Here’s the thing about Alien: it doesn’t really have characters. It has charismatic actors with a ton of personality, who bring things to the characters that have little bearing on the story, but the closest it comes to “character” is in making Ash (Ian Holm) seem vaguely untrustworthy. Horror tends to get away with this lack of character more than other genres; the mark of a great “line ’em up and knock ’em down” slasher story often has less to do with the writer(s) making the audience care about the characters and more to do with the actors leaving a memorable impression. Nobody wants Harry Dean Stanton or Yaphet Kotto to die, but what do we know about their characters?
They’re blue-collar grunts in charge of keeping the ship operational, and they want even shares. That’s it. Why do we care about them? Because they’re Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, and they just will that type of good energy.
In most ways, Aliens merely ups the ante of its predecessor, adding horror to an action-movie template by giving us more aliens, more firepower, and more fighters—and having them still get their asses kicked. But in important ways, James Cameron’s screenplay deviates from the “raise the stakes” mentality by playing with the slasher convention of “memorable actor over deep character.” Playing on our collective memories of Ash, he casts professional scary motherfucker Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop, whose gentle calmness is made into a potential threat just because of the actor playing him. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Reiser radiates kindness and decency as Carter Burke, Company man and eventual turncoat.
More importantly, though, Cameron gives Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) an arc. Granted, the arc was largely removed in the theatrical cut, but it informs Weaver’s performance throughout. After returning to Earth after 57 years floating in deep space, the first (and only) thing Ripley wants to know is what became of her daughter. Burke tracks her down and informs Ripley that she died a few years prior. This pivotal scene, restored in the director’s cut, lets the audience know three things: (1) Ripley is mourning both the loss of her daughter and the loss of her motherhood, (2) Ripley really has nothing to live for, and (3) Burke isn’t all bad (casting his eventual deception into a more interesting shade of gray).
Cameron adds much subtler character moments to the ensemble of Space Marines, as well: the intense bond between the otherwise depthless Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston), Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) occasional moments of seriousness and competence, Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) straining to prove himself after realizing early on how out of his depth he is… As the body count rises, this small (sometimes very small) amount of texture enhances characters beyond mere memorable performances. When Drake, who can’t have more than ten lines of dialogue, is among the first to die, Vasquez’s anguish says everything about their bond; because she cares, we do.
This, more than anything, is what elevates Aliens among the original in my book. It’s not about Cameron following the beats of the first film while relentlessly upping the ante, or the decision to shift the genre from “a haunted house in space” to an action/war film. It’s the small touches that enhance this film. Cameron is wise enough to know he lacks the element of surprise, so he shifts the focus from, as Gene Shalit might say, scares to care. Also, lots of guns and shit blowing up.