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James Cameron's Aliens at 30
By Bert Ehrmann
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Fort Wayne Reader
The first time I saw the movie Aliens I was 12 years old. It was a Saturday night and me, my brother and a cousin were all camped out on our living room floor one evening as we always did that summer. That particular night Aliens was set to premiere on HBO and we three had made it our mission that weekend to watch it since none of us had seen it yet.
And Aliens did not disappoint. Myself as a 12 year old loved it, my brother at eight was a little too young to get it but I think he liked it since his big brother liked it. But I think Aliens hit my 10 year old cousin a little hard. When we finally decided to try and get some sleep after the movie had ended it was getting late and we all climbed into our sleeping bags in the dark of the living room. I’d begun to doze off when the air conditioner in the living room clicked on. At the time we had several window units around the house and when they’d automatically turn on from time to time there’d be a loud “snap” then a growl as the unit powered up and came to life.
To my cousin, this must’ve sounded like one of the alien monsters, which made him literally scream in reaction, jump up and dive for cover by the couch. It was only a momentary fright and he regained his senses a few seconds later and sheepishly came back to his sleeping bag and endless hours of ribbing from my brother and myself over him thinking the air conditioner was an alien.
That’s my strongest memory of the movie Aliens that turns 30 this year.
To me, Aliens is a seminal film. Before I always thought sci-fi was mostly things like Star Wars and re-runs of the original Star Trek. The universe of Star Wars might have been a lot dirtier than that of Star Trek, but both were similar in tone. The good guys always won and no one died who didn’t deserve it — or at least died in order to move the story along.
Aliens was quite a different “beast.”
The setting of Aliens from space ships to space stations to far off worlds feels real and lived in. Like a place that real people in a real future might call home. And in Aliens lots of people die — most of them just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like in real life, the universe of Aliens is a harsh place where things happen unexpectedly and not always fairly.
Even today I still watch Aliens about once a year and it’s still one of my favorite films. From the vistas of outer space to the Colonial Marines duking it out with the alien creatures to the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), whom we knew had a strong survival streak in her from the first outing in Alien (1979) who gets to go into her “tough as nails get in her way and she’s going to throw you aside” persona Aliens works from start to finish. Even today in the era of movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars to create using specialized computer effects, the analog FX of Aliens are, dare I say, superior to what’s used in movies today.
The budget of Aliens in today’s dollars is something like a little more than $40 million. To put that number into perspective, Captain America: The Winter Soldier cost something like $170 million.
And I think it’s these real special effects of real people in real environments fighting these “real” creatures that makes the movie work so well. Everything in Aliens feels believable and there’s nothing that happens that feels out of place or there to “show off.”
What I find fascinating is that the original Alien was brilliant and the different but also great Aliens was amazing, that none of the films that followed were ever able to match either the original or Aliens brilliance. I think that those two movies set such a high mark in the franchise as it were that everything that came after from Alien Resurrection to Alien vs Predator is simply trying to redo what was done so well in Aliens back in 1986.