‘Aliens’ at 30: Revisiting James Cameron’s science fiction-horror masterpiece

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I think it goes without saying that James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien is that rare sequel that surpasses the original in every way. It has been unanimously praised by critics and audiences worldwide and many seem to agree that it is one of, Cameron’s superior films. It was released on this day in 1986 and is one of those films that hold up even to this day. (I’m proud of the fact that it came out in the same year I was born in.) Both Alien and Aliens, along with films like Star Wars andBlade Runner not only redefined the science fiction genre but also blockbuster filmmaking. Aliens expanded the ideas and themes that were set up in the first film while setting up several new ideas of its own. While Alien was a slow burn, brooding, claustrophobic “haunted house” story set in space, Aliens was an energetic action spectacle that was an equally smart and thrilling blend of science fiction and visceral horror as its predecessor, but on a much large scale.

The first film dealt with a single monster – an extraterrestrial organism called the Xenomorph that uses a human host to reproduce and multiply. When I saw Alien for the first time, I thought this was a really cool but scary idea. The potential scary scenarios that would result from this can give one nightmares. But for me, it was a sci-fi fan’s wet dream. The second film deals with multiple aliens run amock in a distant alien planet. Cameron had been nursing a desire to make a sequel to Alien while he was preparing to make his outstanding debut The Terminator. However, it was only after the studios saw The Terminator that they were convinced that he could take on a project of this size. He was very clear from the beginning that he had no intention to replicate what Scott did and wanted the sequel to be more ambitious. He wanted to be completely different from the first film while remaining faithful to it. Cameron took to the Vietnam War for inspiration and everything from the troops to the fictional corporation that sends them to hunt these aliens were modelled on people and events in the real world.

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Cameron also looked at the works of famous science fiction writers Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov for inspiration. The 1981 Walter Hill film Southern Comfort also served as an influence. The studio was initially apprehensive about bringing back Sigourney Weaver because she had demanded a hefty fee of $1 million, an idea which the studio didn’t initially warm up to. However, Cameron somehow was able to convince them that Sigourney’s presence is crucial and that the film wouldn’t work without her. After seeing the final result, the studio was proven wrong and Cameron was right. The character of Ellen Ripley had undergone a significant transformation since the first film. She has now become not only a kickass and iconic female action hero who did not take shit from anyone but also an inspiring feminist figure. Motherhood is one predominant theme that runs in some of Cameron’s films, most notably in Aliens, The Terminator and Terminator-2. Here, Ripley’s determination to protect a young girl called Newt runs parallel to the female Xenomorph’s (called the “Queen”) own  maternal instincts.

All the usual Cameron trademarks are present here as well: a strong female protagonist, macho characters, witty one-liners, big and complex machinery, evil corporations etc. The film didn’t have a smooth production and if you’ve heard of the stories that went on behind the scenes, you’ll start to wonder how the film saw the light of the day and see its release as a minor miracle. Cameron’s quest for perfection and flaming temper is pretty well-known and the crew had a problem dealing with all of that. What made it really worse is the fact that it was filmed at England’s Pinewood Studios and some of the crew – who were part of Alien – had more respect for Scott (considering the fact that he was British) than they did for Cameron, a Canadian. As a result, he faced a lot of hostility on set. None of them had seen The Terminator and so they didn’t think that he was capable of doing this film. When he finally did try to show them The Terminator, they didn’t even show up.

But regardless of how bad things were, his vision, determination, and relentlessness finally triumphed and some of the crew was finally convinced. It’s funny when you think that this is one of those blockbusters that is seen as a template by most blockbuster filmmakers but not many have come close to accomplishing what Cameron had. Look at the special and visual effects in this film. This was 1986. CGI was in its infancy (Terminator-2 hadn’t even come out yet) and everything was done using rear projection, miniatures, in-camera effects, editing tricks, puppets etc. The film was nominated for the Academy Awards in several categories like editing, sound, art direction, music, etc. and won for visual effects and sound effects editing. Watching the film is an exhilarating but at the same time an ardous exercise. The action set-pieces are nerve-racking and the multiple shocks disorienting. Unfortunately, the rest of the sequels weren’t able to reach the very high bar that was set here.

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