James Cameron is a genius. This may be a controversial statement, but it is true in two separate ways. Firstly, he is actually a highly intelligent human being who is, as well as being holder of a couple of patents, is a talented artist and quite probably possesses a genius level IQ. Secondly, he is the finest crafter of high-quality, populist entertainment in the history of cinema. His only possible equal in these terms is Steven Spielberg, who is definitely more versatile, and maybe Christopher Nolan at a stretch, but it was James Cameron who perfected action movies as an art-form. He turned adrenaline into something substantial and memorable. It had been done before, notably in the brilliant car-chase in The French Connection, but no one had such an innate sense of what was exhilarating before. That his talents have been dulled by his more regrettable excesses and the allure of billion-dollar grosses is unfortunate, but it does not detract from a rich cinematic legacy. The jewel in the crown of this legacy is Aliens.
To even attempt a sequel to a stone-cold classic like Alien, a movie as influential as it is fantastic, would require an almost inhuman amount of balls. To make that follow up a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza takes even more balls. To then make it work and make it arguably better than the stone-cold classic original takes something altogether different: talent, maybe even genius. Aliens is the most thrilling film ever made, perfectly crafted with one simple goal: to entertain and exhilarate. The sheer number of impeccably crafted set pieces beggars belief, and the panache with which they are executed beggars it yet further. The countdown ending, the narrow escape, the dwindling ammo in the turrets, the face-hugger in a room with Newt, the first sighting of the queen, the space drop, the first expedition into the alien nest, “they’re on top of us” and “leave her alone, you bitch!” It may not be deep or intellectually stimulating, but that isn’t what it’s for. If you want emotional depth, watch a Bergman film, if you want your breath taken away, watch James Cameron.
I have a long list of films that could fill this position. Chief among them are City of God, Ed Wood, The Usual Suspects, Princess Mononoke, Up and It’s a Wonderful Life, but what puts Aliens above them all is that I would, in 90% of cases, watch Aliens instead of any of them. It’s a film I never get sick of and which I will probably never get sick of… ever. Yes, Bill Paxton (or is it Bill Pullman?) and that little Mexican woman annoy me, but in a squad full of meathead, squaddie idiots, you are going to get annoying people, and they do nothing that specifically makes the movie less exciting. They just add colour… irritating colour.
In summation, then, Aliens may not be a perfect movie, but it is a perfect action movie. It does what it does better than any film ever has done what it does. The first film does creeping terror and claustrophobia very well, excellently even, but it does not do it as well as Aliens does action. Aliens is like what a xenomorph would be like if it was a movie: a beast perfectly designed for one purpose. A perfect thrilling machine. It doesn’t pull any tricks, or make any wrong turns, it doesn’t ask too much or give too little, or pander to anyone or anything, it simply is what it is. “What is it?” You ask. Well, what it isn’t, is the best film ever. What it is, is my favourite film. The film I could watch over and over again without getting sick of it, the film that reminds me why I love cinema and that could bring me out of any slump. In the contest for the most thrilling movie ever, everyone else can give up. It’s game over, man, game over.
Aliens (1986), directed by James Cameron, is released on blu-ray and DVD by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate 18.