In space, no one can hear you decide that this is the best summer movie ever.
It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
James Cameron’s Aliens played an important role in my childhood. Which is kinda strange, considering I wouldn’t actually see the movie until years later. At the age of eight, I owned a complete set of the Aliens action figures from Kenner; my favorite was the xenomorph whose torso would explode if you pushed hard on the right spring in his back. Around the same time, I found a battered copy of the Aliens soundtrack on cassette at our used bookstore I would listen to James Horner’s songs in ten-minute chunks before I began to feel unsettled in a way I couldn’t quite articulate and had to turn it off. Shortly thereafter, I discovered the Dark Horse Aliens comics and the Bantam Books novels and began dreaming up a whole universe of xenomorphs. And somewhere along the way, I actually sat down and watched Cameron’s film.
That I could love Aliens despite not having seen the movie – a movie, I might add, that had no business being advertised to kids like me – speaks volumes. Aliens isn’t typically one of the first films we think of when asked about summer blockbusters; as noted by ComicsAlliance, the movie wouldn’t be subject to commercial tie-ins until years later, when David Fincher’s sequel was nearing its theatrical release. But if there is a formula for summer movies – a mixture of commercialism, culture, and artistry that puts them at the peak of the Hollywood release calendar – then it’s fair to say that Aliens achieves a degree of success unheard of by its peers. Thirty years of scholarship and film criticism have rightfully located Aliens as one of the classic action movies and science fiction movies of all-time. Now the time has come to defend its place as one of the most influential summer blockbusters as well.
While any production can and will encounter its fair share of trouble, we seem to reserve a special place in our hearts for summer movies that had to fight their way into existence. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws may be the gold standard of blockbuster perseverance, but much could – and has – been written about the effort that went into making Aliens as well. In fact, there was so much studio controversy and creative in-fighting during the development of Aliens that the Los Angeles Times devoted an entire feature to the production timeline in July 1986. As funny as the concept may seem today, it was reported that 20th Century Fox executives were loathe to spin up a sequel to Ridley Scott’s original film. Then Cameron had to finalize a full screenplay draft just hours before a threatened writers’ strike. Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd quit the project twice: once when 20th Century Fox demanded they shoot the film for a mere $12 million, once again when executives asked Cameron to rewrite Sigourney Weaver out of the project to save money. And when production was finally underway, as relayed in Cameron’s biography, the filmmaker practically waged war against his own English production team.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In response to this article, Hurd notes that the only differences she and Cameron had with Fox were creative in nature, not financial.)
The results, of course, are extraordinary. For as much as he seems to enjoy trampling across his cinematic legacy these days, nobody has even been able to match Cameron when it comes to the business of making sequels. Aliens remains his best and brightest effort: not only were Cameron and Hurd able to expand upon the world presented by Scott in Alien, they were able to do so in a way that didn’t recycle story elements and action beats from the original film. Cameron’s attention to detail is present in every frame of Aliens; from the costume design to the industrial landscapes to the never-improved-upon wartime sound effects, Aliens manages to enrich the character of Ellen Ripley while placing her as a spectator in her own narrative. Cameron and Hurd made a sequel that moves with a rhythm entirely independent of its predecessor. Compare this to the modern blockbusters of Marvel and Lucasfilm – which are still struggling to find the right balance between studio product and authorial vision – and there should be no doubt that Cameron is an island unto himself.
Sure, there are those who vastly prefer Ridley Scott’s original film to Cameron’s action-packed sequel; there are those who prefer the dark nihilism of David Fincher’s third entry in the series to either. In their eyes, the potential of Alien is eclipsed by the ethos of James Cameron, Action Auteur™, and whatever unearthly terror audiences found in the original xenomorph is buried beneath Cameron’s love of soldiers and set pieces. What Cameron created was more complex than a simple action movie, however. Cameron has always noted how deeply the Vietnam War influenced his film; how the Colonial Marines of Aliens paralleled young men whose faith in technology did not save them from an untimely death on the battlefield. Aliens would hit theaters before Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill, giving it significance as a wartime allegory. The truly great summer movies need to do more than entertain; they tend to comment upon a specific place and time in American history, and Aliens is as much about lost wars as it is about monsters in space.
For all its creative tensions and narrative liberties, Aliens has emerged as the gold standard of studio sequels (and, by extension, the gold standard of summer movies). For as much as the franchise may belong to Ridley Scott, the risks taken by James Cameron have guided the Aliens film into their own unique position in Hollywood, a series of expensive franchise films that nevertheless capture the individual ethos of their filmmakers. Cameron, Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet each made films that cater to their reputation as visionary directors, while still weaving together a complicated and ever-changing canon around the character of Ripley. Cameron’s film may not have been first, but one could argue the impact it has had on Hollywood sequels – teaching countless independent filmmakers with an eye for production design and a dynamic script that they were only one meeting away from the highest-grossing sequel of the year – far outpaces that of most summer movies released at any point in the past few decades.
Craft. Controversy. Culture. And, always, commercialism. Break down Aliens any way you like, and its impact – both at the time of its release and in the current Hollywood marketplace – is as important as any movie that has come before or after. This alone would be enough to make it one of the greatest summer movies of our generation; throw in the fact that Cameron’s film remains a masterclass in action storytelling and science fiction world-building, and it’s clear that Aliens deserves a place atop our Mount Rushmore of summer. I may not remember exactly when I watched Aliens for the first time, but I remember the dozens of times I’ve watched it since, as well as the battered physical copy of the film that traveled with me into college and beyond. What can I say? The eight-year-old version of me had good instincts for important movies.