From ages 9-13, Aliens played on constant rotation in my household. This was during the VHS era and my family only had so many tapes. I watched it so many times I avoided it for years, every line and every shot was so ingrained in my memory. As I got older I engaged more with Alien, believing it to be the hippest movie of the Alien franchise. But revisiting Aliens, Wow, all I could think of how James Cameron reinvented the action film and Sigourney Weaver's phenomenal performance is equally as great in retrospect.
Cameron took the gritty psychological horror of the original and crafted a hybrid of sci-fi, action, and horror. The script gave even the most minor of characters a depth and personality. Ridley wakes up after 57 years in hypersleep and gets drafted to return to the planet of the first film, a place where "the company" sent colonists. Paul Reiser as the company rep, is perfect as the Reagan era yuppie. All charm and smiles, but Burke will place turning a profit above human lives.
To investigate the company sends a unit of Marines with Ripley on as a consultant. The exposition scenes are even compelling: from Ripley suffering from PTSD from the first film to the introduction of the marines. Bill Paxton as the smart ass Hudson; Michael Biehn as dependable Hicks; Jenette Goldstein as tough as nails Vasquez; and Lance Hendricksen as the android Bishop. Carrie Henn as Newt, the lone survivor of the colony, offers a welcome counterpoint to the marines.
Special effects wise, Cameron also builds upon the first film. These xenomorphs are disgusting, terrifying, but also compelling. As characters they are deadly and menacing. They make a mess out of the marines and just keep on coming. It's bigger and better than the original in almost every way.
A thrill ride from start to finish, Aliens never wastes a moment. Weaver earned a much deserved Oscar nomination, setting the benchmark of a female lead in a blockbuster movie. Her maternal relationship with Newt brings out her compassionate side, Ripley's often the voice of reason as the marines argue and get nowhere. In one scene she's comforting Newt and the next mastering the art of the pulse rifle. In 1986 Weaver made it all appear seamless, in the more gender conscious world of the current moment, at least in terms of pop culture, the character appears even more revolutionary. Action movies of the 1980s were extremely macho; Aliens went against the grain.
If I were going to show one movie that represents the best of 1980s cinema, I would no further than Aliens. In terms of technical perfection, performance, and vision.