It’s Viet Nam in space, a proto-feminist battle royale, and the most relentless sci-fi action movie ever made – and it came out in the UK exactly 30 years ago, on 29 August 1986. IAN NATHAN discovers how only a single-minded obsessive at war with his colleagues could incubate Aliens.
They thought he was completely out of his mind. The young director wanted to build a 12-foot Alien with room inside for two puppeteers to operate the arms and legs. He’d even done a sketch to show how. Now he proposed a test. So his effects team constructed a fibreglass mould with a foam head and body and covered it in black bin bags. They then carted it out to the car park and slung it from a crane. As it bobbed it up down, the director was there with a camera shouting instructions. It may have been rudimentary, but that bin-bag monstrosity actually looked pretty cool. This director’s ideas always seemed to work. And this was his plan to out-do a classic.
If you are looking for the reason why 30 years after its conception Aliens remains the best argument there is for sequels, then the answer is James Cameron. There is something primal about his storytelling, how he taps into our collective Jungian hunger for excitement, relentless in the pursuit of his vision. Frequent collaborator and gun-range compadre Michael Biehn compares him to the inexorable Terminator, only slightly more single-minded. Sigourney Weaver is certain that an Alien sequel would never have happened if, “Jim hadn’t made it his own movie.”
He was 31 when he eventually shot the film, 29 when he was called in for a meeting with producers David Giler, Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll, impressed by his script for The Terminator. They happened to be the producers of Alien.
Cameron had seen Ridley Scott’s masterpiece the night it opened in Los Angeles in 1979, and was in awe of its realism. What made Alien so powerful was that this creature dredged up from the imagination of a peculiar Swiss artist had (chest)burst into the laps of a crew of working stiffs. Scott dubbed them “truck drivers in space”, and back when he first moved to California, Cameron drove a 12-wheeler to make ends meet. He related to these guys, picked off one by one.
But it was Scott’s filmmaking that truly spoke to him: the haunting style, the control of pace, the pressure cooker intensity. Alien left him sick with envy.
Cut to a few years later: grim determination and raw talent have brought him to the threshold of his first feature film (he had been fired from Piranha 2, which is another story). Inspired by a fever dream, The Terminator was to star monosyllabic Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger as a robot assassin from the future and would turn out to be extraordinary. First though, a false start: Schwarzenegger had forgotten to check the small print in his Conan The Barbarian contract and was held up making a tin-pot sequel leaving Cameron to bide his time. So he went looking for a scriptwriting gig to pay the rent.
At the end of a fairly unproductive meeting (they had offered him Spartacus in Space), Giler casually mentioned a stalled Alien sequel. No matter how well received the original, 20th Century Fox had never been responsive to Scott’s ideas for a sequel (outside of Star Wars, sci-fi was still viewed as B-movie junk in the early eighties). Giler and Hill (Carroll didn’t write) themselves had progressed no further than “Ripley and soldiers”.
Cameron virtually leaped down their throats.
As fate would have it, that very day he was also offered another sequel — post-Vietnam combat flick Rambo: First Blood Part II with Sylvester Stallone. Fuelled by coffee and Big Macs, Cameron would mathematically divide his overloaded schedule between the two scripts and his preparations for The Terminator, sleeping only when his body screamed for relief.
He began to see Alien 2 as much a response to Vietnam as Rambo. “It really became a movie about hubris,” he says. These gung-ho, tech-savvy soldiers defeated by a “determined, furtive, asymmetric enemy.”
There was never any doubt in Cameron’s mind that he would direct the film. Fox were sceptical, but when The Terminator became a smash hit and Cameron designated that season’s wunderkind, they swiftly signed him up, the sequel now a major project.
Cameron felt no obligation to call Scott. “There was no upside to contacting Ridley,” he says. “The movie was there for everybody to see.” He took to calling Alien the “prequel.” By making the sequel a combat movie, he would be able to honour and continue the Scott’s retrofitted marvels, but also carve out his own territory. Instead of testy truck drivers, he envisioned a squad of cocksure marines who would return us to LV-426, the wind-blasted planetoid where John Hurt’s Kane had his exceedingly close encounter. LV-426 had been terra-formed in the time since Alien, and all contact with the new colony has been lost.
Cameron is so effective at nailing character on the hoof: lollygagging clown Hudson (Bill Paxton); no-nonsense Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein); the snake-oil platitudes of company man Burke (Paul Reiser); the ambivalent cool of synthetic Bishop (Lance Henrickson); and tough, ruminative Hicks (Biehn).
Truth be told, Biehn was an eleventh hour replacement as the square-jawed corporal. Actor James Remar hadn’t been catching his director’s drift, and under the catchall pejorative “artistic differences” was dismissed.
Biehn had been slightly aggrieved at missing out given he had been in the trenches with Cameron on The Terminator. But when the call came there wasn’t a second thought. “Is your passport in order?” producer Gale Anne Hurd barked down the phone without any preliminaries. A day later he was on a plane to London. “There wasn’t a question in the world,” he says, “I was there! Plus I didn’t have to put up with three weeks of bullshit marine training, I just stepped right onto the set.”
Cameron had organised a boot camp (presided over by former members of the SAS) to instil some military discipline into his troupe. It wasn’t only about developing their physical prowess, but the gallows humour and shorthand of soldiers weathered by combat.
“Bill and I had more to do than the others, but everyone stood out,” says Biehn. “Although I love Bill, Bill was so great in that movie, that excitable guy. I still hear videogames and stuff… I’ll be walking by my son’s room and hear quotes stolen from Bill’s dialogue: ‘Game over, man! Game over!” The rat-tat-tat flurries of Cameron’s one-liners would make Aliens as quotable as Casablanca.
Paxton, another who goes way back with Cameron, had feared Hudson was going to wear out his welcome. “The hysterical guy who’s always whining, the audience is going to want to feed him to the monsters’,” he winces. “But what I didn’t realise was that Jim was using me in a really brilliant way. Hudson is almost like a pressure-release valve — he says the inappropriate thing at the inappropriate moment, and it gives the audience a bit of a breather.”
Cameron was carefully walking a tightrope. That strain of defiant wisecracking could easily devolve into cliché. But if the audience don’t sympathise with the characters, they can’t be scared.
Paxton has nothing but the best memories of making the film. All the marines, stationed at the Holiday Inn in Langley, would hang out together, heading for the pub, or weather-permitting trying a barbecue. He can clearly remember the day Weaver arrived on set. They were all practicing with flamethrowers, and she was wearing Ripley pumps specially made for her by Reebok.
For Cameron it was a different story. The shoot was an endurance test to echo the trials faced by his characters. As soon as the Canadian touched down on the alien shores of Pinewood he found himself confronted by an implacable foe — the British crew.
Shooting from September 1985 to April 1986 on claustrophobic soundstages stifling with dry ice and dripping water (and in the decommissioned Acton Lane power station for the nest sequences inside the reactor) with a tight budget of $18m, Cameron was looking for the same camaraderie he shared with his actors. That meant a willingness to work 15-hour days if that is what it took. You were with him, or dead to him. But in those days, a crew came with the studio. You played the hand you were dealt.
The Pinewood mob had been around the block. They had worked with Scott on Alien and thought this angry upstart with only one film to his name was out of his depth. The Terminator hadn’t been released in the UK yet, and they seldom showed up when Cameron put on a screening. They resented how hands-on he was — operating the camera or applying slime were cardinal sins — and an atmosphere of resentment if not outright resistance persisted. But what really galled the director were the union-mandated tea breaks. At 11 and four, without fail, the tea trolley would clatter onto set, usually letting all the carefully tended dry-ice escape into the car park.
Infamously, it was the tea breaks that finally broke Cameron. When during a particularly trying scene the trolley squeaked into view, he growled his displeasure, ran over and shoved the urn clean off the trolley. It left a symbolic dent.
“Jim knows how to squeeze every ounce out of a day, ‘til there’s nothing left of it, not even the rind,” says Paxton. “But he pissed a lot of the old-school guys off. If he had to wait for something, he’d go grab it himself, and they’d be shaking their heads, saying, ‘Hey, guv, that’s not cricket.’ Whereas the younger guys and his whole cast, we were gung-ho.”
You also sense that an embattled mind-set is an essential part of Cameron’s DNA. This is the man who filmed the majority of The Abyss in a retired nuclear reactor filled with so much chlorinated water it bleached the stuntmen’s hair white. The tempestuous, overrunning Titanic would nearly double its budget before becoming the biggest film of all time. For all his frustrations, the footage coming out of his Alien sequel was stunning.
“We tried to deflect any possible criticism by making the film more thematically consistent with The Terminator than with Alien,” says Cameron. “Just go for fun and exhilaration and people that you can relate to as human beings.” Science fiction, he felt, had been too interested in gleaming, sterile displays of the future. He wanted to make a film that “pulls you in.”
- Space fact! Colette Hiller who played Ferro is now part of Street Piano which places pianos in British train stations for travelers to play.
Where Scott went for a horror-like seesaw between calm and shock, Cameron never relents. At the end of the first act, with two-thirds of the marines dead and survival the only goal, you have to remind yourself to breathe.
Weaver laughs. “Jim said to me, ‘If you think the first one was a funhouse, this one’s the rollercoaster.”
During pre-production at Stan Winston’s studio in the San Fernando Valley in LA, a crate arrived from London. It was the size of a coffin, the late effects wizard would remember, and out of it came a rank smell of stale sweat and decayed rubber. Inside was the original Alien suit, a bit ratty and torn up, but still intact. They were delighted to discover that bottle tops, macaroni pieces, even parts of a Rolls Royce had been glued into the design. The feet were just black Converse tennis shoes covered with latex.
Naturally, the first one to try it on was Cameron. He was shocked how inflexible the damn thing was. Plus, you couldn’t see a thing. To create the impression of a colony overrun by Aliens, his suits needed to allow a whole range of movement. “The silhouette of the Alien was the most important thing,” reasoned Winston, “but they needed to give a performance.” Their answer was simplicity: black leotards with pieces glued onto them (no macaroni). And only six suits were needed. Through cunning editing and spectral lighting there appears to be Zulu-like hordes of Aliens.
While writing the script, Cameron recalled a story he had read about Dan O’Bannon, the B-movie aficionado who had written the original script for Alien. In search of a more sophisticated title than the retrograde Starbeast, it occurred to him how often he wrote the word “alien.”
Cameron noticed a similar effect. Only this time, it was the word “aliens” that leaped out. He smiled to himself — this was not only a perfect title, but a credo for his sequel: the first film only multiplied. Legend has it the young director strolled into a pitch meeting with his producers and without saying anything wrote the word “Alien” on the whiteboard. He then paused, allowing his perplexed paymasters to take that in, before adding the letter “s” so that it read “Aliens.” He allowed another pause, still without uttering a word, before drawing a line down the “s” so that it became a dollar sign, “$”. He then walked out again. This, legend concludes, was the day the film was greenlit.
In Cameron’s mind, the Aliens stood for the Viet Cong, this non-technological but highly organised fighting force. He wanted them to meld with the bony appurtenances of the resin-coated walls until stirred terrifyingly into life. They would spring onto the disorientated marines, scuttle through air vents, but remain enshrouded in smoke and shadow, the only close-up the razor-sharp teeth parting to reveal yet more teeth — the last thing you’ll ever see.
Just as he had decided not to seek out Scott’s advice, Cameron decided against bring HR Giger back into the fold. He feared the Swiss artist who had designed the Alien would prove temperamental as he had on Alien. Moreover, not as psychosexually orientated, he wanted to take what he loved about Giger’s Freudian ghouls and run.
Giger had been hurt by the snub, but he liked the movie. “Aliens was also terrific,” he reported politely, “I am sorry I was not asked to work on it.” Cameron later regretted that he hadn’t sought out the artist and sent him a letter of apology for “abducting his first-born.”
The truth behind the brushoff was that Cameron had his own answer to the question left by Giger’s astonishing life cycle for the Alien: egg to facehugger to chestburster to full-grown xenomorph with acid for blood. Where did the eggs come from?
For all the breathless action, Cameron’s greatest intuition was that Alien and its sequel weren’t the story of an alien species at all. They were the story of a human being: former warrant officer Ellen Ripley (the “Ellen” was his invention too, to be found in the director’s cut of Aliens), tough, resourceful, at her best in a crisis, and more than a bit like James Cameron.
In Alien, he reflected, the characters literally existed in a vacuum — they had no life beyond that film. “Ripley, of course, was the only survivor because she was a very strong female, and that impressed me very much. I wanted to take the character further, to know Ripley as a person, to see some depth and emotion.”
While writing he kept a picture of Ripley by the side of the typewriter. She was in virtually every scene. But why, he wondered, would we she go back? Simple: “She goes back to conquer her nightmare,” he surmised. “In a way, Aliens is about her revenge.”
Weaver, however, had no idea a sequel had even been written. She had always derided the idea of Alien 2 when it occasionally reared its head. Why return to what was now perceived as a classic? It took persuading before she read the script, but she agreed to meet with Cameron, arriving with copious colour-coded notes adorning her copy. She had ideas: Ripley should never fire a weapon; Ripley should make love to the Alien; Ripley should die. Cameron shot them all down (NB: they all appear in the sequels), the script was a fait accompli, but he was relieved when Weaver didn’t flee.
Then she was negotiating her way toward a significant pay rise, becoming the first actress to earn $1 million for a movie.
On set there was a mutual respect. Cameron understood that no one knew the character better than Weaver. They would have healthy discussions. Weaver, more intellectual than instinctual, would question everything. “How do I feel about Newt in this scene?” “Do I trust Bishop yet?” She particularly liked the the idea of Ripley’s survivor guilt: “She feels she must finally lay to rest the ghosts of the past or there will be no future for her.”
Hardly a shrinking violet, the five foot 11 New York actress also enjoyed what she describes as Cameron’s “full-tilt” methods. “There’s no moderate speed,” she laughs, “you’re always at turbo-charge. You’re always doing it together and it’s always going to be worth it.”
It is hard to judge whether Cameron ever had a feminist angle in mind. He writes by feel, and this felt right. Weaver, too, is prosaic about Ripley’s feminist credentials. She prefers to consider her a universal hero, a real person. “I feel like Ripley is all of us,” she says, “She is called to reach down and find the resources to fight in every way possible. To me it’s about all of us. There’s a Ripley in all of us.”
Moreover, if Alien was the story of rival species, Aliens is the story of rival parents. Cameron grasped that a mother’s drive to protect her young is more primal than her instinct to survive. It was a step up in evolutionary motivation. In the intense Dantean finale, Ripley is prepared to descend into Hell to save her child. For all the bravado, all the military jargon and hardware, all the pulsating action, the film fixes on the singular drive of a mother saving a child. For all their brute force, Cameron’s films possess a strong emotional streak.
Key to this was Newt, the lone survivor of the colony — a miniature Ripley and her surrogate daughter. She is played by the nine-year-old Carrie Henn, a US airbase kid with zero training (and zero acting ambition — Henn went on to be a teacher). A stoic soul, Henn remained unperturbed by the dark places she was required to go. “I wanted to engage Carrie’s imagination,” recalls Cameron, “but I didn’t want her having nightmares. There was a certain insulation that was done. I think at one point I took her to the creature shop to show her the monsters were all made out of rubber.”
Also key was Cameron’s beast du resistance — the Alien Queen. His answer to the riddle set by the eggs. The bin-bag monster he was so sure would work. Winston’s demonic puppet would end up 14-feet tall and need 14 operators, and when smothered in K-Y jelly (cases of lube would arrive on set every week) and facing off against Ripley in the film’s epic showdown it was formidable. Winston liked to quip that, “The queen alien was probably the only actress that could take direction from Jim Cameron, get pissed, and back him off.”
Then she was one angry mother. Her eggs barbecued, she comes to claim Newt, triggering Ripley’s unforgettable battle cry: “Get away from her, you BITCH!” By then it was late in the shoot, and Weaver meant every word of it.
It’s so stirring a moment, such a defiant, human response, and the impassioned epicentre of what made Aliens the highest grossing film of the franchise, picking up seven Oscar nominations (including Best Actress), and crowning Cameron as king of the world (a crown he would never relinquish). Audiences cheered — they still cheer — the women in primal recognition, the men because mummy was here to save them. The sequel would conclude with the ultimate womano a womano confrontation: Ripley in a canary-yellow power-loader suit versus this super-sized Giger hive queen. Alien multiplied.
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