Aliens, Terminators and Vietnam Vets: The Sequels of James Cameron

Termiantor 2
The other day I caught Aliens on TV.  That may just be my choice for the best sequel ever made.
It perfectly understands what made the original work and expands on it, offering more of the same thrills on a whole new scale.
And it wasn’t even handled by anyone who worked on the original.
How is that even possible?
Who put that there?
Who put that there?
I mean look at Jaws 2, or Jaws 3D or Jaws: The Revenge (cough).
Or pretty much any sequel that did have some of the original filmmakers behind it.
What’s its secret?
After some analysis, I think I know the secret – James Cameron.
This guy.
This guy.
These days he’s that rarest of directors: a household name.  Really only Cameron, Spielberg and Lucas can claim that title.  And Lucas is pretty much retired.  About the only new guy to approach it is Christopher Nolan.
Cameron, even if you look at just the numbers, has earned it.
Avatar (2009) and Titanic(1997), his two latest films, are the two highest-grossing films of all-time.
Now I personally don’t like either of those and would argue that his last great picture was True Lies (1994), but I realize I’m in the minority.
You're telling me Titanic is better than this?
You’re telling me Titanic is better than this?
What is hard to disagree with, however, is that nowadays his older films get ignored in favor of his record-setters.  And that’s a damn shame because his whole career he’s been making hallmarks of science fiction and action.
One of which was Aliens (1986), the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It’s one of three sequels (at least until Avatar 2 graces us with its presence) he’s worked on in his career – Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).
And they’re all pretty damn good.  One is more questionably excellent than the others (the one with Stallone in it, if you were wondering), but they all stand tall in comparison to their respective predecessors.
So how does he do it?  I’d wager that he has a formula.  Why would I bet valuable internet money to you over that?  Because I think I’ve found that formula.
So I present to you an analysis and comparison of James Cameron’s sequels and just why they’re all roughly the same.
Roughly.
Interestingly, all three of these films are tied close together when it comes to timing in his career, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg (Titanic joke!).
Let’s take a look back at just how he got these jobs in the first place.
If it's not clear, Piranha II is about flying piranhas.  Just so you know.
If it’s not clear, Piranha II is about flying piranhas. Just so you know.

 

In the early 1980’s, James Cameron was still a struggling director, only having worked behind the camera on Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), an abhorrent sequel to a decent Jaws rip-off.  Though it’s a toss-up if that can be considered a directing job considering he was fired in the middle of production.  Fortunately they kept him on to assist in editing.  Unfortunately he came down with food poisoning, prompting the producer to strong-arm him off the film entirely.  But in his unemployed, food-poisoned haze, he had a dream about a metal man.  A robot. He immediately drew what he had seen in his dream.  Soon enough it was a screenplay.
And that screenplay was called The Terminator.
It was the film that would launch his career.
His search for the main character, Kyle Reese, brought him to a bodybuilder who’d done a few movies but wanted to develop more as a true actor.  And his name was Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Cameron hated him for the part of Kyle Reese.  But loved him as The Terminator.
And so the deal was struck.  He would be the robot and Michael Biehn, who would go on to a leading role in Aliens, would be Kyle Reese.
Pictured: Arnold relaxing at the beach
Pictured: Arnold relaxing at the beach
Until the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, pulled rank and forced Arnold to honor a clause in his contract for Conan the Barbarian (1982) and star in the sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984).
That forced The Terminator to postpone production for another nine months.  James Cameron, however, couldn’t sit still that long.
In the meantime, he further revised and worked on the script for The Terminator and picked up two other writing assignments – a possible sequel to Alien and an almost-guaranteed sequel to First Blood (1982), the first Rambo film.
Because Aliens is the whole reason I wrote/revisited this (full disclosure: this article is repurposed from an essay I wrote a few years back; I’ve removed some of the clunkiness and arrogance and replaced it with iceberg jokes), let’s look at that first.
Gang's all here.
Gang’s all here.
Aliens follows Ellen Ripley, the lone survivor of Alien. 57 years after the original incident, Ripley is woken up from hypersleep and finds that her employers don’t believe her story about the alien, and the planet on which the alien was discovered is now a colony. Contact with the colony was lost, so she begrudgingly joins a team of space marines and a corporate weasel to the site to investigate. Judging by the title, it’s pretty clear what happens. Instead of one alien, there are now at least two! The horror!  Actually there are dozens.  This is key to Cameron’s sequel synthesis, but let’s familiarize ourselves with the other sequels first.
They pasted a rocket at the end of his machine gun.  That says a lot about this movie.
They pasted a rocket at the end of his machine gun. That says a lot about this movie.
Most people forget that First Blood wasn’t an hour and a half of a shirtless Sylvester Stallone killing foreign people.  That was every other Rambo movie.  The original was a surprisingly nuanced, taut thriller about the toll of war.
And it was a hit, especially considering its lean budget of $14 million.  So a sequel was in the cards.  Unfortunately, the original was based on a novel by David Morrell.  And there was no sequel novel.
First Blood is not this.
First Blood is not this.
Admittedly, the original novel was drastically altered to fit the screen.  For instance, Rambo dies in the book.  But Sylvester Stallone, an Academy Award-nominated writer it should be noted, changed it to allow Rambo further adventures/PTSD trips.
And that’s where Cameron comes in.  Unfortunately because he didn’t direct this film and it was already Sly’s baby (who, it’s been suggested, even ghost-directed it), Cameron’s script was drastically altered by the time it got to the screen.  The end product credits both Cameron and Stallone as writers.  Years later, Stallone admitted that he should’ve let more of the original script be instead of pushing his own agenda and concept into it.
For the sake of this analysis, we’ll use parts of the script and parts of the film and try to define which is which.
Pictured: a hardened killing machine
Pictured: a hardened killing machine
Looking at Cameron’s original script, titled First Blood II: The Mission, it’s easy to see similarities to the end product, namely the second half, where Rambo heads to Vietnam to rescue POW’s, only to be abandoned by underhanded government types. One key difference is the addition of a male sidekick of sorts, to help Rambo on his mission.  Early casting rumors had John Travolta (yes that one) pegged as the dashing sidekick.  In the finished film, the sidekick became the character Co, a Vietnamese woman who knows the terrain.  The biggest thematic difference between the film and the script is Rambo’s PTSD.  From First Blood to Rambo: First Blood Par II (I kid you not, the finished film’s full name), the titular character seems to have gotten much more mentally stable.  Here he’s a ridiculously efficient killing machine, but he never shows one shred of insanity.   That’s pretty good considering he’s back in Vietnam, the very place that gave him PTSD in the first place.  In fact his only irrational action is firing at a bank of computers but even that’s because he got double-crossed.
Cameron’s script carried the instability from First Blood, making Rambo’s mission that much more dangerous; he’s not even sure he can make it without breaking.
But the production of Rambo: First Blood Part II is a topic for another day.  The takeaway is that it’s half Cameron’s story and half Stallone’s.  For our purposes, we’ll be try to stick to just Cameron’s work.
Moving on.
I'm not sure there were this many pulse rifles in Vietnam, though.
I’m not sure there were this many pulse rifles in Vietnam, though.
An interesting parallel between his two early scripts is Vietnam. Most obviously First Blood II is set there, but Cameron has admitted that Aliens was based somewhat on the Vietnam War, in that a technologically advanced force (the space marines) was going up against a much less outfitted force (the aliens), and losing terribly and unexpectedly. Cameron’s claimed that he’s not a very political man, so I’d chalk these up to the world stage at the time.  It was all fresh in everyone’s minds and it proves a fine framework on which to hang these stories.  Which leads us to our last sequel.
Terminator 2 is also a lot more blue.
Terminator 2 is also a lot more blue.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day was by all counts an unprecedented success. It appears on countless lists as one of the greatest science fiction and action films of all time, and most would claim it’s better than its predecessor. It pushed special effects to their limits and beyond, providing the next big step in CGI and paving the road for films like Jurassic Park. It picks up the story from The Terminator eleven years later (even though the movies were only released seven years apart), following John Connor as a teenager, now rebelling against his step-parents. Meanwhile, Sarah Connor is in a mental hospital, committed after nobody believed her story about a killer robot and a hero from the future. But as is par for the course, two characters come from the future to fight for the fate of the human resistance. The twist this time is that both characters are terminators, different models, and one has been reprogrammed to protect John Connor. Sarah, John, and the T-800 attempt to prevent judgement day, the beginning of the nuclear holocaust, the beginning of the war of the machines.

A candid shot of downtown L.A.
A candid shot of downtown L.A.
You know, the usual.
All these films were successes, at least financially. The features directed by Cameron were critical successes as well. This seems to suggest that Cameron is one of the rare filmmakers that understands how to craft a quality, worthy sequel. That is, after all, one of Hollywood’s great mysteries: how to follow-up a great film with something on par.  Well Hollywood’s more honest mystery is how to follow-up a money-making film with one that makes even more.  But nonetheless, there must be some formula to it, and closer inspection reveals that there is.
There's also snow in Die Hard 2.  So it has that going for it.  Which is nice.
There’s also snow in Die Hard 2. So it has that going for it. Which is nice.

Upping the ante and changing the game.  Remember those.  They are the keys. The stakes have to be raised, and the genre has to be adjusted. In any given original film, the audience comes to know characters and how they react to a given situation, to the plot. This leads a lot of filmmakers to almost remake the original film for the sequel, considering the audience liked it the first time around. See Ghostbusters II and Die Hard 2: Die Harder for perfect examples of the reheated sequel. Both are entertaining, but not nearly as good as their respective predecessors. It’s because the audience isn’t seeing anything new; instead they watch the same characters react to nearly identical situations.  There’s nothing fresh about it.

Spoilers: most of these people die.  Horribly.
Spoilers: most of these people die. Horribly.

So the first step is to up the ante. The central conflict has to be ratcheted up, so that something more is learned about the characters. In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo had to contend with a single creature. Ripley ended up surviving due to her courage, but she never really directly fought the alien. She opened the cargo hatch, then fired up the engines to kill it. So how does a filmmaker plus that? They add more aliens. Notice the sequel is ingeniously titled Aliens. Cameron put that same character, that the audience already watched and grew to know, and put her in a more dangerous, though similar, situation. It’s an effective continuation of the character’s development, because they’ve already experienced the previous film, so they’d be more prepared the second time around. That escalation is necessary to make sure they’re not certain they’ll succeed or survive.

Pictured: a shred of insanity
The ante, and the screaming, has been upped.
Similarly, in Rambo’s story, he’s taken from the relative seclusion of the Washington woods of First Blood to Vietnam, the heart of darkness for the hero. Instead of facing some small-town police, he takes on a nearly endless swarm of Russian and Vietnamese soldiers. No matter how well-trained Rambo was, that’s still a tremendous jump in odds. And again, the ante has been upped. That’s not even considering that Rambo’s mission involves the lives of other people. In First Blood, Rambo was out to survive, spurred by haunting memories of Vietnam. But now, he not only has to face the same jungles that scarred him, but save some prisoners as well, prisoners that he empathizes with. The conflict rises.
It's also a lot funnier when he gets shot in the face.
It’s also a lot funnier when he gets shot in the face.

That leaves Terminator 2, which again is a simple algebraic change. Instead of one terminator, there are now two. And not just the same two, but an advanced prototype as well, that has a whole new set of rules and abilities. Interestingly, a lot of the sequences in T2 are almost direct references to the original, and yet they’ve been imbued with fresh suspense and action. The second addition in T2 is the addition of a second mission: actively trying to prevent judgment day. In the original, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese were essentially the antagonists, trying to prevent the T-800 from killing Sarah. In the sequel, the T-1000 is trying to stop John Connor from leading the resistance.  This conflict makes up the secondary goal to the sequel, which runs parallel to the original: trying to prevent the new terminator from killing John.  But the heroes also have to locate and destroy the two fragments of the Terminator left behind from the first film, providing a different primary goal from the first.  It’s the original, plus more.

Now that the stakes have been raised, there’s still something missing.

You can tell they're buddies by the mutual frowns.
You can tell they’re buddies by the frowns.
Die Hard 2 sees McClane trying to save everyone in an airport plus the lives of passengers circling overhead, including his wife.  By the numbers, the ante has been upped.  He has to save more people.  But we don’t really care because it’s the exact same plot – McClane is stuck in a building (pretty much) with bad guys and has to save his wife. Die Hard With a Vengeance provides the solution.  McClane is back again, this time saving the lives of thousands of New Yorkers from a series of bombs.  There are more lives in danger and it opens the scope.  Gone is the contained action.  Now McClane has the entire city to fight through.  And he even has a partner.  The reason Die Hard 3 wins over Die Hard 2 is because it’s no longer a contained action movie, it’s a buddy cop action movie.
The genre has shifted.  The game has been changed.  And it makes the whole experience fresher for the difference.
Pictured: upping the ante and changing the game
Pictured: upping the ante and changing the game

Alien was horror. Aliens was horror-action. Terminator was sci-fi horror. Terminator 2 was sci-fi action. First Blood was an action-thriller, with some psychological elements. First Blood Part II was pure action. Note that the genre is never changed, but its specialization shifted. This, in essence, provides for the stakes to be raised and the character to again face formidable odds, as they are also getting thrown into unfamiliar territory. Ripley has to learn how to use guns and basically become a space marine to combat the new threat. Rambo goes from inner torment to reliving his war days, becoming the perfect killing machine again. The characters react to the genre shift, offering something new.In the big picture of things, these two changes make a quality sequel, at least by Cameron logic. But these are overly basic, as surely there are examples of sequels that follow both these rules and still are subpar. However, there are a few sub-rules within the sequels that Cameron returns to in each example.

Who wouldn't trust a face like this?
Who wouldn’t trust a face like this?
First, the main character must overcome a prejudice, handicap  or problem from the first film. In Alien, the lone android onboard the Nostromo goes berserk. In Aliens, Ripley doesn’t trust androids because of this, but in the end, she learns to respect Bishop, the lone android among the characters.
Who wouldn't trust (half) a face like this?
Who wouldn’t trust (half) a face like this?
In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is pursued relentlessly by the titular cybernetic organism. In T2, when an identical robot arrives to help, she doesn’t trust it at all. But by the end, she’s overcome her prejudice and learns to respect the T-800.
I got nothing for this one.
I got nothing for this one.

In First Blood Part II, Rambo must overcome his post-traumatic stress as he actually returns to Vietnam, fighting again. It’s a key way to link the original film but also push the character forward. The audience wants familiarity with the first film, but also something new. This is a simple way to connect the two.

The other two sub-rules deal with the circumstances at the beginning of a sequel. A sequel by its definition is a continuation of a character’s story. And as pointed out earlier, the main character must continue developing in different ways and in different situations.

If you don't see the first one you'll never understand why there's purple lightning coming out of the Delorean.
If you don’t see the first one you’ll never understand why there’s purple lightning coming out of the Delorean.
Unless a sequel is a direct sequel, like Back to the Future Part II or Part III, there will have been some time in between the original film and the continuation. And that has to be dealt with. Obviously a lot has happened. Or at least it should have.
If you look at Aliens, Ripley has woken up from a 57-year hypersleep. In a sense, Cameron put her in the same spot as the audience, dropped into a familiar universe many years later, with no clue as to what’s happened in the meantime. But significant events have indeed happened, like the planet LV-426 being colonized and Ripley’s daughter dying (of old age)  while she was adrift. This sets up the events of the film to come, while also filling in what’s changed since the last movie.
Even if you do see the first one, you won't get why there's lightning.
Even if you do see the first one, you won’t get why there’s lightning.
In First Blood Part II, Rambo has paid for his actions in First Blood, and is in a prison camp, smashing rocks all day long. Colonel Trautman arrives and tells him that the government believes there are still some POW’s in Vietnam, so he must take photographic evidence of them. Politcally, things changed. For Rambo, things changed.

In T2, Sarah Connor is in a mental hospital because of her account of the original terminator. In the meantime she’s had a son and trained to become a warrior, even if it didn’t really take. Circumstances have changed. Notice that all the characters have, in some way, been cut off from society for a while. Ripley was asleep, Rambo was in prison and Sarah was in an institution. This isn’t an essential ingredient, but an interesting Cameron common thread.   It serves the same purpose of putting the audience in the place of the character – we don’t know what’s happened since we last saw these people and neither do they.

This idea of changing circumstances logically may seem obvious, but a few counter examples may prove otherwise.

You can tell it's totally different because colors.
You can tell it’s totally different because hats.  And the suits are darker.
Take Ghostbusters II. It starts with the three main scientists doing something other than ghostbusting, trying to make a living, when Dana Barrett visits them and asks for help with paranormal activity around her. They then investigate and find that New York City needs Ghostbusters, so they reform the company. It’s a suitable plot, but it’s a rehash of the original and it completely undoes any momentum started by the original. Instead of showing them in business, as the end of the original implied, the sequel opens with them sued out of existence because apparently they were responsible for the damage a 100-foot marshmallow man caused.  It leaves the heroes precisely back where they started the first time around, allowing them to go through the same motions. It doesn’t make for an interesting story because it’s been told before and the characters are used to it by now. It’s insulting to the viewers because it takes all the momentum they took the time to watch and throws it away.
Honestly, though.  Watch this movie.
But the wife-beater returns.  So that’s a plus.

Die Hard With a Vengeance, even though I supported it for changing the game and upping the ante, falls for this.  In the first two Die Hards, McClane saves his marriage and his wife, then saves her again for good measure.  Die Hard 3 opens with McClane divorced (or at least separated) and an alcoholic.  It not only takes away all the momentum from the first two entries, but it hits him below the belt with a drinking problem.  A subplot of the movie then involves him mustering the courage to call his wife.  The movie succeeds because it does enough besides this to work, but it’s still a messy spot in what’s otherwise a great sequel.

After that tangent, all it leaves is the last sub-rule. A sequel must function on its own two feet as a solid film, without the original for back-up. However it’s a delicate balance between making sure the film references the original, but not enough to make the sequel confusing.

Aliens easily functions on its own as a story. It’s structured so that the required information from the original, that Ripley was the only survivor of the crew that found the alien on LV-426, is explained. Therefore the suspense for the sequel in itself lies in the waiting for the creature to appear.
And there it is.
And there it is.
Likewise T2 can be watched on its own and thoroughly enjoyed because it explains everything the audience would need to know. Viewers of the original will likely appreciate it more, but there’s nothing left too open in the sequel itself.
First Blood II, especially the version that reached the screen, doesn’t require a viewing of First Blood. We learn that Rambo was a war hero that snapped, was put in prison, and now his expertise in Vietnam makes him the best candidate to rescue POW’s.
Although most of Back to the Future Part II takes place during the first, so maybe it'll make sense.
Although most of Back to the Future Part II takes place during the first, so maybe it’ll make sense.

Compare this to Back to the Future Part II, which picks up immediately after the first, and even takes place largely during the events of the first. Granted, a viewer could catch up with events and characters as it progresses, but it relies heavily on a knowledge of the first, especially because it intertwines with the first. It’s still enjoyable on its own, but it really requires having seen the first to truly be appreciated. As such it only really appeals to those who are familiar with the first. The same can be said for Part III, which while entertaining on its own, makes much more sense when viewed after the first two installments. A sequel must stand on its own. The Indiana Jones series supports this idea, as each film is episodic, and largely unrelated to the others.

“I think sequels should be earned,” said screenwriter, director, and producer Jay Roach.  He’s also the man responsible for the Austin Powers franchise.  Draw what conclusions you will.

But he’s got a point.  Very few stories demand or even warrant a sequel.  Because a story is almost by definition the most interesting thing to ever happen to its characters and most sequels try to be grander than their originals, why didn’t the filmmakers just tell the second story first?  If it’s that much bigger and crazier, why did we need the first one?
It's almost like he's beckoning for you...
It’s almost like he’s beckoning for you…go to him…
Cameron’s figured out the method for raising that bar, making that second story bigger, but still paying reverence to the original.  The secret is making the sequel so natural that it doesn’t feel like a different story but an organic continuation of the first story.
Ghostbusters II ended with the Statue of Liberty walking through New York to break through the slime mold covering an art museum.  Why didn’t we see that first?  I’d say that’s wilder than a big marshmallow.  It almost devalues the original because of its attempt to one-up it.
She just has a really, really, really, really, really bad week.
She just has a really, really, really, really, really bad week.
Watching Alien and Aliens back-to-back feels like one long, constantly escalating movie.  It’s because her escape from the Nostromo wasn’t the end of her story with the alien; as soon as she was found the story continued naturally.  The case could be made this follows through even to Alien 3, but that’s another story for another day.
Terminator leads perfectly into Terminator 2: Judgement Day.  It’s Sarah Connor’s endless fight to save her son and make him into the leader of humanity.  It works as one big story.
This doesn’t work quite so well with First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II, but it’s still hidden in there.  Rambo gave in to his PTSD in the first, letting it all out and paying the price for it – prison.  His only way out was to go back to the place that afflicted him in the first place and save people just like him.  It’s a symbolic self-redemption and feels like a continuation of the first.
If you haven't picked up on it by now, you should really watch this movie.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, you should really watch this movie.
And it’s (mostly, in the case of Rambo) thanks to James Cameron.  He gets what makes sequels work and stand alongside their predecessors.
While I didn’t enjoy Avatar, it gives me some hope that Avatar 2, which is due out in the next few years, will at least be a solid follow-up.
But Cameron’s never done a second sequel.
So Avatar 3 might be horrible.
But I don’t really mind;  I’ll still be watching Aliens.
Coming Soon:
More on Cameron, possibly.
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