Warning! Warning! This following discussion contains extensive reference to Aliens along with other related movies, series and novels, contains major spoilers. Read ahead at your own risk…
Welcome back, future thinkers, so now we are on the third part of Sci-Fi Horror month. During the few retrospetives, we looked at the creation and reinvention of old monsters, this time we’re looking at the reinvention of a modern monster and the sequel to my all time favourite film, Aliens. Here I want to look at the history of how the film came to be, why it stands the test of time and why it is a perfect sequel in the franchise. Last year I looked at Alien (athough I developed it further in my tribute to Terry Rawlings), this time we’re to look at it’s sequel. So without further ado, let’s jump right into it. Sorry for this retrospective being late, by the way, my trusty device was having technical problems but you’re reading it now at least.
So if Alien was a pure Horror Sci-Fi, Aliens is pure Sci-Fi Action. In many ways it is a continuation and a reinvention. Saying that, it is also one of my all-time favourite sequels and the topic of this week’s discussion. I honestly love this movie so I will be a bit less objective then the norm for my retrospectives. Saying that I’ll only be discussing the Extended Cut because it is the superior version of this Sci-Fi Classic. As usual, to start, I want to start with some plot and context of how the film came to be before I get into my wider thoughts.
Taking place roughly 57 years after events on the Nostromo, the film picks up with Ripley being found by a scavenging crew drifting out through the depths of space. She is brought back to Earth with Jones (lovingly dubbed “that stupid cat”) where things have changed and they weren’t good for Ripley to say the least. She finds out her daughter has been dead just a year before Ripley was found, (even more tragic if you’ve played Alien Isolation) dying at age 66. To make it worse, her Warrant Officer title after failing to convince Weyland Yutani of the alien threat that lead her to destroy the Nostromo, (the usual way corporate deals with tragedy). It also turns out that there is a colony on Lv426, the planet where this whole fucked up franchise started. So basically what happens is as you would expect, there is a problem with the colony (after a facehugger lands itself on one of Newt’s parents).
So let’s say this is where things kick off and we jump into another deadly adventure of chestbursting proportion. After not being able to contact Lv426, Ripley’s fears are confirmed. She is then asked to go on a mission to the planet as a consultant (as a way to claim back her status as Warrant Officer) and initially refuses but like how Ridley Scott originally refused to direct Blade Runner, she couldn’t stay away for long and decides to go the mission. With them now travelling to the doomed colony, I think I’ve discussed enough set up of the story so far whilst I will discuss the rest later throughout this retrospective so let’s discuss the behind the scenes of this beautiful Sci-Fi Horror, we’re going back to 1983, all starting with a lawsuit.
So in the aftermath of the release of Alien, David Giler, Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll would sue Fox for holding out on the profits from Alien that they felt they were owed which would delay the development of Aliens until 1983. This isn’t something that would affect Aliens that much but was a factor of why it took so long for Fox to make the film. In that fact, they actually wanted to make the film straight after the original was released but there were delays including the fact that Alan Ladd Jr (who was the person most interested in the sequel) pulled out from 20th Century Fox to start the Ladd company (who then helped make Blade Runner). Let’s just say that whilst it didn’t have production troubles on the level of Blade Runner, it like all films does have them. Sometimes they are like shooting an arrow from space and that was no different than with Aliens.
The first problem was that Ridley Scott wasn’t coming back for the sequel. It would be then that after reading the script to Terminator that the producer Larry Wilson would choose James Cameron would be a suitable director for what was then known as Alien 2. By day 4 of being asked to take part in the film, he produced a full 45 page treatment for his idea for Aliens. By the time was in the middle of filming Terminator, he had a full 90 pages written of the script and if it was a success then he would get the role of director on Alien 2/Aliens which of course happened as you know. That takes us up to the point of the filming itself so let’s talk about that.
Aliens was filmed with a budget of $18 million (£14 million or £40 million if you count for inflation) straight after Terminator was released in theatres across the globe. There was one main problem, many of the crew members on board the USS Aliens were part of the crew for the original Alien and so were very loyal to Ridley Scott. This wasn’t going to make second time filmmaker James Cameron’s time on Aliens any easier. However, there wasn’t much of a problem with the production itself other then a few mishaps such as the breaks of remote controlled vehicle (the M577 Armourer Personnel Carrier/M577 APC) which crashed into several of the cameras being used to make the film and several crew members nearly suffocating during the xenomorph lair scene although accidents happen and nothing too major happened. Yes, filmmaking is hard but it’s also dangerous especially when you are making an action film with complex machinery, flamethrowers and not to mention anything else that could happen. Although let’s get into the film itself rather than just discussing how the film came to be.
I feel that Aliens really works as a sequel more in how it expands the characters and universe of Alien whilst keeping the Xenomorphs and who they are mysterious in nature. We get answers but we are still left with many questions that are fun to look at. Several of the main additions that I feel really work are Ripley’s daughter, seeing inside Weyland Yutani, what happens 50 years after Alien and more specifically how the genre is switched from Creepy Horror to Heart-pounding Action for the sequel.
I’ve heard many complaints about changing the genre between movies such as how it takes away the creepiness of the original and have even heard someone call Alien 3 a better sequel as tonally it is much more consistent compared with Alien but I disagree with a lot of these complaints. It is its own part within the franchise, it is a very different movie to Alien but still happens to advance the story and Ripley’s character in a really interesting way when paired with the original.
From the woman we saw taking charge onboard the Nostromo, we see her trials after she gets back, how she is treated by company and her going on a mission to face more of the creature that teared up her entire crew. It’s a story of trauma in conflict, trying to face it and the consequences of that. It’s also a story of trying to move on even in the worst of conflicts as we see a pseudo-family build up between Ripley, Newt and Hicks as they join together to escape Lv426 for good after everyone including the colonists have been torn apart.
There’s also an interesting parallel to the Vietnam war throughout the story. Fighting this losing battle in a strange land against fighters that could attack and pick you off one by one. It’s interesting to look in a more retrospective sense through another genre rather then just reinacting part of the war itself. It allows the story to look at violence and war in a broader but just as deep sense within the film’s story. I think it could be said no better then by Sigourney Weaver herself, “The thing that scares me about the guns is that after you’ve been using them for a couple days you sort of get into it and that’s what I feel happens to people with real guns. I think that James Cameron is anti-gun too in his own way but I think he’s fascinated by them in a way I’m not”.
I wanted to include this quote for one reason, and I’m not inherently trying to be political here, but the film touches a lot on violence and the gun-ho way the military solves problems for better or for worse. I’m a guy that personally hates guns, I’m a pacifist but there must also be an understanding that sometimes they are necessary. As much as we try to solve our problems through reason and debate, there are some threats that we can reason with, monsters who’s only language is death and violence. Aliens demonstrates this parallel through Ripley and the marines, their use of weapons and the fight for survival that they all go through within the film.
There’s that realism that the characters begin to fall in love with their guns. It’s a form of protection and survival, it is a way to take out these monsters that are attacking them from every corner. There’s an anti-gun message underlying there but there’s also a fascination with guns and the people that use them. No one is shown as evil, apart from the company and Burke, they are all people that just want to do their jobs and once that fails, they just want to survive and get home. The institution is as much of a villain as the xenomorph itself, they including Ripley are just pawns in one big game.
The film has many strengths especially in the way its made. The film is an example of working with so many props, claustrophobic sets, dangerous stunts and it all working because all the proper precautions were put in place. Everything that could have gone wrong actually went perfectly even if it had to be rebuilt and reshot several times. It’s a pinnacle of special effects of that time that had the real life and special effects photography happening at the same time in an era where one would be done after the other.
It builds upon the effects and design of the original to expand what was done in the first film. So many mechanics such as the eggs, the vehicles, moving facehuggers, chestbusters, the powerloader, the Alien Queen, a mixture of robotics and costumes for the xenomorph and the guns that had to shoot flames or blanks. It’s just a marvel that all of these elements worked in such an efficient way. I’m not saying it’s a perfect film but on both a technical and narrative level, it is a darkly lit masterpiece especially with all the challenges that the cast and crew underwent. It just somehow all works and even within the budget and ten week schedule for filming.
There, however, was one problem with the filming and editing process was that it didn’t leave enough time for James Horner to write and compose his score for the film. So if you’ve seen the film, which you should have, you probably heard the films wonderful score, it is incredibly atmospheric with a dark center, building upon the score of the original. Because it took so long to film everything, even on schedule, they didn’t think of the way Horner composes his scores. How he likes to match the melody to the major beats of the scene as most other masters of music would like to do.
It’s something that just doesn’t fill in the background but guides the emotion and atmosphere of the scene. But it got to a point where Horner would only see certain scenes 36hrs before they had to be written and composed by the orchestra. There were certain points where he had nothing because of these tight deadlines, certain parts of the score was missing when it needed to be composed. Let’s just say James Horner wasn’t happy although through the huge amount of stress, his score turned out fantastic in the end, what I would even call one of his very best soundtracks.
That being said, I honestly couldn’t point out an element within the film that looks dated when you look at that world. There’s elements like the CRT monitors and lower quality screens although they are a pretty important part of how the world looks within the Alien franchise. It’s also still pretty relevant to today’s world in its themes and story that I’ve somewhat mentioned already. The parallel between Aliens and the Vietnam war can easily also compare the war in Iraq during 2003 to 2011.
There’s that battle between threats that could destroy “Western way of life” such as terrorist groups Al-Qaeda who orchestrated the 911 attacks but there is also the underlying idea that America benefitted from the war through the gain of oil from Iraq. This can be seen similarly to how Aliens’ plot surrounds the mission of the marines investigating the planet to see what happens but also Burke’s secret mission from Weyland Yutani to bring a live xenomorph back to Earth to use as a weapon.
There’s another main theme, however, that is incredibly important to the plot that I haven’t really discussed yet. That is Ripley’s acceptance of losing her old life and her daughter before being able to build a new one. If you have watched Alien Cubed (Alien 3), you know the ending doesn’t go as pleasant as you would think although Ripley’s surrogate mother relationship to Newt holds the whole film together. Ripley just soon after finding out she missed 50 years of her daughter’s life before she died, has to protect a young girl from these monsters of planet Lv426, help her through the trauma of losing her family much like Ripley lost her crew and old life.
They are there to help each other through emotional and real-life trauma. There’s then also Hicks who acts as a sort of surrogate father in the relationship but what really makes the film different is how this doesn’t effect Ripley’s character, she is the one in charge, she is fully capable of handling this threat but they still all help each other and have organic relationships. Similar for the rest of the cast who all give some excellent performances including the late and great Bill Paxton (may he rest in peace). Also I want to mention one of my favourite actors, Lance Henriksen’s great performance as Bishop who is written as an opposite of Ash from the first film (who I met but was very grump as you would expect an old tired actor would be although I got a picture which was good).
Ripley is probably my favourite character in film. How capable she is, how she perseveres through the worst events you can think of and takes charge when it is needed, fight for what she believes in and yet can still show emotion and struggle with what she is going through. She is strong but she is also human, she feels real, she has struggles, flaws and that’s something that I feel is missing when people write a lot of female characters especially in film. Horror has always been a genre where female characters are allowed to shine, have interesting material to work with that isn’t just the love interest. That is probably why Alien (my all time favourite film) and Aliens have a very special place in my heart. It’s the realistic characters presented with this alien creature that they have to find a way to stop. The horror comes from knowing what may occur but it happening anyway, it can’t be stopped but at the same time there is also an unpredictably to it, you expect it to happen but you don’t know when, where and how which makes it terrifying and exciting. Aliens, this time it’s war and what a war is displayed.
Anyway, with that final note, thank you for reading this third part in Sci-Fi Horror month. This post is super late, I apologise for that but in a sense, like my Alien post was, this ironically becomes my Halloween post for the first anniversary of The Galaxy Wide Sci-Fi Guide. The only reason I haven’t been able to get this post up is because of technical issues with my laptop (wow, an amateur writer who works on his laptop, who would have guessed). It’s one of my all time favourite films and probably my favourite film sequel, I just love it, it’s just an awesome bit of Sci-Fi Horror that has made such an incredible impact on cinema. It just stands the test of time although same time next year we will be discussing Alien 3 (Alien Cubed) and I have some very mixed thoughts on that but that’ll be a treat for anniversary number deux. However, do you feel I looked at the topic in enough detail? What are your thoughts on Aliens? Let me know, future thinkers, in the comments below…
Next time, get ready for a super late but extra sized retrospective on 50’s Horror and more specifically strange movies about people transforming into weird creatures and objects. Yes, we’re going in to the Sci-Fi B-movie zone, a time before Science Fiction become popular and when it was a niche genre for dweebs like me. This will probably be released before the middle of November with another special retrospective I have planned looking at V for Vendetta plus some reviews and a podcast episode as usual. I hate how long it is taking me but what can you do sometimes, problems happen and hey, the future is uncertain as you would if you are a Sci-Fi fanatic like me. Also, thanks for the great support over this last year, a proper update will be released next month as well along with some possible redesigns but for now and until next time…
Michael McGrady, Signing Off.