The maternal instinct meets the Vietnam War. Plus: How to make your own face-hugging space creatures.

Published February 14, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser
20th Century Fox; widescreen anamorphic (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Interview with James Cameron, 17 minutes of restored footage, behind-the-scenes footage and photo gallery

When director James Cameron decided to sink his teeth into "Aliens" in 1986 he was just beginning a long, successful roll through Hollywood. He'd made the genre-defining "The Terminator" two years earlier, but few knew what he would do with the sequel to Ridley Scott's "Alien," a version of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" set on a claustrophobic spaceship. Scott's original tag line was "In space, no one can hear you scream." Cameron discarded that idea and made a breathless action movie with a new slogan: "This time it's war."

Picking up where "Alien" left off, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued from deep space, where she has slumbered through 57 years of mechanically assisted hibernation. She awakes to discover that the monolithic company that appears to own everything in the film has colonized the planet where her crew from "Alien" first discovered the malevolent face-hugging creatures. Shortly after the rescue the colony goes silent and Ripley reluctantly agrees to accompany a rescue mission with a badass cadre of Marines.

The troops are in high spirits and full of bluster until they actually land on the planet. The colonists have apparently disappeared. Things go rapidly downhill as the Marines lose their rescue ship and most potent weaponry. They retreat to the colony and settle down for a last stand. Ripley emerges as the über-mother once she finds a surrogate daughter in Newt (Carrie Henn), a 12-year-old girl who is the last living colonist. From there "Aliens" becomes a battle of the species as the two mothers, Ripley and the queen alien, duke it out to protect their brood.

The startling thing about "Aliens" is how obsessed it is with women as child bearers. Symbols are everywhere in the life cycle of the aliens and the final showdown between Ripley and the queen alien. It's the fundamental motivation for Ripley and it's the theme that allows the movie to have all the trappings of a typical science fiction/action movie (fancy gadgetry, powerful weapons, terrifying monster) while creating a primal emotive connection for the audience. Cameron used the same theme in both "Terminator" movies to great effect and clearly knows that audiences love to tap into an instinctual crisis.

Cameron addresses this and other themes in the short interview included on the DVD's fantastic collection of extras. He notes that the Vietnam War served as an inspiration for the film because it was "almost science fictional," the first high-tech war where the limits of technology were proved by a vastly underarmed enemy. He also talks about the use and abuse of special effects and explains the success of his movies: They embrace special effects only insofar as they embroider the theme and the story.

Cameron has inserted 17 minutes of original footage that detracts from the sleek rhythm of the theatrical release without destroying it. There are a few more scenes of Ripley's recovery from her hibernation, more background on the colonists and other tidbits. The extras also contain features on the film's design that reveal Cameron's work on the spaceship and the weapons, as well as an exhaustive series of actor biographies. (Who knew that Al Matthews, Sergeant A. Apone, is also a "singer, songwriter, disc jockey, dancer and actor, French radio voice" and Vietnam veteran who received two Purple Hearts?) And there are some handheld video clips that demonstrate the mechanics of the special effects; if you've ever wanted to make your own face hugger at home, they'll show you how.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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