(Wrapping up The James Cameron Project countdown with #1….)
Intro: No fear. In the early ‘80s, the director of Piranha 2 sat in front of a group of studio suits and pitched his best ideas. He’d gotten the meeting on the strength of The Terminator, at this time still just an unproduced screenplay. He bombed his pitches, but the executives – sensing it would be a good idea to find something for this guy to do – casually asked if he’d try writing a sequel to Alien. You know, one of the greatest science-fiction/horror films ever made? The masterpiece of an accepted genius, Ridley Scott? That Alien?
Instead of locking up in terror, the young James Cameron snatched the offer and converted a forgotten story of his called Mother into a 50-page treatment over one raging weekend. He got the job, and his film – retitled Aliens – would become, arguably, the gold standard for action films for the next 20 years. Mere mortals would have been scared to death, but James Cameron – NO FEAR.
The Movie: (This synopsis decribes the director’s cut, first available on laserdisc and now part of the Alien Quadrilogy.) Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), last survivor of the Nostromo, is rescued after 57 years in cryogenic sleep to discover her 11-year old daughter has died an old woman and she’s lost her job as a flight officer thanks to blowing up her last ship. Worse, the Company regards her tale of the acid-blooded alien that devoured her crew with blatant skepticism. After all, the suits explain, colonists have lived on the alien’s planet, LV-426, for years with no complaints.
Ripley trudges through her new life, working the Company’s loading docks by day and dreaming of chestbursting aliens by night, until a situation arises. Company sleazeball Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) informs her that — in a miraculous coincidence that Burke totally had nothing to do with — the colony on LV-426 has gone dark. A team of colonial marines is going in to check it out, but just in case the alien story proves true, they want Ripley as an advisor. She has one condition: the orders aren’t to study or sample, but to destroy. Burke lies assures her that’s the plan.
Ripley and a large team of marines, including notables Hicks (Michael Biehn), Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), Hudson (Bill Paxton in a touching, nuanced performance), and the android Bishop (Lance Henricksen), soon arrive at the colony, finding only destruction. Something very, very bad has happened, with only one apparent survivor: Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl hiding in the colony’s air ducts. The daughterless Ripley and the motherless Newt bond over hot chocolate, enjoying one quiet moment before hell breaks loose. The marines, thinking they’ve located the rest of the colonists, stumble into an alien hive and are decimated by the beasts, a battle that ends with the survivors stranded on the planet by the wreck of their drop ship, and the colony’s thermonuclear reactor only four hours from total meltdown.
The marines struggle to hold a perimeter while Bishop sneaks outside to call down a new drop ship. Remembering his status as a side villain, Burke takes the chance to try and impregnate the girls with aliens for the Company’s bio-weapons division. The marines save Newt and Ripley, who then reveal that Burke caused the colony’s infestation by sending them to the coordinates Ripley indicated in her brief. Before the marines can properly waste Burke for his crimes, the aliens attack en masse to do it for them. A new battle erupts, killing all humans not named Hicks, Newt, or Ripley. The surviving trio race to meet up with Bishop, but Newt gets separated from her protectors and snatched by an alien.
Ripley, maternally obsessed, leaves the injured Hicks with Bishop then returns to the hive for Newt. Armed to the teeth, Ripley retrieves Newt but stumbles upon the source of the entire infestation – the big, bad, wicked-looking Alien Queen. After blasting the Queen’s eggs, Ripley races through the exploding reactor to get to the rendezvous point. Bishop saves Ripley just as the pissed-off Queen arrives, then blasts into space as the reactor finally melts down.
In an exciting, actually impossible conclusion, Ripley discovers that the Queen has hitched a ride on the drop ship. The creature tears Bishop in half and sets her murderous attention on Newt. Ripley dons a forklift power armor suit and engages the queen in one-on-one combat, Mama vs. Mama, finally blasting the monster out of an airlock. The wounded “family” then climbs inside their Alien 3 death pods for the long trip home.
The Scene: Very tough choice, as this movie is stacked. Do I pick the intense, claustrophobic battle in the hive that wipes out the Marines? Or the action sequence in the medical lab where Ripley and Newt fight off scuttling facehuggers?
No, I’d have to go with the excellent confrontation in the hive between Ripley and the Queen. While rescuing Newt, Ripley stares down the biggest, baddest of the alien critters in a room full of eggs. The two share a classic exchange of wordless threats. The Queen summons a couple of her warrior drones. Ripley points her flamethrower at the eggs. The Queen backs the drones off. The scene explodes when Ripley, finally purging the nightmares, cuts loose on the egg room with flame, rifle rounds, and grenades. It provides an emotional catharsis, a memorable sequence, and enough motivation for the hysterical Queen to follow Ripley all the way into space to avenge her brood. Classic.
The Line: Everybody’s favorite. The Queen chases Newt through the starship. A door opens. Ripley steps forward in her power loader. “Get away from her, you BITCH!” The blurb might be just a touch out of character for the steel-nerved Ripley, but it’s a huge crowd-pleaser.
The Production: This film was an enormous risk for all involved. Cameron was a near-rookie. Producer Gale Ann Hurd had trouble gaining respect because she was “just the director’s wife.” And the crew could feel the long shadow of the original film lurking in every corner. This could have gone very poorly.
Just like the original film, Aliens went into production at the legendary Pinewood Studios in England, but what seemed like a good idea soon turned into a liability. The labor system in the UK is a much different animal than in Hollywood. Most of the crew were lifers, contracted to the studio and assured of a job no matter what did or didn’t happen on the film. They would disappear at tea time, rebel when asked to work more than an 8-hour day, and treated the young Cameron as a man who had not yet paid his dues. They had yet to even see The Terminator, and had no immediate desire to remedy that. Tensions wound so tight that when Cameron had to fire a mutinous assistant director, much of the crew walked out of the film.
Many felt Cameron was in over his head. The pressure must have been tremendous but rather than wilt, Cameron dug in and seemed to actually find himself as a filmmaker. His most famous traits developed here. He didn’t bother asking HR Giger, the original film’s monster designer, to come on board as Cameron had his own ideas and wanted it done his way. He pushed for the innovation of the Queen puppet, the largest marionette in the history of film. He pushed his crew harder, even as they resisted.
Eventually, his work reaped rewards. The reaction to Aliens was incredible, and it remains the highest grossing film in the series, even to this day. Likely, it will stay that way as the audience interest in the creatures has appeared to wane. In addition to the financial success, perhaps Cameron’s greatest victory in Aliens was the critical attention. Critics near-unanimously praised the film, which eventually scored 7 Oscar nominations, including the biggest coup – Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress. He didn’t make many friends along the way, but Cameron stubbornly willed a pure, classic piece of action cinema into the world.
…A James Cameron Film: The threat of nuclear destruction hangs over the characters for the second half of the film, creating a technological threat as well as a biological one. Ripley’s dependence on the power loader to save the day makes technology – in balance with human guidance – also a savior. Cameron recruited all of his favorite actors for this one: Biehn, Henricksen, Paxton, Goldstein. Also, Ripley is perhaps the first truly iconic Cameron heroine, a precursor to the T2 Sarah Connor. This is a distinctly Cameron touch, as the Ripley established in Alien is resourceful, but certainly non-confrontational.
Lasting Impact: Huge, but subtle. Sequels were already common when Cameron’s film hit theatres, but he gave them a blueprint on how to succeed. He stayed true to the original film, but upped the action by adding a military element and defied expectations by switching genres. This blueprint is still being replicated today and is easy to see in such diverse films as Final Fantasy, 28 Weeks Later, Jason X, or even Alien: Resurrection.
Beyond that, big chunks of Aliens dialogue are ingrained in popular culture, most of it coming from Bill Paxton’s Hudson. “Game over, man! Game over!”
Reason for Ranking: Aliens is a masterpiece, every bit as good as Ridley Scott’s original, but distinctly different enough to become Cameron’s own. The film captures a series of characters, sketched hastily in group scenes, and makes them starkly real. We care about each of them. To this day, 20 or so viewings later, I still lament when Sgt. Apone is pulled into the hive, wishing he’d had more time. The film’s characters are so well drawn that when, several years later, Alien 3 dared to kill off Newt and Hicks in the opening few seconds, the audience turned on that film and then the franchise forever.
Strongest of all is the story of Ripley, displaced in time and robbed of her young daughter. It makes sense that, broken by her tragedies, she places her hopes, her entire life, on being able to save one person, this girl. To purge her demons, she must confront the alien queen, a creature defending its own family as Ripley defends her adopted one. It’s a uniquely female action movie arc, not easily replicated, and brought to heartbreaking life in Weaver’s virtuoso performance.
Bottom line, no film in Cameron’s career contains as much pathos, as many vivid characters, and as thrilling a story as Aliens. There simply isn’t another choice.
See you next time with my final words on the work of James Cameron, and the finishing touch ofThe James Cameron Project.
The James Cameron Project:
5. True Lies
7. The Abyss