Sequels are rarely as good as the first film of a series, let alone better. They rarely meaningfully iterate on the first film, and instead just reproduce it, except “bigger” or with some other gimmick to justify their existence.
“Aliens” does not do this. It’s not even the same genre as “Alien”; it’s action instead of horror. It feels like a careful, thought-out evolution and extension of concepts raised in “Alien” – the subtext of sex and rape in “Alien” turning to issues of parenthood in “Aliens” makes perfect sense, as does making the corruption and inhumanity of Weyland-Yutani explicitly human rather than synthetic. It is so clearly distinct from “Alien” that it clearly respects it a hell of a lot more than a rehashed sequel would have.
It respects the legacy so much it makes absolutely no effort to replicate it, instead director James Cameron looks for new directions he can take the series. A sequel to “Alien” ruining some of the mystique of the titular creatures was inevitable, but “Aliens” is absolutely the best way to go about it, turning that invalidation of the fundamental alienness of the creature into a thematic point, a reflection on shared motherhood between Ripley and the Alien Queen (a lot of the key scenes for which are unfortunately only in the director’s cut).
As an action film in its own right, “Aliens” is perfection, which in hindsight isn’t particularly surprising given its director, but at the time it must have been quite the shock. The hopelessness and isolation of “Alien” gives way to cathartic ruptures of violence. The machismo of the marines gives Sigourney Weaver a very new angle to play off compared to the more commercial working-class lo-fi crew of “Alien”, and the gender subtext from the first film continues, just reframed. The alien doesn’t symbolically rape anyone the way the facehugger did to John Hurt’s character in “Alien”, but emasculation remains a focus, and Ripley’s femininity and maternal features are a triumph. The ceaseless escalation of the film is matched by just how well Cameron stages all the action sequences, all the more remarkable given the restrictions he was working with.
“Alien” didn’t need a sequel, but that doesn’t stop “Aliens” from being brilliant. I give it four and a half eggs, and the mother of all puppets.