slick company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). In doing so, Cameron preserves the most important core theme of Scott’s film, and ultimately the Alien series—the uncaring, soulless and deadly nature of corporate bureaucracy run rampant. The machinations of “the corporation” form a perfect backdrop for Ripley’s empathetic heroism.
But naturally, a protagonist is only as endearing as their supporting cast allows them to be, and that’s where Aliens finds immortality in the pop cultural consciousness. Its rowdy, foul-mouthed crew of colonial “space marines” established a sci-fi archetype that became foundational bedrock for future depictions of the military in science fiction, cribbing some of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers aesthetic while imbuing each character with a memorable personality of their own. To a fan of Aliens, the face of each distinct marine swims to mind effortlessly, from the swaggering false bravado of Hudson (Bill Paxton) or the detached cool of Hicks (Michael Biehn), to cigar-chomping alpha dog Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews) or “just too bad” toughness of Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). They radiate a sense of easy familiarity and lived-in camaraderie that has rarely been captured on screen before or since, imbuing the audience with just enough false hope that maybe this group of soldiers won’t be in over their heads when tackling an infestation of xenomorphs. And on that count, the audience is of course wrong. Even with their “phased plasma rifles,” these grunts are in for a bad time.
With its resulting swarm of xenos, Aliens acknowledges the principle known online as the inverse ninja law, before it had ever been coined—a single alien is a terrifying, stealthy nightmare that stalks in darkness and haunts the dreams of every audience member. A horde of aliens, on the other hand, are less individually frightening, and come off as less individually capable, but Cameron counters this perception by making our crew of protagonists much more dangerous this time around than Ripley’s original crew of the Nostromo. He ups the ante not just by putting more aliens on screen, and giving the xenos more screentime, but by creating a more fairly balanced clash of combatants. Likewise, the addition of the alien queen is a masterstroke of worldbuilding, allowing the alien horde to have its own, sinister monarch implied to be controlling these events from behind the scenes, in addition to giving Ripley the ideal “final boss” encounter. It’s one of the few times when a desire to be “bigger and better” than the original can be said to have been entirely effective, along with the likes of Cameron’s own Terminator 2. The man simply possesses a talent for scaling up.
Today, Aliens exists in that limited pantheon of sequels of this era that are considered by many to be on par or even superior to an iconic original, although directly comparing the merits of Alien and Aliens can be a fruitless endeavor. The first is among the greatest films of its kind, and the latter can say the same. The legacy of each continues to be obvious in how often both are emulated to this day—only months ago, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead effectively tried to remake Aliens from the ground up, illustrating both the greatness of this film and the fact that an Aliens clone isn’t so easily achieved. In the end, there’s only one Ellen Ripley.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.