What under the planets would make Sigourney Weaver, a young woman who most assuredly knows how many beans make five, climb back into her skivvies and head straight back to the planet Acheron, home of the great slathering, acid-dripping Alien? It munched up her entire crew back in 1979 and has given her sweat-bathed nightmares now.
Compassion for other human beings, that's what.
That's the tack that the makers of "Aliens"(citywide) have taken, and their film is canny, ironically funny and certainly successful when Weaver's around--which is most of the time. If the sequel doesn't equal "Alien" in cardiac-arrest value, it's only because stainless-steel teeth, repulsiveness and slime have gone about as far as they could go (with John Carpenter's 1982 "The Thing"), then gone on to be a laughing matter in "Ghostbusters." ("It slimed me" was Bill Murray's moan of nausea.)
Ridley Scott's "Alien" had the absolutely primal horror of imagining your own body as host to a mucilaginous, tentacled, parrot-beaked thing . And it had a single, omnipotent creature, growing in new and more disgusting forms with each stage. We've met that monster now, and it is history. "Aliens," as you may suspect, has coveys of them, although more and bigger doesn't necessarily mean more frightening.
"Aliens" is a perfectly honorable sequel, taut, inexorably paced but it's blaster action, not Gothic future-horror. Fortunately, director-screenwriter James Cameron has shaped his film around the defiant intelligence and sensual athleticism of Weaver, and that's where "Aliens" works best. In a funny way, she's become an image ripped from today's statistics: the Single Parent Triumphant--if not absolutely Rampant.
Demoralized and discredited, a touch groggy after years in hyper-sleep, Weaver returns to "Alien" territory only when she learns there is a space colony there, more humans to become hosts for aliens.
When communication from the colony abruptly stops, she accompanies a group of investigating colonial Marines, accompanied by a smarmy, owlish young government bureaucrat (Paul Reiser). And when worst fears are realized, Weaver becomes "mother" to the colony's only survivor, a scrappy, skinny 9-year-old (Carrie Henn). That's the image of Weaver that sticks, with Henn barnacled around her, Supermom in excelsus , true to her word, enduring all, vanquishing all for "her" child.
(Actually, the showdown of the moms is the funniest thing in "Aliens," but that you'll have to see to believe.)
You might safely say that Cameron, who broke away from the pack with the direction and co-writing of "Terminator," has a thing about motherhood. In "Terminator," Michael Biehn played a soldier from a future era who goes back to our present to save the life of a young woman. Why? Her son, when grown, would lead mankind in a grim war against rampaging computers. (In fact, to thicken "Terminator's" plot, Biehn impregnates her.)
In "Aliens," Biehn plays Weaver's comrade-in-arms, and while she seems to be the only human on this Marine mission with any smarts, he at least shares her humanity. It's a quality in short supply this time.
There's no attempt to let us know or care for this new crew as we did for the old one, for Harry Dean Stanton or Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt or Veronica Cartwright. Losing them was a wrench. These awesomely muscled men and women are sewer-mouthed, burr-headed young grunts, there to wrestle the weaponry about and to be picked off.
The supporting actors here are inventions like the PulseGun or the SmartGun, which red-bandannaed Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) stalks about with regally, like a flamenco dancer. ("Aliens" is going to be big on the survivalist circuit. It's about this point that you remember Cameron also co-wrote "Rambo: First Blood Part II.").
The film may be as empty as it is fast and noisy, but Cameron still has a droll touch with his villains--watch who steps off "Aliens' " elevator in pursuit of Weaver--and with amazing mechanical inventions: Here it's a forklift suit with monstrous lobster claws. (The film's R rating is for its language and gruesome effects; it's definitely not for impressionable children in spite of its 9-year-old heroine.)
The film's enormous team of effects and design artists have been true to the original, audacious style; probably because "Alien's" original producers, Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill were on hand again as executive producers, and Giler and Hill wrote the original story with Cameron. ("Terminator's" producer/co-writer, Gale Anne Hurd was the producer.)
Two of the actors, ex-comic Paul Reiser and Lance Henriksen ("The Right Stuff's" Wally Schirra) as the ship's exceptional android, are particularly fine, as is James Horner's ruminative, intelligent music and Emma Porteous' eye for costuming.
But of all the film's choices, the best was Weaver. She's its white-hot core, given fine, irascible dialogue to come blazing out of that patrician mouth, and the chance to look, for a moment, like a space-dusted Sleeping Beauty in her hyper-sleep casket.