This is my contribution to the Action Heroine blog-a-thon being hosted by Nathaniel over at The Film Experience.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), lone survivor of the space freighter Nostromo, is discovered drifting through the outer reaches of space by a salvage crew. Revived after spending 57 years in hypersleep, her employer is skeptical that she scuttled the freighter because a hostile alien (with acid for blood) got on board and killed her crew.
The moon where Ripley claims to have discovered the alien is now the site of a terraformed colony, and they haven’t reported any hostile aliens. But a pencilnecked case officer with the Company named Burke (Paul Reiser) later notifies her that they’ve lost contact with the colonists. He requests Ripley accompany him and a unit of colonial Marines to investigate.
Ripley’s flight license has been revoked, her daughter has aged and died, and her ordeal in space has left her with nightmares. “I’m not going back there. And I wouldn’t be any good to you if I did.” She receives assurances from Burke that he can get her reinstated as a flight officer, and that the Marines are packing “state of the art firepower” and that there’s nothing they can’t handle.
A unit that includes the green Lt. Gorman (William Hope), quiet Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), loud mouthed Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), two bad ass gunners (Jeanette Goldstein, Mark Rolston) and an “artificial person” called Bishop (Lance Henriksen) wake from hypersleep and are ferried by dropship to the colony. Most of them disregard Ripley’s dire assessment of what they might be up against.
The colonists are all missing, with the exception of a traumatized little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) found crawling through the ventilation ducts. Ripley is reminded of her daughter, and in order to find out what happened, gains Newt’s trust. “These people are soldiers, they’re here to protect you.” “It won’t make any difference,” the kid responds.
It becomes clear that the aliens Ripley warned the Marines about are here. Gorman leads the unit into an ambush that even the heavily armed Marines are ill-equipped to get out of. Reacting quickly, Ripley rescues what’s left of the unit, but bad goes to worse, and they find themselves stranded on a moon infested with hundreds of the ferocious title creatures.
James Cameron was waiting for financing to come through so he could shoot a low budget sci-fi movie he had written called Terminator. Producers David Giler and Walter Hill had read Cameron’s script and were interested in working with him. Cameron pitched several ideas, none of which went over well. As he was leaving, the producers mentioned that they were thinking of doing a sequel to Alien. That got Cameron’s attention.
Cameron submitted a 40 page treatment of ideas he’d employ for Alien II. Giler and Hill loved it and after developing the story with him, commissioned Cameron to write a screenplay. He was able to turn in 90 pages before going off to direct Terminator. Based on the quality of what he’d read so far, Walter Hill made the decision not to hire another writer, but wait until Cameron could finish.
The Terminator blew away expectations by making its budget back many times over at the box office. Cameron accepted an offer to direct Aliens, contrary to advice he was hearing. If the sequel was any good, he was told, it would only be because Ridley Scott did such a great job on the original. If it was bad, it would be Cameron’s fault. He ignored this and went off to Pinewood Studios in England to prep the film.
The shoot did not go smoothly. No one in the crew had seen The Terminator and they assumed the demanding Cameron didn’t know what he was doing. The first assistant director was so antagonistic towards Cameron’s decisions that he had to be fired, but not before instigating a mass walkout from the prickly crew.
James Remar was cast as Hicks, but Cameron replaced him less than a week into filming. Michael Biehn was offered the role on a Friday night, and by Monday, was in England working. Director of photography Dick Bush was let go a month into filming because Cameron hated the lighting. Derek Vanlint – who lit Alien – was asked to take over. Vanlint wasn’t interested, but recommended his focus puller Adrian Biddle for the job.
Aliens is one of the most exhilarating, no holds barred action pictures ever made, for starters. Cameron wrote this while also penning Rambo: First Blood Part II on assignment, and the script is not only well versed in military hardware and tactics, but filled with subtle reminders of Vietnam, with an advanced fighting force systematically cut up by a terrifying indigenous enemy in the shadows.
Cameron gets mocked for Titanic, but his script for Aliens is a work of genius. The good android and Ripley’s mistrust of it. The terraformed colony and its unfortunate ability to function as a thermal reactor. The handheld motion trackers. The alien queen. The Caterpillar loader, used brilliantly in the finale. None of that stuff had ever been conceptualized in a sci-fi movie before and it works beautifully.
The casting – particularly Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein, who all became part of Cameron’s repertory company – is great, but until the reticent Sigourney Weaver joined the cast, no action film with a substantial budget had ever centered on a heroine. Ripley’s inner fortitude, coupled with vulnerability, maternal instinct, and the fact that she goes through a visceral wringer, stood out and earned Weaver an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
An extended version released on laserdisc in 1992 restored 17 minutes not seen in theaters. This includes the subplot involving Ripley’s deceased daughter – which Weaver was livid about being cut – as well as a terrific sequence that shows how the colony became infested with the aliens. Weaver also has a moment with Michael Biehn late where the two exchange first names that I loved. The 154-minute special edition is the one now available on DVD.
“What can I say about Weaver. The role of Ripley, at least in this film, is a once in a lifetime part and she gives it everything she’s got. Her fear oozes from every pore and muscle, as does her determination to beat these creatures. There is no option. Cameron seems to really understand how to create well-rounded, strong female characters. For that, and his obvious prowess in filming out-of-this-world action sequences, he usually gets my butt in the seat every time,” says Crazy 4 Cinema.
Ruthless Reviews raves, “Off the Hook Motherfucking Amazing!! As a film, Aliens is incredible. As an 80s Action entry, it destroys the genre.”
“Aliens also happens to be a pro-woman film. Think about it. An entire compliment of battle hardened bug hunters failed, but one strip miner from the backwaters of the galaxy manages to take out one of the most vicious and destructive creatures in the universe,” says DVD In My Pants.
View the 1:48 teaser trailer that beats up all other trailers. No dialogue, no pitchman. This is how you sell a movie, marketing knuckleheads.