Film Discussion

Looking back at… James Cameron’s Aliens

The sequel is one of the most fascinating things that could have ever come from Hollywood. Sometimes they can be perceived as a weak cash in on a brilliant original, or they can add to the legacy of a brilliant original, launch a further series of films and a subsequent franchise that can run and run, or be something that comes about years after the fact and which can either add to a brilliant film’s legacy or leave you wondering why those involved in the production even bothered.

Within the world of the sequel, there is one name that is synonymous with the crafting and production of great follow-ups that adds to brilliance and legacy of a great first instalment; James Cameron.

Interestingly it would be a seven-year wait between instalments of the first and second Terminator films, but after wowing audiences with his science fiction thriller from 1984, Cameron was in much demand. In fact, he was somewhat in demand prior to the release of The Terminator and just before calling action on the first Terminator film, Cameron was working on three screenplays simultaneously which he divided his time up on equally; he was doing re-writes to his Terminator script, while also putting together a script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (which would subsequently be given a once-over by its star, Sylvester Stallone), and the film he would call the shots on after finishing The Terminator – Aliens.

In one of those stories that have become an urban legend, it has often been said that in pitching Aliens to producers Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll, Cameron wrote Aliens down on a piece of paper, but then wrote the s in the shape of a dollar sign. Rumour also had it that the producing trio had also been talking to Cameron beforehand about the possibility of crafting a “Spartacus in Space” film before the subject of Aliens came up. Whatever the real story of how Cameron came to make Aliens, the story that cannot be disputed is that James Cameron and his producing partner, and wife at the time, Gale Anne Hurd, after striking gold on The Terminator, would take on the job of crafting a sequel to one of the most famous science fiction horror films of all time.

Ridley Scott’s Alien had become more and more renowned as a masterpiece thanks to Ridley Scott’s incredibly stylish and controlled direction, brilliant use of dark lighting which kept HR Giger’s creature design to the shadows, as well as the infamy of its most famous scene; John Hurt’s death via Chestburster.

READ MORE: The Terminator – looking back at James Cameron’s nightmare vision

While Aliens‘ debut would occur seven years after the premiere of Alien, an unusually long gap between sequels in an industry where two to three years is the norm, the project still carried the stigma of risk for Cameron and Hurd. They may have been the bright new kids on the block, but their own film that they had made their name with was theirs; Alien was perceived as Ridley Scott’s and even those closest to Cameron and Hurd warned them that to make a follow-up to an acclaimed, iconic film such as Alien carried with it a sense of risk; if they made a bad film then they would be known as the team who messed up an Alien sequel, but if they made a great film it would possibly be down to Scott’s work on the first film and not them.

The brilliance of Aliens would come down to Cameron and Hurd, the work they did, Cameron’s script and the film they would put together. What would make Aliens such a great sequel is how it would embrace the world that Ridley Scott and screenwriters Ronald Shussett and Dan O’Bannon had created and tweak it into something a little bit different to the “Kubrickian” horror film that the first film had been.

They say the best sequels work because they are the same but different, and Aliens is the ultimate example of that. We get the return of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (after it appeared as if she had no interest in returning), the only cast member of the first film to return, for obvious reasons; we get a further exploration of “The Company” mentioned throughout the first film; we also return to the planet, LV-426 from the first film, but it’s the difference in approach that makes Aliens such a brilliant piece of work, a fantastic companion piece to the first film but above all else a great James Cameron film.

Where Scott delivered something that was akin to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space, Cameron’s screenplay refashioned the story of Ripley and her battle against the Xenomorph into a war movie. If the first film’s blue-collar approach came from a cast of characters that were essentially “truckers in space”, then Cameron filters his film through a supporting cast who are basically “marines in space” and a story that plays out as if it’s portraying the Vietnam conflict on a faraway planet.

There is more action in the film for sure, and while the pace is very controlled, there is a ramp-up of suspense and terror almost from the moment Ripley decides to go back to LV-426 that makes the film feel just a touch faster than Scott’s film, which had a brilliantly and slowly controlled build. Cameron’s film is, in the words of his introduction to the DVD and Blu-Ray editions for the film, “fifty miles of bad road” and helps make it feel different and equally brilliant. Even more brilliantly, Cameron’s script further develops and hones the character of Ripley, who is given the first name of Ellen, and a tragic backstory that Sigourney Weaver runs with.

When Aliens was first released in theatres in 1986, it did so in 136-minute running time, but in order to get to that running time, certain aspects of the film had to be cut. Come 1990, the film was given a special edition which restored a part of her backstory where it was revealed that Ripley had left behind a daughter and who has subsequently died in the time Ripley has been in the hypersleep, having been so for 57 years, a devastating number. It’s an incredibly poignant, tragic element that just adds to the other additional scenes that established Newt (Carrie Henn), who we now see with her parents and brother before losing them, and it’s this relationship that is the beating heart of the film.

As always with Cameron, a love story of sorts is at the centre of it and with Aliens, it comes in the form of a parental love story between Ripley and Newt. Parental dynamics are the very heart of Aliens, not only within the relationship that is the beating heart of the film but also in the reveal that the eggs that launch the wave of terror in the first film have come from an Alien Queen that lays eggs. The film brilliantly builds up to a battle between the ultimate mothers fighting for their children, and while Newt is not Ripley’s biological child, they both find each other and a connection that allows them to deal with their losses and PTSD.

While Aliens is sometimes criticised by those who prefer Alien for its more action-oriented nature, the film is not action packed to the point that it takes over from character and story. In fact, as always with Cameron, the action works so well primarily because the script has done so much great work in making you care for everyone on-screen, from Ripley and Newt to new android Bishop (Lance Henriksen, finally getting to play a cyborg in a Cameron film after narrowly missing out as The Terminator), the marines that are our supporting cast, made up of, amongst others, Cameron regulars Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein) and the dastardly Company representative in Paul Reiser, usually a comedic performer but who does a good side in weasle-like, corporate evil.

Like Alien, there is a brilliant sense of lived-in world building going on here, particularly amongst the Marines who feel as if they’ve genuinely been through it all together and all with distinct personalities; stoic Hicks (Biehn), panicky Hudson (Paxton), bad-ass Vasquez (Goldstein), while the production design from James Bond veteran Peter Lamont just adds to the lived-in quality. It’s a trait the film shares with Alien, but this has the habit of feeling both different to the first film, and reflective of the fact this is the same world fifty-seven years after the events of the first instalment.

READ MORE: Alien vs Predator: Requiem – Throwback 10 

The production of the film itself would be intense and problematic. Filmed at the famous Pinewood Studios in the UK, the production would prove to be inflicted with a massive case of culture clash, in a similar way that had befallen Ridley Scott, ironically, in 1982 when he filmed Blade Runner in Hollywood. Cameron and Hurd were seen as interlopers trying to take over from Ridley Scott by the British crew who had worked on the first film. The relationship between the production crew and Cameron and Hurd was antagonistic at the best of times, while relations weren’t helped by Cameron and Hurd having to fire original director of photography, Dick Bush, who wanted to light the film the way he wanted to as opposed to Cameron’s way and which led to a replacement in Adrian Biddle, while original Hicks, James Remar, was replaced by Michael Biehn after filming had begun, and things became even more strained over the Tea Lady on set.

Even the relationship between Cameron and composer James Horner was strained due to Horner finding difficulty in working with sub-par equipment when trying to compose the score, while the film itself was still in the midst of editing and sound editing, leading Horner to craft the score in a very quick amount of time. It was a strained relationship, but one which would have a happy ending when the director and composer would find common ground and a wonderful sense of collaboration in later years when Cameron hired Horner for his brilliantly emotional and Academy Award-winning work on Titanic and then Avatar.

Released into cinemas in the summer of 1986, the film was a commercial success and critically acclaimed, and would go on to earn Sigourney Weaver a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, a rare thing indeed for a heavy genre film such as this. The nomination was well deserved, as was the film’s success which came to regarded on equal terms with the first film, while also confirming James Cameron as a talent to reckon with.

In the years after its release, and even in light of further sequels and spin-offs, Aliens is still regarded by many as one of the genuinely great sequels of all time. While there is debate as to whether the first or second film is the better, there is no doubt that the second film is a more than worthy successor to the Ridley Scott’s film which dares to take the series in a different genre and narrative direction but which does so without sacrificing cohesion or continuity to the first film. It’s a brilliant companion piece and works even more effectively as an end to the Ellen Ripley story, but franchises never die and Hollywood studios are always looking for a way to turn their successes into a viable franchise or property. It would be eight years, another long gap, before we’d see Ellen Ripley again and the results would be incredibly controversial.

As for Cameron, it would be three years when his next film would premiere. Aliens arrived on screens at a budget of $18 million. Starting with The Abyss, the budgets would rise and even more on-set tempers would flare, but the storytelling ambitions would become even grander, and with The Abyss Cameron would prove himself to be a master of the emotional epic. Unfortunately, while the director would craft a film of excellence, commercially he was about to hit his first, and thus far, only stumble at the box office.

Are you a fan of Aliens? Of course you are! But just how much do you love it? Let us know!

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