This second movie in the (apparently) ongoing Alien
saga marks the first transition from one genre to another. While the first film
is a haunted house
-type story that just happens to be set in a cavernous spacecraft
, the second installment is without doubt a gun movie
While it may be true that James Cameron is a fanatic for detail, it is also true that his aesthetic is dramatically different from Ridley Scott, whose dark, wet scenes and hysterical rotating beacons and klaxons are used to a very different end. Cameron is skilled at the presentation of action, of military 'hoo-rah' and firepower. The Colonial Marines stand nearly indistinguishable from the future warriors of The Terminator; in fact, their leader looks strangely familiar. They are the best of the best with the guns to prove it, and an attitude to back it up. Sure, they get their asses whupped initially, but that's just what they need to provoke a fallback of good old-fashioned human guts and glory stubbornness. These characters are almost cardboard; there is the inexperienced officer, the cowardly corporate, the veteran noncom, the arrogant troopers who are cut down to size.
It is all done, however, with great flair and scenery and special effects. The creation of a deserted colony, rife with possibility, hints at the sort of suspense that was routinely dished out by the first movie, but is soon overrun with a sea of weapons fire and explosions. Still, this isn't badly done. Those few real characters we see - Ellen Ripley, Carter Burke (to some degree), Newt and even Bishop, ironically - all resonate an aura of human response to the carnage, chaos and incredible isolation forced on them.
Some other notable bits about the movie: The DVD Special Edition contains approximately 17 minutes of additional footage. Some of this, IMHO, is completely redundant, like the pre-infestation scenes of a bustling colony; some is terribly missed in the original release, like Ripley learning of her daughter's death from old age.
Cameron does play nods to Ridley Scott's environments. Look for the familiar Cyclones, coffee cups, and glaring contrasts of light and dark. H.R. Giger's creation is somewhat subdued by the grandiose surroundings and its exposure in a great deal more screen time - but not much.