They share so much in common – a genre, a director, iconic heroes, terrifying villains, fantastic reputations, excellent predecessors, and absolutely dreadful sequels – but are James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day really as similar as they seem on paper?
The short answer: “No, but…”. These are two films that take place in wildly different worlds and are diametrically opposed when it comes to humankind’s technological capabilities. Interestingly, when one of the films is ambitious, the other supports a certain stasis, and vice versa. That said, there are core ideas and consistent principles about our future that Cameron not only examines here, but in later films as well. Let’s explore.
Aliens takes place in the year 2179 – 57 years following the events of Ridley Scott’s original. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley joins a team of military personnel to destroy a xenomorph colony [that in turn destroyed a colony of, um, colonizing humans]. In the nearly 200 years from the present when the movie was released  to the film’s fictional present, mankind seems to have cracked the code for interstellar space travel [maybe Matthew McConaughey was able to help?], yet culturally, not much is different. Capitalism reigns supreme. Our military hierarchy remains intact. Weaponry is high-powered, but still traditional by our standards and straight-up primitive for the setting.
T2, on the other hand, is mostly bound to a planet Earth everyone watching today will recognize. It’s mostly set in 1997, but we’re actually introduced to this world in a post-apocalyptic future when humans and cyborgs are in all-out war with each other. Lasers are the weapon of choice, and after one cyborg is sent back in time(!) to help protect the leader of the human resistance as a boy, another, more advanced cyborg – with the ability to turn himself into liquid metal at will(!!) – is sent to finish both of them off.
The most obvious difference is that one film is about the exploration of space, while the other plays with time. You also see one film use advanced machinery primarily to navigate around and among distant worlds, while the other stays put on one planet and instead depicts technological progress as the source of our species’ demise.
To that end, cyborgs are actually an important element in both worlds [and both narratives]. T2, of course, wouldn’t exist without the actions of artificially intelligent beings, and in fact, it’s the creation of such beings that brings about the apocalyptic future offered early in the film. The T-800 is a villain-turned-hero, rare not for this arc but rather the complete lack of shades of gray in his characterization. The T-1000, meanwhile, is an unstoppable force of evil, as are the thousands upon thousands of unseen cyborgs working in the future to destroy our way of life and our species.
This worldview wouldn’t even fit in Scott’s vision of Alien, which is decidedly pessimistic in its depiction of A.I. Ian Holm’s Ash in that film is a sneaky bastard but falls short of being an angel of death like T-1000. Aliens, meanwhile, gives us Bishop – a benign artificial human who laughs off Ripley’s concerns over his presence. He’s much more advanced than his older counterparts, and he’s right: We see him not only display courage but also trepidation over possible death – whatever that means for someone like him.
What elements of a future do the films share? Both posit that a massive corporation approaching all-powerful status will drive humanity forward in an effort to advance its own interests. This latter quality is more pronounced in Aliens, which uses Paul Reiser as a spokesman and snake-oil-salesman-in-chief, but it’s hard to deny Cyberdyne’s unspoken megalomania, despite its face being the benign Miles Dyson.
Notably, Cameron would take this disdainful view of capitalism even further in his 2009 film Avatar with a corporation attempting to destroy an entire group of indigenous people over a valuable commodity that’s ridiculously called “unobtainium.” [At least the Weyland-Yutani had a plausible front in Aliens…]
This similarity and even some of the differences beg the question: Could these films possibly exist in a shared universe?
No. Moving on.
Do these competing visions of the future – one geographically limitless vs. one unbound by time; one that’s driven by the technology of today vs. one that presents advances as an apocalyptic threat – affect the way we view these two excellent movies today?
Despite taking place in an unfamiliar setting, Aliens feels so much more realistic. That isn’t to say it feels at all realistic – these movies are textbook definitions of escapism – but space travel is a reality where time travel [probably?] never will be. While Ripley and her companions move faster and more freely than anyone living today ever could, her crew’s flight to LV-426 is bumpy and uncomfortable in a way that’s amusingly relatable. They all talk tough. They smoke cigars. These feel like individuals who you might know, and they kill foes in ways you’d expect humans to kill foes.
Nothing about T2 is relatable and that includes – perhaps at the top of the list – the 90s slang young John Connor spends his time trying to teach T-800. Their enemy looks human but is in fact a puddle. Most interestingly, I think the imminent apocalypse these characters are fighting to stop holds the film back a bit when compared to the pure and frenzied survival instinct that permeates Aliens.
Does that make the latter a better film? Maybe. I happen to think it is [ever so slightly], but this isn’t my only reason for feeling this way. But whichever way you feel, it’s tough to argue that anyone does the future like James Cameron.