There are, as we have learned, two ways to do morally and ethically defensible action sci-fi in the 1980s. You can either take the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind route and depict the violence as something awe-inspiringly grotesque to be avoided at all costs, or you can go the Dirty Pair route and wear your artifice completely on your sleeve (or really, to be more accurate, strip down to nothing but an artifice bikini) and just go wild in your wholehearted embrace of camp performativity. Both paths share one thing in common, however: The spectacle, irreducible from all forms of action sci-fi, is translated somewhere else, such as the breathtakingly imaginative worlds both works show us or, in the case of Dirty Pair, fully acknowledging we want to see fun and colourful explosions and gleefully giving them to us with wild and knowing abandon.
Which brings us to Aliens. The first thing that we should square away is that the whole idea of doing a sequel to Alien in the first place is inherently a bizarre one-There’s not a whole lot of room in that movie to build subsequent works out of, it’s pretty self-contained. Furthermore, Alien is a bit of a one-trick pony: There’s simply no way a sequel can be expected to deliver that same level of shock and impact or posses the same sort of novelty. So, given the fact that a sequel to Alien was, in fact, greenlit, this sort of forces whoever the incoming creative team will be to improvise quite heavily to avoid feeling entirely repetitive. And this, I think, touches on the largest complaint against Aliens from fans of the first movie: Aliens is, in fact, quite different from Alien in a number of significant respects, and arguably on a fundamental thematic level. But the thing about that line of reasoning is that not only is James Cameron not Ridley Scott or Dan O’Bannon and thus is sort of by default not going to be approaching this movie with the same positionality, his film furthermore *had* to stand apart from theirs one way or another if it was going to see any manner of success.
And, like it or not, Aliens was very, very successful.
The stock criticism of Aliens I seem to have noticed is something along the lines of that, while the first movie was an intelligent sexual horror film that also proved to be a unique and innovative take on 1950s pulp sci-fi and horror archetypes and cliches, this one takes all of that and swiftly shoves it out an airlock in favour of flashy action sequences, unreconstructed militarism, wisecracks and Bill Paxton. Bluntly, this isn’t even remotely true. Aliens does in fact lack the same level of, for want of a better phrase, sexual maturity, of Alien and has one or two annoying gender issues of its own (and I will address all of them a little later on), but this absolutely does not mean it’s a mindlessly unironic action movie.…