There are some places in the universe you don’t go alone…
“Get away from her, YOU BITCH!” – Ellen Ripley.
“Desolate. Black. Silent. Boundless. This is deep space.
“A scorched speck of technology called Narcissus drifts silently through the void on a non-stop course to nowhere. A monstrous shadow engulfs it. Beams of light flash on from above, criss-crossing the hull. Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley and a cat named Jones, last surviving members of the commercial starship Nostromo have been found…”
Is it really thirty years since ALIENS was released this day in the US in 1986?(!) It wasn’t until my birthday the following year that ALIENS received its first viewing (on my well-worn VCR, of course). At school, earlier that year, returning to class after a memorably rain-drenched lunch hour, it was thrilling – if a tad frustrating – to see that our teacher(!) and some of the other lads were watching ALIENS, then–newly-released on video.
Trust me to walk in during one of the more exciting bits: Ripley squashing one of the creatures under the wheels of the APC. Everyone there knew that this was Brad’s sorta movie, so why wasn’t that dweeb there to watch with them?!
(Ha, that’ll teach me to go study in the library…)
Yeah… but why did this SF movie buff NOT watch this at the cinema?!
The SF rollercoaster ride that Roger Ebert described as “painfully and unremittingly intense” would not be released until the following 29 August when it reached the unsuspecting UK. With a Cert-15 looming ominously over it, there was NO WAY yours truly would have been allowed to get in and gawp at it…
“That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?!”
“All right, sweethearts, what are you waiting for? Breakfast in bed? Another glorious day in the Corps! A day in the Marine Corps is like a day on the farm. Every meal’s a banquet! Every paycheck a fortune! Every formation a parade! I love the Corps!” – Sergeant Apone.
“From his console, Hudson cries out triumphantly: “Found ’em!” He looks at the cluster of blue dots clumped tightly in one area of the screen. “Sub-level C, under the south tower. Looks like a goddamn town meeting.”
The main reason why ALIENS has held up so well over the last three decades is due to the outstanding achievements of its script and vision, both realised by James Cameron.
Creating a sequel worthy of Ridley Scott’s marvelously claustrophobic: ALIEN seemed like an impossible challenge, but this turned out to be the biggest success story of ’86, outgrossing its predecessor and garnering 7 Oscar nominations (it won Best Visual Effects). Cameron has stated in numerous interviews how ALIEN is his fave film. While retaining that original’s scary tone, he imbued his follow-up with unrelenting thrills and suspense.
The title was the writer/director’s idea: “It’s funny… I read an interview with [Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter of ALIEN] that said he was typing away one night at 4:00am, and he was writing:
“The Alien did this; the Alien did that,” and he realized that the word: “Alien” stood out on the page. It was very much like that for me on this film. I was writing away and it was: “Aliens this and Aliens that,” and it was just right. It was succinct; it had all the power of the first title, and it implied the plurality of the threat. It also implied, of course, that it’s a sequel.”
And from the very beginning, he had conceptualised it primarily as Ripley’s story, with Weaver very much in mind to reprise her first major movie role.
But the actress had still not signed up.
So, Cameron would easily have allowed the studios to offer the role to another actress?
“No!” the director remarked. “Never, never, never!”
Private Hudson: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Private Vasquez: “No. Have you?”
“Hicks climbs onto a file cabinet and raises a ceiling panel, shining his flashlight inside. The crawlspace is a sickly, gut-wrenching mass of squirming, moist aliens clawing their way forward. Hicks leaps off and fires at the ceiling which bursts, raining aliens. Newt screams. Hudson and Vasquez open fire.”
With the sequel, some extension of H. R. Giger’s original nightmarish design was called for.
The Alien Queen was the stupendous result, designed by the movie’s main effects guru: Stan Winston, with Cameron: “I did the artwork, and he did the physical sculptural work. We tried to be consistent with Giger’s motifs, but not necessarily enslaved to them.”
(H. R. Giger was otherwise engaged at the time on Poltergeist II).
Crucially, rather than just a “thing,” the Alien Queen was viewed as a character, hence Ripley’s anguished dialogue towards it, and the extent the FX team went to make the audience accept that “she” was anything but a “7 foot tall actor in a suit.”
In the classic climactic confrontation, Ripley goes up against the Alien Queen in a Powerloader (after all, she has got a Level 6 rating) – one exo-skeleton versus another.
“Both Ripley and I have changed as time has gone on,” Sigourney Weaver observed. “I feel quite at home in this kind of action picture, oddly enough – because I guess I cut my teeth on it.”
And to think when she started production in 1979, and Giger’s design was yet to be unveiled, she remarked:
“For all I knew, the creature was this big blob of yellow Jello running around…”
“We’d better get back, ’cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly” – Newt.
“Ripley runs back the way she came. Aliens are coming at them from everywhere. She runs into a side corridor and enters a macabre room filled with eggs. A piercing shriek fills the chamber. Ripley whirls around and sees the most terrifying thing she has ever laid eyes on…”
One reviewer at the time remarked how ALIENS gave Sigourney Weaver “new emotional dimensions to explore.”
The addition of Newt – a lone, female survivor against the xenomorph menace; essentially a pint-sized version of Ripley – offered an emotional – predominantly feminine – subtext usually quite rare in mainstream SF. It allowed Ripley the chance to resurrect her maternal instincts; after having been “lost” for 57 years, she woke up only to find that she’d lost her own daughter just the year previously.
“She’s not the earnest young ensign she was when she went into space the first time,” Sigourney Weaver commented at the time. It was: “a real joy to return to Ripley with a whole different set of conditions… but I feel she has changed, so utterly, by what happens to her early in ALIENS… She is still a strong character.”
Bizarrely: “This is the first film where I’ve been surrounded by a large number of people who actually have less acting experience than I do.”
A possible sequel had been discussed since 1979, but after Weaver was gobsmacked by The Terminator, she knew that Cameron’s draft would be the only one to actually work.
“Exec producers [Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill] are friends of mine anyway, and we would get together over dinner and laugh about the sequel,” she said. “One scenario was that they would open Ripley’s little space-pod tomb – and she would dissolve into dust.
“No need for Sigourney!”
This is a monumental masterpiece; it is a personal favourite.
This was the overnight rental chosen to celebrate my 14th birthday.
This was the Saturday night TV matinee enjoyed the day after learning that a well-deserved BA degree was heading my way.
Heck yeah, here’s to the next thirty years!
“Not bad for a human…” – Bishop.