Built around the premise of Sigourney Weaver's character Ripley (from Ridley Scott's horror masterpiece "Alien") going back to face the primal alien beings on LV426 "Aliens" is a one of a kind film experience that transcends easy classification.
The film exists on at least a half dozen levels simultaneously: first rate action flick, Vietnam war parable, visionary sci-fi epic, old-school special effects bonanza, horror movie and redemptive tale while all the while churning toward its primary thesis about the transcendent power of family. But, like the Beatles, the movie is more than the sum of its parts as Cameron intertwines aspects of all those narrative types in complex and satisfying ways. Everything the director/writer places on the table at the beginning of the film turns out to be artifice which he then strips away scene by scene until we arrive at the heart of the matter. His genius here is to make the process of stripping away that artifice a thing to behold in and of itself. He paints his characters in broad strokes and doesn't get bogged down in moral relativism or irony (as in his breakout film "The Terminator" there is little doubt about who's bad and who's good) because that would only dilute what he's trying to say, and he doesn't pander to the audience by beating you over the head with his central thesis. If you miss "the point" the film can still be enjoyed for its myriad other attributes.
The film opens with Cameron paying homage to Scott: like the characters from the earlier film's "Nostromo" Ripley is gliding through the void in hypersleep. This is the sleep she entered after vanquishing the alien from her escape pod at the end of the previous film. Her tiny ship is recovered by a deep salvage crew who are disappointed that she's alive but deposit her at an earth orbiting space station to recover. While there she learns from company slime-ball Carter Burke that she had been drifting through space for 57 years. Later, she's hung out to dry at a corporate meeting for destroying the Nostromo and has her pilot's license yanked. She also learns that the company has had colonists living on LV426 for decades working to create a livable atmosphere for future settlers. When she asks a company honcho how many colonists there are Cameron tips his hand slightly by having the guy answer "I don't know, 40 maybe 50 families" to which Ripley softly replies "Families!"
Grounded and forced to do basically menial work after having her license revoked Ripley is haunted by nightmares of her alien foe and is as lost and adrift in her new home as she was on the escape pod. Soon though Burke arrives with Lieutenant Gorman to inform her that contact has been lost with the colony and to ask her to join them in going out there "as an adviser" to see whats happened. If she agrees the company will re-instate her as a pilot. She very reluctantly agrees.
Once the story moves back toward Ripley's personal hell the film kicks into another gear. Cameron is at the very top of his game here in every respect. Within a minute of the sleep chambers opening (as the Sulaco arrives in orbit around LV426) he has sketched in the basic outline of each new character. Like the artist that he is he then fleshes out those characters carefully and deliberately as the action moves to the surface where a little girl named "Newt" is discovered among the destruction. A bond quickly develops between this motherless waif and the childless Ripley.
The troop has a brief but traumatic encounter with the aliens in which Sargent Apone is killed and the team leader, the feckless Lieutenant Gorman, is incapacitated. In the aftermath of this debacle Burke attempts to assert company control over the operation but Ripley will have none of it. She reminds Burke that it's a military operation and that Corporal Hicks is next in the chain of command. The decision is made to evacuate and nuke the colony from orbit but an alien has infiltrated the waiting drop ship. As it's swooping in to pick them up the pilot is killed and the ship crashes nearly taking out Ripley and Co. in the process. As they retreat to mull their options the principle characters begin to assert themselves. Hicks, though obviously not interested in command, doesn't shrink from it either and soon he and Ripley form a working partnership of equals. Hicks' authority comes from his service rank and his cool demeanor. Ripley's authority is without rank or title. It's never spelled out or made official. It is also never in doubt. It is maternal authority; subtle yet unwavering, feminine yet rock solid. Weaver skips across the ice of this pond of contradictions with ease in stark contrast to the lumbering, dour, disastrous performance doled out by Linda Hamilton in a later and far less successful Cameron film, "Terminator II".
Through a series of ensuing set pieces Cameron gives us hope only to quickly add conditions. They can expect a rescue, but only after 17 days. They barricade themselves inside their command center to wait it out only to discover that their earlier battle resulted in ruptures in the atmosphere processor's cooling system and a nuclear explosion is imminent. There's another drop ship on the Sulaco so it's possible they may get off the planet after all, but wait, there's no uplink inside the command center to the orbiting Sulaco to call the drop ship with. The android Bishop volunteers to go outside to remotely pilot the second drop ship from the orbiting Sulaco, mindful of the probability that he'll come face to face with the enemy.
As the film careens toward its climax Burke's role in the events that led to the catastrophe the troop now find themselves enmeshed in is revealed but there's no time for frontier justice as the aliens press their advantage. One by one the remaining characters (including Burke) meet their doom though all (save Burke, the one person acting strictly out of greed) are given redemptive moments. The whiny Hudson goes out in a blaze of glory. Vasquez is wounded covering the rear of the retreating survivors and is apparently lost but the now recovered Gorman, who has accepted a reduced role, finds within himself the courage to go back after her. He finds her stricken in a ventilation duct. With multiple aliens converging on their position and escape impossible Gorman activates a grenade. Even Vasquez's last minute dig at him doesn't prevent him from doing the right thing and saving them from a fate truly worse than death.
Hicks pulls Ripley away from what he sees as a hopeless attempt to rescue Newt (who's been lost down another ventilation shaft) and gets her to safety. Bishop has managed to bring the second drop ship to the surface and is anxious to leave as the nuclear detonation is drawing close but Ripley orders him to stay, arms up, and leaves the now-injured Hicks to make sure Bishop doesn't pull a unplanned exit. Down she goes into the circles of hell after her adopted daughter. With little time left she finds her and Newt jumps into her arms crying "I knew you'd come". It is the assurance every child instinctively has that their mother will always be there for them.
Finally Ripley, Newt in her arms, comes face to face with her alien counterpart: the previously unseen queen jealously protecting her egg cache. Cameron pauses for a tense moment, as if teasing us about the possibilities here. Will Ripley be overwhelmed by a feeling of camaraderie and exit, leaving the alien mother unscathed? Not a chance. In Cameron's world, as in the real world, you must pick a side or accept being subjected to the whims of those who do, and that is not in Ripley's character. She torches the nest and heads back up with Newt. The queen dislodges herself from her egg-sack and pursues.
When Ripley reaches the rendezvous platform high in the disintegrating atmosphere processor Bishop has left with her only means of escape. The alien queen reaches their position. Out of ammo and with no where left to run Ripley does the only thing she can think to do. She holds on to her "daughter", tells her "Close your eyes baby" and waits to meet her fate. But Newt, cut from the same tough cloth as Ripley, disobeys her mother and spots Bishop attempting to land on the platform. He swings in close picking up debris along with Ripley and Newt and then hightails it out of there just in time to escape the atomic fireball.
Back on the Sulaco calm settles over the proceedings. The nominal family of Ripley, Hicks and Newt with their technological sidekick Bishop (who redeemed his kind quite nicely) share a quiet moment before, suddenly, Bishop is impaled by the stinger of the queen, who managed to hitch a ride on the drop ship when it came in for its close pass on the platform. Bishop is torn in half and tossed aside. Hicks is inside the drop ship under heavy sedation. Ripley tells Newt to hide and the whole movie comes down to mother vs mother with everything at stake. After a furious battle during which Ripley spouts the now oft-copied "Get away from her you bitch!" Ripley emerges triumphant. In the final scene the family head back out into the void, scarred but transcendent, to dream new dreams and face the future together.
The cast and their performances are all first-rate. Weaver brings immense integrity to her role and, surprisingly, comedian Paul Reiser is perfect as the greedy little toadie Carter Burke. Bill Paxton gives the performance that made his career possible and Jeanette Goldstein is spot on as Vasquez, the Latina warrior. James Horner's score is also a perfect accompaniment to the action and the flourish he created for the scene where the "family" are making their final escape ahead of the nuclear blast has been used by countless others since it's debut here. As Roger Ebert noted in his original review of the movie it's an exhausting experience. The final hour is perhaps the most intense hour of cinema ever created. But it's not pointless, gratuitous 'energy' that Cameron is after here. He knows that no amount of action will be enough to save a film if the viewer is not emotionally invested in the characters. And we are, thanks to Cameron's attention to detail. I've watched the film more times than I care to admit looking for weaknesses and can't find any. There's not a single wasted line of dialogue, not a single scene which doesn't contribute to the complex narrative structure. Michelangelo was fond of saying that he never carved anything; all he did was remove the surrounding material from a block of marble to reveal the statue that was already within and Cameron shapes his story the same way.
If Cameron has a weakness as a film maker its this: his inability to effectively edit his own work. This is a problem that first became apparent with the release of the Aliens "Director's cut" and one which has resurfaced in each of his subsequent films. For my money the Director’s Cut doesn’t add anything to the conversation and the added material only serves to bog the story down. So I'm giving credit in this review to the part played by the studio when they invoked their editorial prerogative. Their intervention resulted in the theatrical release of Aliens being what, in my opinion, it is: the best movie ever made.