The Scariest Scene In Aliens Hangs From The Ceiling

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: Matt says "Game Over" in a good way and Ariel emphasizes just how memorable a moment this is.)

I understood the horror of heartbeat sensors far before "Call of Duty: Warzone." There's nothing like the adrenaline surge when hunting an enemy tango in the final circle while using your handheld motion detector. A wee science-fiction classic called "Aliens" showed me how horrifying tiny moving dots could become. James Cameron — the master of sequels with such examples as "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Piranha II: The Spawning" — brings the mayhem to beeping motion sensors.

"Aliens" is more action spectacle than "Alien," which harbors an isolated cosmic nightmare. We don't think of "Aliens" as the first choice of frightener in a franchise that began with tighter corridors and a stalking space creature. That doesn't stop Cameron from retaining feral, unstoppable sensations of terror from looming as Xenomorphs become a galactic warfare threat. There's strength in numbers, more acidic blood with more bodies, and double the double-mouths. The scariest scene in "Aliens" understands the implications of dread when hardened soldiers find themselves caged like rats with rail guns.

The Setup

In "Aliens," Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is given no breather between her comatose stasis and traumatic recovery. It's been about 57 years since the Nostromo incident, but the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is anxious to return Ripley to galactic travel. Like she hasn't been through enough watching a lethal alien creature eliminate her entire Nostromo crew? Weyland-Yutani officials couldn't care less.

Company representative Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) convinces Ripley to join an expedition to terraforming colony Hadley's Hope after warnings of Xenomorph eggs. Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) assures his Colonial Marines will provide a formidable security detail. Ripley boards the Sulaco only on one condition — their mission includes eradicating any and all Xenomorphs. No problem for grunts like Hudson (Bill Paxton) and Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), or so they assure.

The Story So Far

The expedition is drop-shipped on LV-426, where they find a primarily deserted colony except for a shaken young girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn). It's quiet, too quiet, as Gorman's space marines make their way towards the station's center where they locate cocooned colonists and alien secretion — Xenomorphs have taken Hadley's Hope. Most of the colonial marines are killed in an ensuing battle with multiple adult Xenomorphs, with only Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn), Hudson, and Vasquez rescued from the chaos by Ripley in the armored vehicle that's forced deeper into the colony. All that combat training couldn't fend off the Xenomorph threats.

Ripley eventually sniffs out Burke's motivations: he was the one who ordered colonists to search a derelict spaceship for alien eggs. Another business stooge who wants to use extraterrestrials as biological weapons. Android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) interrupts Ripley before she can expose the information with news that the colony's planet will soon overheat and explode, which means they have to skedaddle. Bishop volunteers to remote pilot the Sulco's last dropship — currently the most pressing escape matter.

Burke attempts to impregnate Ripley and Newt with facehuggers after falling asleep in the medical bay, awaiting Bishop's exit plan. Ripley's fire alarm activation signals the remaining Marines to their rescue, and she pins the blame on Burke. Unfortunately, there's no time for justice because the power goes out — the Xenomorphs launch another attack. Everyone digs in, fortifying their makeshift colony stronghold.

Game over, man.

The Scene

In place of complete darkness, bright red alarm lights offer the only brightness. Vasquez and Hudson fan out by the entrance to see if they can catch any invaders. Hudson approaches one of the blockades and begins to pick up blips on his portable motion tracker. "They're in the complex." Hudson starts to get jumpy, twirling around from wall to wall.

"Just reading me." Vasquez has no bogueys.

"They're inside the perimeter." Hudson is showing more panic, and his readings reveal the Xenomorphs have somehow broken through their barricades — although nothing looks demolished.

Vasquez sees her own blurs on the motion tracker and confirms Hudson's paranoia. Neither can figure out how there's movement around them without any visible Xenomorphs. Hicks calls both soldiers back to the operations room to hold defensive positions. Everything is still bathed in red outside the whiteness of high-tech welding flames.

Hudson confirms the signal is clear, and the Xenomorph army is only 20 meters away. "Something we missed," Ripley wonders aloud. Eighteen meters. Seventeen meters. Ripley ponders if there's something in the floor they didn't clog or a concealed opening passed in haste.

Fifteen meters. Fourteen meters. "That's right outside the door!" Hudson is mesmerized by the readings, "This is a big f***ing signal!"

Twelve meters. Eleven. Ten. "Then they're right on us!" Vasquez clutches her weapon.

Eight meters. Seven. The sweat is dripping from Hudson's face like he's at Mardi Gras in a heatwave.

Six. "It can't be; that's right inside the room." Ripley senses something is wrong — way worse than even current space-attack standards.

Five meters. Four. Ripley grabs the motion tracker and slowly gazes upwards at the steel grates that make up the ceiling. Hicks jumps on some computer station consoles and unscrews one of the grates open. He pushes the crosshatched metal square up with his pistol and shines a flashlight's beam to reveal multiple Xemorphs crawling upside down in the ventilation space that's plenty wide for an encroaching army.

Hicks falls backward, shooting controlled assault rifle bursts into the ceiling grates, and that's when all hell breaks loose.

The Impact (Ariel's Take)

Love him or hate him, James Cameron is one of the greatest action filmmakers of all time, and "Aliens" is no exception. He takes the horror of the Xenomorph and Ridley Scott's original concept and amplifies it many, many times over. But it's his gift for effortless exposition that makes this scene (and really this entire movie) so powerfully terrifying. Hudson is spelling it all out for the audience, leaving nothing to the imagination, and the impact still makes you fall on your ass just like Hicks.

What's more is this scene follows immediately on the heels of Ripley and Newt fighting off the facehuggers in the med lab. There's barely a moment's pause to catch their breath before the power shuts off, and the threat of the Xenomorphs is quite literally crashing down on top them. It's a tense few minutes, with nothing but the cold beep of the proximity sensors telling them their fate is sealed. But that image, that shot of Hicks flashing his light on the charging Xenomorphs ... that lives rent free in the head of "Aliens" fans everywhere.