While switching from horror to a more sci-fi/action tenor is the most obvious change, the biggest divergence in James Cameron’s Alien sequel is the nature of the threat. Alien posited a universe where the exploitation of corporate serfdom collided with a prowling, eldritch beast that killed via copulation. The Weyland-Yutani company existed through its artificial proxies, deliberately removed from humanity. Ripley may have been able to deduce their motivations, but much about them remained as unknowable as anything related to the xenomorph. Aliens wastes no time, however, putting a face to this entity: rescued after 57 years in cryo-sleep, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is then forced to rehash the details of her ordeal to a room full of frumpy, dimwitted accountants. Their concern about the Nostromo’s dollar value is callous, but entirely mundane. Likewise, yuppie opportunist Burke (Paul Reiser) elicits disgust when he tries to profit off the alien’s existence, but he’s a pale substitute for cum-blooded alien-fanbot Ash and his oral fixation.
The change to less unknowable horror does allow Cameron and Weaver opportunity to better explore Ripley. While a fierce pragmatist and capable of taking charge the first time around, the film’s ensemble nature meant she wasn’t the focus. Aliens sets the franchise squarely on her shoulders. The film charts her growth from traumatized victim–clutching her chest every moment she’s triggered–to returning to the source of that trauma, overcoming it. To that end, Cameron surrounds her with a child to care for (Carrie Henn’s Newt) and a squad of Marines, trigger-happy and cocksure but also largely supportive and utilitarian.
The nature of these relationships change subtly, depending on whether you’re watching the theatrical cut or the much-celebrated special edition. The latter introduces deleted scenes where Ripley remembers a daughter who died while she was asleep, positioning Newt explicitly as a surrogate daughter. That theme is subtext in the theatrical: Ripley is still tender and steadfast, giving Newt reassuring touches (prominently when she reaches for the child’s hands through a floor grate during a rescue attempt), but their bond is more specifically over the horrors inflicted upon them. They give knowing glances and have muttered asides about the aliens, precisely because no one else has gone through what they have. In many ways, Newt personifies Ripley’s own damaged psyche. Their relationship, and the stability they provide one another, gives them a space to grow from.