Aliens is a 1986 science fiction action film directed by James Cameron and starring Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, William Hope, and Bill Paxton. A sequel to the 1979 film Alien, Aliens follows Weaver's character Ellen Ripley as she returns to the planet where her crew encountered the hostile Alien creature, this time accompanied by a unit of Colonial Marines.
Aliens' action-adventure tone was in contrast to the horror motifs of the original Alien. Following the success of The Terminator (1984), which helped establish Cameron as a major action director, 20th Century Fox greenlit Aliens with a budget of approximately $18 million. It was filmed in England at Pinewood Studios, and at a decommissioned power plant.
Aliens grossed $86 million at the domestic box office during its 1986 theatrical release and $131 million internationally. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for Sigourney Weaver. It won in the categories of Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects. It won eight Saturn Awards, including Best Science Fiction Film, Best Actress for Weaver and Best Direction for Cameron.
Plot[edit | edit source]
Ellen Ripley, the only survivor of the space freighter Nostromo, is rescued and revived after drifting for fifty-seven years in stasis. At an interview before a panel of executives from her employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, her testimony regarding the Alien is met with extreme skepticism as no physical evidence of the creature survived the destruction of the Nostromo. Ripley loses her space flight license as a result of her "questionable judgment" and learns that LV-426, the planet where her crew first encountered the Alien eggs, is now home to a terraforming colony.
Some time later, Ripley is visited by Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke and Lieutenant Gorman of the Colonial Marines, who inform her that contact has been lost with the colony on LV-426. The company decides to dispatch Burke and a unit of marines to investigate, and offers to restore Ripley's flight status and pick up her contract if she will accompany them as a consultant. Traumatized by her previous encounter with the Alien, Ripley initially refuses to join, but accepts after Burke promises that the team will destroy any Aliens found and not attempt to study or collect them. Aboard the warship Sulaco she is introduced to the Colonial Marines, including Sergeant Apone, Corporal Hicks, Privates Vasquez and Hudson, and the android Bishop, toward whom Ripley is initially hostile due to her previous experience with the android Ash aboard the Nostromo.
The heavily armed expedition descends to the surface of LV-426 via dropship, where they find the colony seemingly abandoned. Two living Alien facehuggers are found in containment tanks in the medical lab, and the only colonist found is a traumatized young girl nicknamed Newt. The marines determine that the colonists are clustered in the nuclear-powered atmosphere processing station, where they find a large Alien nest filled with the cocooned colonists. The Aliens attack, killing most of the unit and capturing Apone and Dietrich. Ripley is able to rescue Hicks, Vasquez, and Hudson. With Gorman knocked unconscious during the rescue, Hicks assumes command and orders the dropship to recover the survivors, intending to return to the Sulaco and destroy the colony from orbit. However, a stowaway Alien kills the dropship pilots in flight, causing the vessel to crash into the processing station; subsequently, the surviving humans barricade themselves inside the colony complex.
Ripley discovers that it was Burke who ordered the colonists to investigate the derelict spaceship where the Nostromo crew first encountered the Alien eggs, and that he hopes to return Alien specimens to the company laboratories where he can profit from their use as biological weapons. She threatens to expose him, but Bishop soon informs the group of a greater threat: the damaged processing station has become unstable and will soon detonate with the force of a thermonuclear weapon. He volunteers to use the colony's transmitter to pilot the Sulaco's remaining dropship to the surface by remote control so that the group can escape. Ripley and Newt fall asleep in the medical laboratory, awakening to find themselves locked in the room with the two facehuggers, which have been released from their tanks. Ripley is able to alert the marines, who rescue them and kill the creatures. Ripley accuses Burke of attempting to smuggle implanted Alien embryos past Earth's quarantine inside her and Newt, and of planning to kill the rest of the marines in hypersleep during the return trip. The electricity is suddenly cut off and numerous Aliens attack through the ceiling. Hudson, Burke, Gorman, and Vasquez are killed while Newt is captured by the Aliens.
Ripley and an injured Hicks reach Bishop and the second dropship, but Ripley refuses to leave Newt behind. She rescues Newt from the hive in the processing station, where the two encounter the Alien queen and her egg chamber. Ripley destroys most of the eggs, enraging the queen, who escapes by tearing free from her ovipositor. Closely pursued by the queen, Ripley and Newt rendezvous with Bishop and Hicks on the dropship and escape moments before the colony is consumed by the nuclear blast. Back on the Sulaco, Ripley and Bishop's relief at their narrow escape is interrupted when the Alien queen, stowed away on the dropship's landing gear, impales Bishop and tears him in half. Ripley battles the queen using an exosuit cargo-loader. The two of them tumble into a large airlock, which Ripley then opens, expelling the queen into space. Ripley clambers to safety and she, Newt, Hicks and the still-functioning Bishop enter hypersleep for the return to Earth.
Cast[edit | edit source]
Cameron opted to hire actors who had, or could imitate, American accents. After unsuccessfully auditioning over 3,000 individuals in the United Kingdom, American actors were chosen instead, including three who had previously worked with Cameron on The Terminator: Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Michael Biehn. Actors who played Marines were asked to read Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers and undergo military training which included running, lifting weights, learning salutes, marches, deployments, and maneuvers for two weeks. Cameron wanted the Marines to train together, so that they would form bonds that would show on-screen. Sigourney Weaver, William Hope, and Paul Reiser were absent from training due to other obligations, but Cameron felt that this suited their characters as "outsiders" in the film.
The principal cast members of Aliens were:
- Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, reprising her role from Alien. Weaver received a Saturn Award for best actress for her performance and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, her first Academy Award nomination, though she lost to Marlee Matlin for her role in Children of a Lesser God.
- Michael Biehn as Corporal Dwayne Hicks, one of the Colonial Marines' squad leaders. Biehn was not cast until a week after filming had commenced, and thus was not present for the military training that the other actors playing marines went through.
- Jenette Goldstein as Private Jenette Vasquez, the marines' "smart gun" operator. Goldstein received a Saturn Award for best supporting actress for her performance.
- Carrie Henn as Newt, a child who is the only survivor of the colony on LV-426. According to the casting director, Newt was the most difficult role to cast: schoolchildren were auditioned, but many of them had acted in commercials and were accustomed to smiling after saying their lines, a trait that the producers wished to avoid as it would not suit Aliens' dark tone. Henn, whose father was stationed at an American military base, was chosen out of 500 children for the role, although she had no previous acting experience. Henn received a Saturn Award for best performance by a young actor.
- Lance Henriksen as Bishop, the android executive officer of the Sulaco.
- William Hope as Lieutenant William Gorman, the marines' commanding officer.
- Al Matthews as Sergeant Al Apone, the marines' senior officer. Matthews attributed his casting to his military experience.
- Bill Paxton as Private William Hudson, the Marine team's technician. Paxton's performance earned him a Saturn Award for best supporting actor.
- Paul Reiser as Carter J. Burke, a corporate representative for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
- Mark Rolston as Private Mark Drake, Vasquez's smart gun partner.
- Cynthia Dale Scott as Corporal Cynthia Dietrich, the marines' corpsman.
Additional marines were played by Tip Tipping (as Private Tim Crowe), Trevor Steedman (as Private Trevor Wierzbowski), Colette Hiller (as dropship pilot Corporal Collette Ferro), Daniel Kash (as dropship crew chief Private Daniel Spunkmeyer), and Ricco Ross (as Private Ricco Frost, driver of the armored personnel carrier). Paul Maxwell portrayed Van Leuwen, the head of the review board that revokes Ripley's flight license.
Origins and inspiration[edit | edit source]
While completing pre-production of The Terminator in 1983, director James Cameron discussed the possibility of working on a sequel to Alien (1979) with producer David Giler. A fan of the original film, Cameron was interested in crafting a sequel and entered a self-imposed seclusion to brainstorm a concept for Alien II. After four days Cameron produced an initial forty-five page treatment, although management changes at 20th Century Fox resulted in the film being put on hiatus, as they felt that Alien had not generated enough profit to warrant a sequel. A scheduling conflict with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger caused filming of The Terminator to be delayed by nine months (as Schwarzenegger was filming Conan the Destroyer), allowing Cameron additional time to write a script for Aliens. While filming The Terminator, Cameron wrote ninety pages for Aliens, and although the script was not finished, Fox was impressed and told him that if The Terminator was a success, he would be able to direct Aliens.
Following the success of The Terminator, Cameron and partner Gale Anne Hurd were given approval to direct and produce the sequel to Alien, scheduled for a 1986 release. Cameron was enticed by the opportunity to create a new world and opted not to follow the same formula as Alien, but to create a worthy combat sequel focusing "more on terror, less on horror". Sigourney Weaver, who played Ellen Ripley in Alien, had doubts about the project, but after meeting Cameron she expressed interest in revisiting her character. 20th Century Fox, however, refused to sign a contract with Weaver over a payment dispute and asked Cameron to write a story excluding Ellen Ripley. He refused on the grounds that Fox had indicated that Weaver had signed on when he began writing the script. With Cameron's persistence, Fox signed the contract and Weaver obtained a salary of $1 million, a sum equal to thirty times what she was paid for the first film. Weaver nicknamed her role in the Alien sequel "Rambolina", referring to John Rambo of the Rambo series, and stated that she approached the role as akin to the titular role in Henry V or women warriors in Chinese classical literature.
Cameron drew inspiration for the Aliens story from the Vietnam War, a situation in which a technologically superior force was mired in a hostile foreign environment: "Their training and technology are inappropriate for the specifics, and that can be seen as analogous to the inability of superior American firepower to conquer the unseen enemy in Vietnam: a lot of firepower and very little wisdom, and it didn't work." In the story of Aliens the Colonial Marines are hired to protect the business interests of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, corresponding to the belief that corporate interests were the reason that American troops were sent to South Vietnam. The attitude of the Marines was influenced by the Vietnam War; they are portrayed as cocky and confident of their inevitable victory, but when they find themselves facing a less technologically advanced but more determined enemy, the outcome is not what they expect.
Concept and design[edit | edit source]
Early concept art was created by Syd Mead, who had worked on Blade Runner, 2010 and Tron. One of the original designs for the spaceship Sulaco was spherical, but it was redesigned as the ship would be out of frame due to the film's aspect ratio. Cameron showed Mead his own concept art and the final result was described as a "rocket gun that carries stuff". Concept artists were asked to incorporate subliminal acknowledgments to the Vietnam War, which included designing the drop ship as a combination of a F-4 Phantom II and AH-1 Cobra.
British Airways was re-equipping several of its aircraft tug tractors, and the crew managed to purchase a tug to use as the armored personnel carrier. It initially weighed 70 short tons (64,000 kg), and although the crew removed 35 short tons (32,000 kg) of lead, the power station floor had to be reinforced to support the weight. The crew used many "junk" items in the set designs, such as Ripley's toilet, which came from a Boeing 747. Lockers, helicopter engines, and vending machines were used as set elements in the opening hypersleep scene. Production designer Peter Lamont was asked to reduce the cost of several scenes, including the not-yet-filmed marine hypersleep sequence. Gale Hurd wanted to cut the scene altogether, but Lamont and Cameron felt it was important to the sequence of the film. To save on cost, only four hypersleep chambers were created and a mirror was used to create the illusion that there were twelve in the scene. Instead of using hydraulics, the chambers were opened and closed by wires operated by puppeteers.
Weapons used by the Marines were based on real, fully functional weapons. British armorers used guns they found to be the most reliable when firing blanks and those which looked futuristic. The pulse rifles were created from a Thompson SMG, with an attached forend of a Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun and a Remington 12 Gauge Model 870P receiver with barrel. The smart guns carried by Vasquez and Drake were based on the German MG-42 machine gun and were maneuvered with steadicam harnesses created using old motorcycle parts. The crew found flamethrowers the most difficult weapon to create and use, as they were the heaviest and most dangerous.
Filming[edit | edit source]
Aliens was filmed on a budget of $18 million at Pinewood Studios, with production lasting ten months. Production was affected by a number of personnel and cast disruptions. Shooting was said to be problematic due to cultural clashes between Cameron and the British crew, with the crew having what actor Bill Paxton called a "really indentured" way of working. Cameron, who is known to be a hard driving director and at the time was bound to a low budget with a release date set that he could not delay, found it difficult to adjust to working practices such as the regular tea breaks that brought production to a temporary halt. The crew were admirers of Ridley Scott, and many believed Cameron to be too young and inexperienced to be directing a film such as Aliens, despite Cameron's attempts to show them his previous film, The Terminator, which had not yet been released in the UK.
Some scenes of the Alien nest were shot at the decommissioned Acton Lane Power Station in Acton, London. The crew thought it was a perfect place to film due to its grilled walkways and numerous corridors. Problems were encountered with rust and asbestos, however, and the crew was required to spend money to clean the asbestos. The Alien nest set was not dismantled after filming, and was reused in 1989 as the Axis Chemicals set for Batman. When the crew of Batman entered the set, they found most of it intact.
At one point the crew members mocked Cameron's wife, producer Gale Anne Hurd, by asking her who the producer was and insisting that she was only getting producer's credit because she was married to the director. A walkout occurred when Cameron clashed with an uncooperative cameraman who refused to light a scene the way Cameron wanted. The cameraman had lit the Alien nest set brightly, while Cameron insisted on his original vision of a dark, foreboding nest, relying on the lights from the Marines' armor. After the cameraman was fired, Hurd managed to coax the crew members into coming back to work.
Music[edit | edit source]
Music composer James Horner felt he was not given enough time to create a musical score. Horner arrived in England and expected the film to be "locked" so he could write the score in six weeks, which he thought was a sufficient amount of time. Horner, however, discovered that filming and editing were still taking place, and he was unable to view the film. He visited the sets and editing rooms for three weeks and found that editor Ray Lovejoy was barely keeping up with the workload due to time restrictions. Horner believed Cameron was preoccupied with sound effects, citing that Cameron spent two days with the sound engineer creating the sounds for the pulse rifles. He also complained that he was given an outdated recording studio; the score was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, a thirty-year-old studio that was barely able to patch in synthesizers or use the electronic equipment that Horner required.
Six weeks from theatrical release, no dubbing had taken place and the score had not been written, as Horner was unable to view the completed film. The final cue for the scene in which Ripley battles the Alien queen was written overnight. Cameron completely reworked the scene, leaving Horner to rewrite the music. As Gale Hurd did not have much music production experience, she and Cameron denied Horner's request to push the film back four weeks so he could finish the score. Horner felt that, given more time, he could get the score to 100% of his satisfaction, rather than the 80% he estimated he had been able to achieve. The score was recorded in roughly four days. Despite his troubles, Horner received an Academy Award nomination (his first) for Best Original Score.
Horner stated that tensions between himself and Cameron were so high during post-production that he assumed they would never work together again. Horner believed that Cameron's film schedules were too short and stressful. The two parted ways until 1997 when Cameron, impressed with Horner's score for Braveheart, asked him to compose the score for Titanic.
Visual effects[edit | edit source]
Brothers Robert and Dennis Skotak were hired to supervise the visual effects, having previously worked with Cameron on several Roger Corman movies. Two stages were used to construct the colony on LV-426, using miniature models that were on average six feet tall and three feet wide. Filming the miniatures was difficult due to the weather; the wind would blow over the props, although it proved helpful to give the effect of weather on the planet. Cameron used these miniatures and several effects to make scenes look larger than they really were, including rear projection, mirrors, beam splitters, camera splits and foreground miniatures.
The Alien suits were made more flexible and durable than the ones used in Alien, to expand on the creatures' movements and allow them to crawl and jump. Dancers, gymnasts and stunt men were hired to portray the Aliens. The creature's head was changed from the sleek shape used in Alien, as the crew thought that the original shape would crack with the creatures' increased mobility. Ridges were added along the head to increase its durability during movements.
Scenes involving the Alien queen were the most difficult to film, according to production staff. A life-sized mock-up was created by Stan Winston's company in the United States to see how it would operate. Once the testing was complete, the crew working on the queen flew to England and began work creating the final version. Standing at fourteen feet, it was operated using a mixture of puppeteers, control rods, hydraulics, cables, and a crane above to support it. Two puppeteers were inside the suit operating its arms, and sixteen were required to move it. All sequences involving the queen were filmed in-camera with no post-production manipulation.
Reception[edit | edit source]
Box office[edit | edit source]
Eagerly anticipated by fans following the success of Alien, Aliens was released in America on July 18, 1986, and September 26 in the United Kingdom. The film opened in 1,437 theaters with an average opening gross of $6,995 and a weekend gross of $10,052,042. It was number one at the United States box office for four consecutive weeks, grossing $85.1 million, and remains the highest-grossing Alien film at the U.S. box office when not adjusting for inflation. The film took a further $45.9 million outside of North America, for a total gross of $131 million.
Reviews[edit | edit source]
Test and pre-screenings were unable to take place for Aliens due to the film not being completed until its week of release. Once it was released in cinemas, critical and audience reaction was very positive. Critic Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4 and called it "painfully and unremittingly intense" and a "superb example of filmmaking craft." He also stated "when I walked out of the theater, there were knots in my stomach from the film's roller-coaster ride of violence." Walter Goodman of The New York Times said it was a "flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-'em-up show that keeps you popping from your seat despite your better instincts and the basically conventional scare tactics." Time Magazine featured the film on the cover of its July 28, 1986, issue, calling it the "summer's scariest movie". Time reviewer Richard Schickel declared the film "a sequel that exceeds its predecessor in the reach of its appeal while giving Weaver new emotional dimensions to explore." The selection of Aliens for a Time cover was attributed to the successful reception of the film, as well as its novel example of a science fiction action heroine. Echoing Time's assessment, Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader called the film "one sequel that surpasses the original."
Reviews of the film have remained mostly positive over the years. In a 1997 interview, Weaver stated that Aliens "made the first Alien look like a cucumber sandwich." In a 2000 review, film critic James Berardinelli said "When it comes to the logical marriage of action, adventure, and science fiction, few films are as effective or accomplished as Aliens." Austin Chronicle contributor Marjorie Baumgarten labeled the film in 2002 as "a non-stop action fest." Based on 48 reviews, the film holds a "Certified Fresh" rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average critic score of 8.8 out of 10. It also holds a score of 87 out of 100 ("universal acclaim") on the other major review aggregator, Metacritic.
Accolades[edit | edit source]
Aliens was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Music, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. It won two awards for Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects. Sigourney Weaver received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and although she did not win, it was considered a landmark nomination for an actress to be considered for a science fiction/horror film, a genre which was given little recognition by the Academy in 1986.
Aliens received four BAFTA award nominations and won in the category of Visual Effects. It won eight Saturn Awards in the categories of Best science fiction film, Best actress (Sigourney Weaver), Best supporting actor (Bill Paxton), Best supporting actress (Jenette Goldstein), Best performance by a younger actor (Carrie Henn), Best direction (James Cameron), Best writing (James Cameron), and Best special effects (Stan Winston and the L.A. Effects Group).
Time magazine named Aliens in their Best of '86 list calling it a "technically awesome blend of the horror, sci-fi and service-comedy genres." In 2007, Entertainment Weekly named Aliens as the second-best action movie of all time, behind Die Hard. In a Rotten Tomatoes analysis of the top 100 science fiction films, Aliens ranks tenth among the best-reviewed films of the genre. In 2004, Aliens was ranked thirty-fifth on Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments" for the scene in which Ripley and Newt are attacked by facehuggers; the original Alien was ranked second for the chestburster scene. IGN ranked it third in its "Top 25 Action Films of All-Time", stating that "there won't be an Alien movie as scary – or exciting – as this one made ever again."
Special edition[edit | edit source]
A "Special Edition" of Aliens was released in 1992 on laserdisc and VHS that restored seventeen minutes of deleted footage. These additions include a segment showing Newt's family first encountering the derelict spacecraft on LV-426, Ripley learning that her daughter died during the years she was in hypersleep, a scene in the operations building in which the Marines use sentry guns against the Aliens, and several extended dialogue scenes between Ripley and the Marines. These scenes had been deleted from the original theatrical release as 20th Century Fox representatives thought the film was showing "too much nothing" and spent an unnecessary amount of time building suspense.
Most of the Special Edition's footage was first seen when the film made its broadcast television debut on CBS in 1989, but two additional sequences concerning Burke's transmission to the colony about the derelict, and the Jorden family's subsequent discovery of the same, were added to the initial Laserdisc release. According to Cameron, the visual effects for the scene were incomplete, so he went back to the Skotak brothers and had them finish the sequences. All currently available versions of the Special Edition contain these scenes.
The special edition was released as part of The Alien Legacy DVD box set in 1999 along with Alien and Alien 3. Both the theatrical version and the special edition were released again in 2003 as part of the Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set along with similar versions of Alien, Alien 3, and Alien Resurrection. A separate two-disc "Special Collector's Edition" DVD of Aliens was released on January 6, 2004, containing the same material as the two Aliens discs in the Quadrilogy set. Additional content in these versions included an audio commentary for the special edition featuring director James Cameron, producer Gale Hurd, special effects artists and crew members. The second disc included special features relating to pre-production, production, and post-production.
Interpretation and analysis[edit | edit source]
Philosopher Stephen Mulhall has remarked that the four Alien films represent an artistic rendering of the difficulties faced by the woman's "voice" to have itself heard in a masculinist society, as Ripley continually encounters males who try to silence her and to force her to submit to their desires. Mulhall sees this depicted in several events in Aliens, particularly the inquest scene in which Ripley's explanation for the deaths and destruction of the Nostromo, as well as her attempts to warn the board members of the Alien danger, are met with officious disdain. However, Mulhall believes that Ripley's relationship with Hicks illustrates that Aliens "is devoted ... to the possibility of modes of masculinity that seek not to stifle but rather to accommodate the female voice, and modes of femininity that can acknowledge and incorporate something more or other of masculinity than our worst nightmares of it."
Feminist Susan Faludi writes of Ripley in Backlash that, "The tough-talking space engineer who saves an orphan child in Aliens is sympathetically portrayed, but her willfulness, too, is maternal; she is protecting the child - who calls her 'Mommy' - from female monsters."
Several movie academics, including Barbara Creed, have remarked on the color and lighting symbolism in the Alien franchise, which offsets white, strongly lit environments (spaceships, corporate offices) against darker, dirtier, 'corrupted' settings (derelict alien ship, abandoned industrial facilities). These black touches contrast or even attempt to take over the purity of the white elements. Others, such as Kile M. Ortigo of Emory University, agree with this interpretation and point to the Sulaco with its "sterilized, white interior" as representing this element in the second film of the franchise.
While some claim that the shape of the Sulaco was based on a submarine, the design has most often been described as a 'gun in space' resembling the rifles used in the movie. Author Roz Kaveney called the opening shot of the ship traveling through space 'fetishistic' and 'shark-like', "an image of brutal strength and ingenious efficiency"—while the militarized interior of the Sulaco (designed by Ron Cobb) is contrasted to the organic interior of the Nostromo in the first movie (also designed by Cobb). David McIntee noted the homage the scene pays to the opening tour through the Nostromo in Alien.
The android character Bishop has been the subject of literary and philosophical analysis as a high-profile fictional android conforming to science fiction author Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics and as a model of a compliant, potentially self-aware machine. His portrayal has been studied by writers for the University of Texas Press for its implications relating to how humans deal with the presence of an "Other", as Ripley treats them with fear and suspicion and a form of "hi-tech racism and android apartheid" is present throughout the series. This is seen as part of a larger trend of technophobia in films prior to the 1990s, with Bishop's role being particularly significant as he proves his worth at the end of the film, thus confounding Ripley's expectations.