It’s a brave move making a sequel to a film that changes the tone, overall pace and direction, compared to the original. It’s an even braver move when you consider how good the original film actually is.
James Cameron does just that though. The original film was the perfect mix of science-fiction and horror. It was dark, slow and took its time to build the tension. John Hurt going through the alien nest, slowly and carefully, then the reaction as the egg finally opened, was just one example of how Ridley Scott managed to invoke the terror in the audience while keeping it simple.
James Cameron decides to take a different route though. Where Alien was a horror, more in the ilk of the slasher films like Halloween (change serial killer for alien and screaming teens for space miners,) Cameron makes Aliens a “base under siege” movie. It isn’t about a crew of a ship being taken apart, one by one, by an unseen force. Aliens is about a crew, under siege and waiting it out, hoping the Aliens don’t break through.
The result is that the tone is changed and the great, suspenseful terror is lost. Cameron’s film is much more action orientated. In Scott’s original, you never saw the Alien until the very end. In Cameron’s we get to see a lot of them, from very early on and it becomes more of a battle film, between soldiers and aliens, rather than a creepy, dark, scary horror movie.
The action scenes in Alien were very understated and few and far between. In the sequel, the action scenes come thick and fast, gun fights, facehugger attacks and huge final battle that never really reaches the same quality as the original. All the action scenes and the loss of the suspenseful and slow-build terror makes for a film that never really reaches the brilliance of the original. It’s not as scary and subsequently, not as original or as interesting.
There are some elements of the movie that do successfully echo the first. The characters in the sequel are as good as those in the original and what Scott does brilliantly is develop each person, so that you care about their outcome. Cameron does this too and it seems more successful because it’s a group of “crazy” marines. Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson is the perfect example of these characters, well-rounded and developed in a short amount of time.
It also has the genius inclusion of a small child, the little girl Newt. This raises any terror even further and you really want Ripley to succeed, particularly when the facehuggers are attacking or in the big climactic finale. It still isn’t as scary as the original though and that was what I loved about Alien, the fact I was unnerved and terrified throughout.
Overall, the more action orientated, battle-focused Aliens means that it is never as scary or brilliantly unnerving as the first. No scene manages to repeat the success of John Hurt in the nest or the chest-bursting scene in Alien. That’s not to say there isn’t some great characters and some very well filmed, memorable scenes, it just isn’t as good as the amazing original.
(1-3 – awful/avoid. 4-6 – average. 7-8 – good. 9-10 – fantastic.)