Aliens is a 1986 science fiction/action film starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and Bill Paxton. A sequel to the 1979 film Alien, Aliens is set fifty-seven years after the first film and is regarded by many film critics as a benchmark for the action and science fiction genres. In Aliens, Weaver's character Ellen Ripley returns to the planet LV-426 where she first encountered the hostile Alien. This time she is accompanied by a unit of Colonial Marines.
Directed by James Cameron, Aliens' action/adventure tone was in stark contrast to the science fiction/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 earned $86 million in the United States box office during its 1986 theatrical release, making it the highest domestic gross of the Alien series. It earned $131 million internationally, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including a Best Actress nomination for Sigourney Weaver, which was considered a benchmark at the time when the Academy gave little recognition to the science fiction genre. It won in the categories of Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects.
The heavily-armed expedition descends to the surface of LV-426 via dropship, where they find the colony seemingly abandoned. The only living things found are two Alien facehuggers on display in the colony's medical lab and a severely traumatized young girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn). The marines determine that the colonists are clustered in the nuclear-powered atmosphere processing station. There they find a large Alien nest filled with the cocooned corpses of the colonists. The Aliens attack and kill most of the unit, but Ripley rescues Hicks, Vasquez, and Hudson. With Gorman unconscious Hicks assumes command and orders the dropship to recover the survivors, intending to return to the Sulaco and destroy the colony from orbit. A stowaway Alien kills the dropship pilots in flight, causing the vessel to crash into the processing station. 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 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 the Aliens attack en masse through the ceiling. Hudson, Burke, Gorman, and Vasquez are killed and Newt is captured by the Aliens.
Ripley and an injured Hicks reach Bishop and the second dropship, but Ripley is unwilling 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, tears Bishop 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 Bishop enter hypersleep for the return back to Earth.
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.
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.
Early concept art was created by Syd Mead, who had worked on 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 dropship as a combination of a F-4 Phantom II and AH-1 Cobra.
Some scenes of the Alien nest were shot in a decommissioned power plant 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. British Airways was re-equipping several of its aircraft towing vehicles, and the crew managed to purchase an old one to use as the armored personal carrier. It initially weighed 70 tons, and although the crew removed 35 tons 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.
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. Al Matthews had experience in the military and believed he was cast as Sergeant Apone because of this experience. 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. Michael Biehn was also absent from the training, as he was not cast until one week after filming had commenced.
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 such a film as Aliens, despite Cameron's attempts to show them his previous film, The Terminator, which had not yet been released in the UK.
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.
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 fore end 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.
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, so impressed with Horner's score for Braveheart, asked him to compose the score for Titanic.
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.
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 thirty-seven reviews, the film has a "fresh" rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average critic score of 8.7 out of 10.
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."
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 uncompleted, 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.
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.
Academics analyzing the role of the Ripley character remark on the symbolism of the Sulaco's cryo chamber. Ripley is compared with an incorrupt Catholic saint preserved in a glass coffin (akin to Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, both in her lying in state in the cryotube as well as her incorrupt body, which has twice survived being almost "impregnated" by the Alien). Accompanied by the Agnus Dei of the Ordinary Mass playing in the background of the opening scene, these scholars argue that the Sulaco is transformed "into a holy site where the iconic bodies of a fetishistic religion lie in state," setting the scene for a lone facehugger attacking its victim (corrupting it) and also causing the emergency system to eject the cryotubes into space and to plunge to Fiorina "Fury" 161 (representing the Fall of Man).
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 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 McIntree 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 redeems himself at the end of the film, thus confounding Ripley's expectations.