We knew we had to come out with a bang for our first week, and a double-feature of Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day seemed like a perfect fit. Not only are these two of the biggest, most badass Hollywood films ever made, they’re tailor-made to be discussed together.
Both films were co-written and directed by the king of the box office James Cameron years before he earned that title, though these films definitely cemented him as a major player. Both films are also often considered the gold standard for sequels, iconic in their own right, locking fans in perpetual debate over whether they rise above their masterpiece predecessors.. They have a similar way of addressing their source material, upping the ante on taut horror-sci-fi mash-ups into epic action sequences that ultimately shape the course of their respective franchises. Perhaps most importantly, each celebrate an anniversary this month—Terminator 2 was released 25 years ago last week, Aliens turns 30 years old next week—giving us the perfect excuse to revisit them. But do we really need an excuse?
As we open on these sequels, both of our heroes are dealing with the trauma of past events. Ripley has been rescued and reintegrated into society, but she’s experiencing survivor’s guilt and finds her warnings and pleas to mega-evil corporation Weyland-Yutani are pushed aside in favor of the profits of colonization. Sarah Connor’s experiences have given her insight to the forthcoming Judgment Day, but her proclamations are shot down by the ignorant world as a psychotic breakdown. She has been separated from her future world-savior son, locked away in a mental hospital that has at least given her the time to do some awesome pull-ups.
Once Ripley and Sarah are released from their confinement, each teams up with a small group of adversaries and a whole lot of firepower to take on increasingly intelligent and brutal villains. For Terminator 2, that is a familiar face brilliantly repurposed. Cameron is rarely regarded as the filmmaker who built Arnold Schwarzenegger into the mega-star he had become by 1991, but that’s still a stake he could claim. Both parties found their breakout hit with 1984’s The Terminator—before then, Cameron had only made one film and Schwarzenegger was fresh off Conan the Barbarian, which was a hit but didn’t shape the muscle man as a legitimate actor. Over the seven years between Terminator films, Schwarzenegger built a strong filmography of big action films [Predator, The Running Man] and more unlikely roles [Twins, Total Recall]. Cameron proved Schwarzenegger could be a movie star by stripping down the character and playing to his strengths, while the actor’s improvements allowed Cameron to change the character’s scope and push the hulking star’s talents further.
In Aliens, Ripley is thrown in with a rambunctious group of space Marines, who are much more extreme caricatures of the working-class crew of the Nostromo. They don’t act like your typical soldiers, usually a symbol of honor and discipline, but they are good at shooting the place up. Highlighted among the group is Private Hudson, played by a young Bill Paxton, who seems almost like an extension of his role as Punk Leader in the original Terminator film. Their overconfidence and dismissal of Ripley’s warnings are quickly shown to be, in most cases, fatal flaws. Ripley’s maturity is highlighted by comparison—the quiet young woman at the start of Alien has totally transformed, not only into a complete badass but a motherly figure, as well.
Each film takes these characters and grows them organically, letting them change with the tougher, bigger, more momentous stakes. Sarah and Ripley both become stronger and more sharply defined women. Both films manage to maintain their humanity, even amid the tech and explosions that were presumably the main draw for most audiences. As each franchise ultimately lost its way, they did so by replacing their emphasis on character development in favor of convoluted plots. Aliens and Terminator 2 strike the perfect balance of character, world building, hard science fiction, and special effects.
As sequels have become the norm at the multiplex this time of year, it’s refreshing to reflect on the creativity of Aliens and Terminator 2. As I write this, seven of the top 10 films at the box office are sequels or part of a bigger franchise [two of the three that are not—Central Intelligence and Warcraft—are sure to get “sequalized” in the future]. To say that all sequels show off the worst in Hollywood’s capitalistic endeavors isn’t a fair argument, but there is little doubt that too few offer the creative play shown in the films highlighted this week.
Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day offer a lot of thematic and cultural ground to cover. Here’s what to expect this week:
Comparison of the action star personas of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver
Discussion on the portrayal of cyborgs and future tech
A look back at James Cameron’s first directorial effort, Piranha Part 2: The Spawning
Statistical analysis of Aliens and Terminator 2 box office