Home / THIS TIME IT’S WAR: Celebrating Thirty Years of Aliens (1986)

THIS TIME IT’S WAR: Celebrating Thirty Years of Aliens (1986)

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It took seven years before a sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 horror classic Alien would reach cinema screens. If in space no one can hear you scream, when James Cameron got his hands on Ellen Ripley and her “xenomorph” nemesis, you still wouldn’t be able to hear the screams, only this time because of the use of pulse rifles by a bunch of space marines. It would prove to be a very different film in many respects and yet, depending on who you talk to, either the equal to Scott’s original, or superior. Very seldom is there anyone who thinks lesser of it and for good reason.

It’s awesome.

In 1984, James Cameron had released his second movie, The Terminator. Of course we would all love it if the iconic Schwarzenegger-starring sci-fi movie was his debut, but it wasn’t. The first film Cameron called action on, and is credited as his first job, was Piranha II, which was taken away from him and re-edited without his permission by producer Ovidio G.Assonitus, who needed a credited American director as stipulated in his own contract with the studio. Despite the set back with “the best flying piranha movie ever”, Cameron made a splash with The Terminator, the film bringing him to the attention of many in Hollywood meaning that James Cameron had arrived and his next project was his for the taking. He wrote the script for 1985’s Rambo sequel, First Blood Part II, itself heavily re-written by star Sylvester Stallone, whilst at the same time writing the script for Aliens. With The Terminator being a massive success, Hollywood was keen to get their hands on the Canadian writer/director and his producing partner and wife Gale Anne Hurd, the latest Roger Corman proteges to cross over to the Hollywood mainstream, so the duo decided, in a risky move, to take on the sequel to the famed 1979 horror movie from Ridley Scott.

With its outer space setting, blue-collar characters, imaginative creature design and relentless building of tension and pace, Alien‘s reputation had grown over the years and the lack of a sequel was a surprise given how successful the film had been at the box office. Production company Brandywine had struggled with what to do with a sequel, brought about by bouts of creative and development hell and ever-changing regimes at 20th Century Fox,  until they were meeting with Cameron over a different project when the notion of Cameron directing the sequel came up, which led to Cameron, according to Hollywood legend, spelling the title as Aliens but with a dollar sign in place on s.

Writing the script at the same time as First Blood Part II, a film that featured the history of the Vietnam war in the centre of its plot, Aliens would also be, in some respects, about Vietnam. The story for Aliens would feature a team of marines going into hostile territory, armed with the latest in weaponry and technology, but would be disposed off easily against a less technologically advanced army. Whilst the first movie only featured one creature, Aliens would feature many, many more, although in actuality only six suits were made for the film, and whilst HR Giger was the creature designer for the first movie, the creature effects for the sequel would be handled by the iconic Stan Winston, and although he would retain the visual look of Giger’s designs, he would make his own tweaks to the creature and its design mythology when it came to the now iconic character that is the Alien Queen for the film’s fantastic final act.

Released in 1986, the film cost $18.5 million, the last time a Cameron directed film would have a moderate budget, but, having said that, the film does look incredible and one could almost be forgiven for thinking it cost three times as much. With production based at Pinewood Studios in England, the home of the James Bond movies and future home for Gotham City three years later for Tim Burton’s Batman, Cameron and Hurd would find themselves in the middle of a culture clash. The British crew, many of whom had worked on Scott’s movie, were ambivalent at these “young Americans” (although Cameron was Canadian) coming in and taking over their beloved British director’s movie. Amazingly Ridley Scott had found himself in the middle of a similar situation four years previously when he made Blade Runner, filmed predominantly in Los Angeles and at Warner Bros studios in Burbank, where he had a fraught relationship with an American crew not used to working with a British director like himself.

Despite trying to placate the British crew with screenings of The Terminator to prove they were more than capable, Cameron and Hurd found themselves frequently butting heads with a crew who only wanted to work 9am-5pm hours, stopped working upon the presence of the “tea lady” and were at the losing end of a vote when it came to working overtime. Rule Britannia and God Save The Queen and all that I guess. Even the cast were at loggerheads with the crew, as seen in interviews on the film’s fantastic DVD and Blu Ray editions, especially in stories recounted by Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn and Jennette Goldstein.

The problems even extended to Cameron and Hurd having to fire their DP and replace him whilst composer James Horner also fell out with Cameron due to the scoring equipment at Abbey Road Studios being out of date and the score having to be delivered at the last minute to meet the release date. Despite this, the two would form a brilliant collaborative partnership later on with the late, great composer delivering an Oscar-winning score for  Titanic and another wonderful piece of work for Avatar.

Despite these problems, none of them show on-screen. The film has stood the test of time for thirty years and time has in no way diluted any of its power. Released in July of 1986, the film grossed $180 million worldwide and was a massive pop cultural touchstone, as well as earning incredibly positive reviews from critics and even earning an Academy Award nomination for Sigourney Weaver, a rarity for a performance in a genre movie. Amazingly Fox were reluctant to have Weaver in the film as they thought she was too expensive, which came as news to Cameron who was furious as he had written the movie with Weaver in mind and had assumed that the deal was in place to have her resume the role for his sequel. In the end, on top of the nomination, Weaver’s performance would become one the most iconic in American science fiction cinema. The image of her with Newt in one arm and a pulse rifle in the other summed up the character perfectly as the “bad ass space mama”. It’s the first of two iconic images featuring the character in the movie because Cameron had an even better image in mind come the final set piece of the movie. Having established that she can use a power loader at the start of the movie, it’s a wonderful set up for when she has to strap herself into it again at the end, the visual reveal of her accompanied by that line cementing itself into the minds of a generation of cinema goers and which would never go away thanks to Fox frequently giving the movie a myriad of VHS, DVD and Blu Ray releases. One cannot help but find themselves shouting it along with her.

The climax of the movie gives Ripley not one, but two of modern sci-fi's most iconic images.
The climax of the movie gives Ripley not one, but two of modern sci-fi’s most iconic poses.

Six years after its release, an extended version of the movie seen the light of day on VHS and Laserdisc, extending the running time from 136 minutes to 154 minutes and remarkably the film doesn’t suffer. In fact many of the cut scenes that were reinstated are, as is the case with many Cameron extended cuts, of the utmost importance that it sometimes feels as if it was to the film’s loss that the scenes were cut in the first place. The extended version reinstated two scenes which hammer home the film’s themes of motherhood and bereavement that makes it all the more complete. The first was one which reveals that Ripley was in fact a mother and she had a daughter waiting for her when she was mining on The Nostromo in the first film before her first encounter with the creature. This makes the revelation that she has woken up from her cryo-sleep fifty-seven years after the first film’s events such a devastating reveal and Weaver’s portrayal of grief when Ripley sees a photo of her aged daughter (in fact a photo of Weaver’s mother) is one you never forget.

The second reinstated moment that made the film more complete was a scene that introduces Newt and establishes how she loses her parents and brother, giving a face to her loss that the original version didn’t even have. The director’s cut shows how these two characters are so wonderfully able to fill the void in each other’s lives through the course of the film’s narrative. Amazingly Carrie Henn was not even a professional child actress when she played the part, and would never act again, but her commanding portrayal of Newt is charming and deeply poignant and her scenes with Weaver are never forgotten once you’ve seen the movie. Kindred spirits in their experiences and losses due to their encounter with the film’s notorious villains, you are rooting for these two throughout and a lot of that is down to the combination of fantastic writing and performances.

It also hammers home the film’s themes of motherhood and birth and being a parent, the latter being a frequent recurring motif in many of Cameron’s movies (T2, True Lies), whilst the love story at the heart of the movie (love stories always being another frequent component that makes Cameron’s movies all the more emotionally resonant) is a parental one, much like T2.  For all the film’s intense thrills and action (described by Cameron as “forty miles of bad road” in his DVD introduction), all of it only works because of those themes and the characters at the heart of it, meaning the thrills and action work so well because we care so damn much. Add to all this a wonderful supporting group of characters around Ripley and Newt. The Marines are made up of a great group of actors, some of which are Cameron regulars; Michael Biehn once again reminds you why you frequently ask yourself as to why Hollywood never made him a bigger star giving his talent at being both great at action and emotional beats, Bill Paxton being both hilarious and annoying, and scoring the film’s second most iconic line, Jennette Goldstein is a complete bad-ass to the extent that you would love to see a whole movie involving her character, especially since she takes no crap from anyone, and then there’s Lance Henriksen as Bishop.

Maybe I’ll always be biased about Henriksen, maybe it’s because I grew up watching his performances in movies like this, or Near Dark (itself a mini-Aliens reunion) or even the television series Millennium (one of my all-time favourite television series), but there’s something about the guy who holds your attention. Here, his performance, a sweet and charming one throughout, has you on edge throughout mainly because Bishop is an android and you can’t help but feel he’ll turn like Ash from the first movie. That the fate awaiting this character awaits him starts the last section of the movie with a sickening shock.

The film even furthers the mythology of the series by finally giving a name and a face to “the company” referred to in the first movie. Finally revealed to be Weyland-Yutani, we get to see their board of directors effectively interrogate Ripley, basically filling in the blanks for anyone who hasn’t seen the first movie, and are represented by the weasel-like Carter Burke, a wonderful Paul Reiser, who starts the movie off as a nice guy but whose lust for corporate greed finally gets the better of him. It puts a somewhat human face to Ash’s motivation from the first movie.

When the film hits its shocking moments of violence and intense action, it does so with merit and earns those moments. In fact, in many ways, the film has the feel of something that was made thirty years ago. It doesn’t start with a straight up action sequence, in fact it builds up with a deliberate slow build, like James Horner’s opening credit music, building slowly and subtly up to a crashing crescendo before lulling you in before the next shock. The build up may prove taxing to younger audiences more used to the “crash”, “bang”, “wallop” openings evident in nearly every action movie nowadays, but here Cameron allow the film to slowly build up to its first action sequence and when the bullets start firing, as they inevitably will do in a lot of his movies, the action is clean, concise, nicely edited and brilliantly staged.

Ever since it's release, there has been much in the way of merchandise related to the movie.
Ever since its release, there has been much in the way of merchandise related to the movie.

In every conceivable way, Aliens has stood the test of the time, and whilst it is so easy to get into arguments over what the better movie is between this and the first one (nobody ever brings up Alien 3 or Alien:Resurrection in these arguments, funny that), the truth is both movies stand apart and together in an almost wonderfully contradictory way. The first film’s events impact on this one and yet you don’t need to have full knowledge of the 1979 movie in order to enjoy this most brilliant of sequels. It’s a complete movie in itself. It’s action packed, emotionally satisfying and nail bitingly suspenseful in a way that only James Cameron can do so with movies like this. The action is always great, but it’s nothing without the story to back it up and characters whose your heart bleeds for; you find yourself rooting for Ripley to save Newt in the final act of the movie because the film has earned your investment ten fold by that point, you find a small lump in your throat when Hicks and Ripley exchange first names, or jumping ten feet in the air when you think the movie is winding down but the Alien Queen shows up and Bishop is torn in half.

There’s a heart to the performances and the story telling here that is rare in a sequel, and one of the other times you see it on a level equal to this is in Terminator 2, and that was directed by Cameron as well. Sigourney Weaver is amazing throughout. This is without a doubt one of the most brilliantly layered performances in a Hollywood blockbuster from any performer from any gender. Carrie Henn is also fantastic. The scenes between the two of them are incredibly bittersweet and the establishment of a family dynamic in the film’s climax carries a poignancy due to where the series would eventually go in the third movie, something that is potentially going to be changed should Neil Blomkamp actually get to make his own take on Alien 3.

After thirty years, Aliens still retains its power to entertain, to shock, to scare and to sweep you along with its film making craft. You can argue all you want over whether this or Scott’s movie is the best, but together they make up for some of the best genre cinema in Hollywood history and via Ellen Ripley, one of blockbuster cinema’s most engrossing story arcs. Best of all, the movie has never disappeared and the movie, along with the franchise as a whole, has managed to stay in the mindset of audiences the world over despite the variable quality of the following sequels, crossovers and prequels. There have been Aliens comic books, video games and action figures, a lot of it stemming from Cameron’s film, the imagery of heavily armed and well suited marines going up against the fiercest creatures in Hollywood horror being one that has led to all sorts of spin-off media. Despite being R-rated in the US and an 18 in the UK, the film has a wide appeal, especially with children, meaning the film, like other R-rated blockbusters from the era, was geared towards adults, but had a toy campaign aimed at children.

It goes to show the impact the movie had, and continues to have in this day and age, on popular culture. The video game Aliens:Colonial Marines was eagerly awaited, although in the end slated by critics and gamers, whilst Dark Horse Comics was an outlet for the story to continue during the eight year wait between the second and third movies. In fact, given the creative direction the series went to, many fans of the film in particular found solace in these stories which continued the dynamic set up by Cameron at the end as opposed to destroying it in the way the incredibly pessimistic Alien 3 went on to do within its opening moments. In fact, if it ever gets made, Neil Blomkamp’s proposed fifth Alien movie, which has been delayed in favour of prequel/Prometheus sequel Alien:Covenant, is allegedly set to ignore both third and fourth instalments and continue the story as the second left it, in a similar way that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns did for the Superman franchise.

Whether or not we ever will get to see the sequel we’ve always wanted is neither here nor there. I would love to see it, for sure, but as it is, Aliens, still stands the test of the time. Thirty years has not diluted its power and it still remains one of the best sci-fi/horror blockbusters to come from Hollywood. It’s mixture of deeper themes, brilliantly intense action and emotional centre has made it a favourite for all this time, and means it probably will remain so for the next thirty. How many times have you heard the line “game over, man” referred to either in your own real life or in other movies or television shows? Joss Whedon has sited the movie as an influence. The British/Irish sitcom Father Ted made watching the director’s cut a running joke in one of its episodes. The television series Community featured Abed and Troy dressed up as an Alien and Power Loader for one particularly funny scene. How many movie trailers have featured elements of James Horner’s score within it? How many times have you watched the movie and still feel a little repulsed at the first sight of the Alien Queen laying eggs and that icky, gooey sound that goes along with it?

Despite the problems one may have with what happened to the series next, such as the various degrees of quality in the sequels, the crossovers and, of course, the divided opinion over Prometheus, Aliens, even at the age of thirty, is still one of Hollywood’s best sci-fi/horror action thrillers. It never gets old, it never loses its power and it gets better with every passing year.

Game over, man.