Last time, we had to deal with the “perfect organism,” and now we must contend with an army of predatory bugs. And to be perfectly honest, it’s hard to tell which one would be the better one to face. This sci-fi action horror film was released in mid-July of 1986, grossing over $183 million worldwide. Despite the hype and acclaim of the original 7 years earlier, the film managed to garner some of the best reviews of the 1980’s, including 7 Academy Award nominations. With Ridley Scott out of the picture, the producers approached Gale Anne Hurd and James Cameron to write and direct the sequel, having been impressed with The Terminator. Initially, it seemed as though 20th Century Fox was going to butcher it due to the proposed exclusion of Sigourney Weaver’s character. But Cameron pushed onward, and despite having a troubled shoot that caused most of the crew members to walk out, he managed to deliver the final product on time to Fox. Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley, the flight officer who awakes from stasis 57 years after the events of the original film. Doubtful of her alleged experiences on the Nostromo, the dominant Weyland-Yutani Corporation orders her back to the exomoon LV-426, which is now becoming a terraforming colony. With a company representative and a unit of space marines, they are tasked with investigating a disturbance on the colony, which turns out to have been overrun by a horde of Xenomorphs, the creatures from the last movie. Now Ripley, the marines, and a surviving girl named Newt must fight the extraterrestrials and find a way off of the planet. Rule of thumb in cinema: Doubting either James Cameron or Steven Spielberg makes you look stupid, no matter how off-putting or unappealing the product may seem in marketing. Doesn’t really matter how cold or distant you may be from any of their films, but the fact that they can defy expectations among film lovers time and again is worth their career reputations alone. In this case, Cameron had the heavy duty of following up on Ridley Scott’s original classic, which is nearly perfect in many aspects. Why bother making a sequel to Alien when the first one is amazing as it is? And yet, as has been proven with most of his career, the director proved everyone wrong and made a movie that was just as fantastic and exciting as the original. In fact, I love it even more than the first one. In cinema, there are really only a handful of sequels or prequels or spinoffs that can prove to be at least half as great as the first go-round. There are less in existence that can actually fully live up to the standards of that first installment and even less that manage to ever surpass or improve upon it. Depending on who you ask, Aliens is either just as good as the original film, falls short of it, or is simply better in almost every way. Consider me to be in the camp of the latter. Granted, it’s hard to compare the two since they have very different tones and styles. While Alien was firmly a horror picture, this one leans more heavily into action territory. That’s not to say that it’s totally devoid of the darkness; the idea of soldiers blindly going to battle in an unfamiliar terrain is a melancholy reminder of the Vietnam War. In the midst of this war, Sigourney Weaver still comes through as the heart and soul of the series. Now more world-weary and intelligent than she was before, she is by far the only one in the crew who understands the true threat of the Xenomorphs and is especially distrusting of androids. Weaver also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, a landmark moment in science-fiction films gaining serious recognition in the industry. Also great are Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop and the late Bill Paxton as Private Hudson. They honestly might be my favorite characters in the whole series and provide an interesting Star Trek-like dichotomy to the situation. One is logical and thinks of all the best options, the other is highly emotional and fueled by testosterone. And then there’s actress-turned teacher Carrie Henn as Newt, the sole human survivor from the colony. Despite her small stature, there’s a courage and wisdom found in her that just resonates deeply. And from a technical standpoint, like its predecessor, Aliens is superbly crafted and handsomely produced. In his first credited work as a cinematographer, the late Adrian Biddle helps create a sustained atmosphere on LV-426, whether out in the open or inside the colony corridors. We get a lot of shots tracking the soldiers down dark passages, without a whole lot of cuts between angles. Combined with the expert backlighting and production design, this only further increased the amount of dread felt while still keeping things fun and exciting. Meanwhile, the editing by Ray Lovejoy, most famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey, is very deliberate yet enthralling. He knows exactly when to turn away from the bug army to keep a fear running through and also when to show us their brute numbers. The action scenes are particularly well-crafted, combining all of the aforementioned techniques with slick writing and strong direction. The musical score is written and conducted by the late, great James Horner, who would go on to collaborate with Cameron on two more films. (Titanic and Avatar) The score appropriately employs military-style drum beats on the snare, which drive the action tone pretty hard. Other bits of percussion includes a metallic slap that punctuates the urgency along with highly dynamic strings and horns that feel perfectly married together. Fragmented crescendos and truncated sections make the scenes it is used to feel all the more engrossing. Interestingly, the composer had such a hard time during production that he was convinced he would never work with the director again. Considering Horner only had 6 weeks to put the whole soundtrack together, it is highly impressive and certainly one of the more memorable ones for a sci-fi action movie. Practically nothing beats this movie nowadays. Sure, there are a couple issues with pacing, mostly with the intense final act. But when measured against nearly all other films of its genre that have come out since then, it really does stand head-and-shoulders above the normal fare. Aliens is a highly satisfying and enthralling example of masterful genre-blending. James Cameron is a cinematic genius and I’m thoroughly convinced that not everyone will be able to realize that until long after he’s gone. He’s made not one but TWO of the best sequels ever made in the span of 5 years. There’s plenty to enjoy here on multiple repeat viewings and I can’t wait for more to experience and appreciate it the same way that I did.