Welcome to Beat the Algorithm — a recurring column dedicated to providing you with relevant and diverse streaming recommendations based on your favorite movies. Today, we’re recommending must-see films if you like James Cameron’s action-packed sci-fi sequel Aliens.
Legend has it that when James Cameron pitched a sequel to Alien, he wrote the word “Alien” on a chalkboard, added an “s”, and turned that “s” into a dollar sign. Supposedly, the project was greenlit that day for $18 million. While this story is ultimately just hearsay, it contains the emotional truth of what would go on to be one of the greatest blockbusters ever made. Namely: a certain 1980s power-tripping enthusiasm that shoots first and asks questions later.
It’s a very hard thing to make a good sequel. And it is an even harder thing to make a sequel that is so good, and so its own thing, that it stands on its own. But, if anyone could do such a thing, it’d be Cameron.
Aliens picks up more or less where its predecessor left off, with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) drifting through space, suspended in cryo-sleep. 57 years after the events of the first film, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation recover Ripley’s life pod. During her debrief, her employers are less than pleased with her account of what happened on the Nostromo. Her insistence that they must investigate the derelict alien ship on the exomoon LV-426, where she recalls seeing hundreds and hundreds of eggs, falls on deaf ears. Even though, to Ripley’s horror, LV-426 is now home to hundreds of terraforming colonists. But when contact with the colony falls silent, Ripley, and a gaggle of character-filled space marines, are sent to investigate.
Aliens is an anomaly in its own franchise. Building off the understated sci-fi horror of Ridley Scott’s original, Cameron crafted a bigger, more bombastic, and some would even say better extraterrestrial thriller.
Aliens reshapes the series and shakes things up, which means it encompasses everything from sci-fi horror to blockbuster action. And as a result, the films it could be paired with also vary wildly. Our picks for the streaming selections that will cater to fans of Cameron’s film range from earthly creature features to out-of-this-universe thrillers. So without further ado, let’s get into the recommendations.
This article was co-written with Meg Shields.
Phase IV (1974)
While cinema history may remember Saul Bass for his kinetic title sequences and minimalistic film posters, around these parts, we celebrate the incomparable Mr. Bass for his first, and tragically only, directorial effort. Phase IV is a characteristically morose and dystopic slice of 70s sci-fi that tells the apocalyptic tale of two scientists (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) working at a remote research station in the Arizona desert. To their horror, they fall under siege by the very object of their research: a colony of ants who have begun acting strangely in the aftermath of a mysterious cosmic event. As the wider, global, implications of their ant-imposed lockdown take hold, the two men slip into hubris, desperation, and quiet acceptance as they come to grips with their status as the outmatched, overconfident species.
While Phase IV is decidedly a more dread-soaked film than Aliens, the former offers an interesting counterpoint to the grandiose bombast of James Cameron’s power fantasy. So if you watched Aliens and thought, “huh, what would happen if Ripley couldn’t win, no matter how hard she tried?” Phase IV has you covered (in ants!).
Available on Amazon Prime.
There’s something morbidly amusing about putting James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven on the same list. The former is a Canadian who understands and caters to American cinematic power trips. And the latter is a Dutchman who understands and actively mocks American cinematic power trips.
RoboCop, arguably Verhoeven’s satirical masterpiece, tells of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a police officer who died for the sins of Detroit only to be resurrected as an instrument of the police state that betrayed him. Few films can match Cameron’s pyrotechnics pound-for-pound. But between Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett’s special effects work and Verhoeven’s allergy to subtlety, RoboCop is a worthy contender. Plus, did someone say corrupt, corporatized concrete hellscape? A capitalistic dystopia more than willing to throw the working class under the bus? This Venn Diagram is starting to look a whole lot like a circle. And this is to say nothing of Cameron and Verhoeven’s co-founding of the “I bet the future is co-ed” mentality.
Available on Tubi.
The Abyss (1989)
For most of us, the closest we can get to space exploration is to take a plunge in the ocean, be it snorkeling, scuba diving, or hell, binge-watching deep-sea YouTube videos from the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. The sea and the silent wastes of outer space have an unnerving amount in common. So, in many ways, James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi film The Abyss, is, in spirit, a space adventure. In truth, The Abyss and Aliens have far more in common than a shared writer-director (or the presence of Michael Biehn), and pair nicely in the gung-ho spirit of a ragtag team of experts overwhelmed by their encounter with a mysterious, foreign presence.
The Abyss sees a civilian oil rig crew tapped to investigate the disappearance of a nuclear submarine, which has plummeted inexplicably into the Cayman Trough. Tasked with venturing 25,000 feet below the surface, the team must race against the clock to salvage the vessel before the Soviets. Though such earthly concerns quickly fade into the background when they discover the true cause of the sub’s fate.
Available on Amazon Prime.
Graveyard Shift (1990)
A criminally under-seen creature feature based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, 1990’s Graveyard Shift is the answer to the eternal question: “what if the xenomorphs in Aliens were rats?” You know. That question we’ve all asked ourselves many, many times. Instead of sacrificial space marines, we’ve got a desperate, disenfranchised working-class. Instead of an alien-infested space colony, we’ve got a rat-infested textile mill. And instead of a big, goopy Alien Queen, we’ve got a big, goop rat-bat hybrid. Featuring genuinely skin-crawling creature design, alarmingly nightmarish art direction, and a top-tier supporting performance from the legend Brad Dourif, Graveyard Shift is the most fun you can have watching a team of exterminators are picked off one-by-one by ravenous rodents.
Available on AMC Plus.
If you’re in the mood for a more earth-bound monster action movie, perhaps one with pogo sticks and practical effects, Tremors is the way to go. Following a couple of Southwestern handymen (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward), Tremors unleashes giant, powerful, and very angry worms across the desert. The creature feature has a healthy sense of humor to go along with some stellar effects work, making for a fun romp that delivers on the thrills. And sure, it’s more sun-drenched and less space-set, but if you’re into the big monster aesthetics and memorable characters of Aliens, this action flick is worth its weight in worm guts.
Available on Starz.