Aliens is a 1986 American science fiction action film written and directed by James Cameron, produced by Gale Anne Hurd, and starring Sigourney Weaver.
The second instalment in the Alien franchise, it follows Ellen Ripley (Weaver) as she returns to the moon where her crew encountered the hostile Alien creature, this time accompanied by a unit of space marines.
Additional roles are played by Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, Al Matthews, and Bill Paxton.
A sequel, Alien 03, was released in 1992.
Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill of Brandywine Productions, who produced the first Alien (1979) and its later sequels, served as executive producers.
They were immediately interested in a sequel to Alien, but the new management at 20th Century Fox postponed plans until 1983. Brandywine picked Cameron to write after reading his script for The Terminator (1984); when that film became a hit, Fox greenlit Aliens with Cameron as director and a budget of $18 million.
It was filmed in England at Pinewood Studios and a decommissioned power plant in Acton, London.
Alien 03 was released in 1992, with Weaver reprising her role as Ripley and Henriksen as Bishop.
For 57 years, Ellen Ripley has been in stasis in an escape shuttle after destroying her ship, the Nostromo, to escape a lethal alien creature that slaughtered her crew. She is rescued and debriefed by her employers at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, but they are sceptical of her claims that her crew found alien eggs in a derelict ship on the exomoon LV-426, as it is now the site of the terraforming colony Hadleys Hope.
After contact is lost with the colony, Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke and Colonial Marine Lieutenant Gorman ask Ripley to accompany them to investigate. Still traumatised from her alien encounter, she agrees on the condition that they exterminate the creatures. Aboard the spaceship USS Sulaco, she is introduced to the Colonial Marines and the android Bishop.
A dropship delivers the expedition to the surface of LV-426, where they find the colony deserted. Inside, they find makeshift barricades and battle signs, but no bodies; two live facehuggers in containment tanks; and a traumatised young girl nicknamed Newt, the sole survivor. The crew locates the colonists grouped beneath the fusion-powered atmosphere processing station. They head to the location, descending into corridors covered in alien secretions.
At the centre of the station, the marines find the colonists cocooned, serving as incubators for the creatures’ offspring. The marines kill an infant alien after it bursts from a colonist’s chest, rousing multiple adult aliens who ambush the marines, killing or capturing many of them. When the inexperienced Gorman panics, Ripley assumes command, taking control of their armoured personnel carrier, and rams the nest to rescue Corporal Hicks, and Privates Hudson and Vasquez. Hicks orders the dropship to recover the survivors, but a stowaway alien kills the pilots, causing it to crash into the station. The remaining group barricades themselves inside the colony.
Ripley discovers that Burke had ordered the colonists to investigate the derelict spaceship containing the alien eggs, intending to become wealthy by recovering alien specimens for use as biological weapons. She threatens to expose him, but Bishop informs the group that the dropship crash damaged the power plant cooling system, and it will soon explode and destroy the colony. He volunteers to crawl through extensive piping conduits to reach the colony’s transmitter and remotely pilot the Sulaco’s remaining dropship to the surface.
Ripley and Newt fall asleep in the medical laboratory, awakening to find themselves locked in the room with the two facehuggers, which have been released from their tanks. Ripley triggers a fire alarm to alert the marines, who rescue them and kill the creatures. Ripley accuses Burke of releasing the facehuggers so that they would impregnate her and Newt, allowing him to smuggle the embryos past Earth’s quarantine, and of planning to kill the rest of the marines so that no one could contradict his version of events. The power is suddenly cut, and aliens assault through the ceiling. In the ensuing firefight, Burke flees but is cornered by an alien and killed, while Hudson is captured after covering the others’ retreat. Gorman and the injured Vasquez sacrifice themselves to stall the aliens; Hicks is injured, and Newt is captured.
Ripley and Hicks reach Bishop in the second dropship, but Ripley refuses to abandon Newt. The group travels to the processing station, allowing a heavily armed Ripley to enter the hive and rescue Newt. As they escape, the two encounter the alien queen in her egg chamber. When an egg begins to open, Ripley uses her flamethrower to destroy the eggs and the queen’s ovipositor. Pursued by the enraged queen, Ripley and Newt reunite with Bishop and Hicks on the dropship. All four escape moments before the station explodes with the colony consumed by the nuclear blast.
On the Sulaco, the group is ambushed by the queen, who stowed away in the ship’s landing gear. The queen tears Bishop in half and advances on Newt, but Ripley battles the creature using an exosuit cargo-loader and expels it through an airlock into space. Ripley, Newt, Hicks, and the critically damaged Bishop enter hypersleep for their return trip to Earth.
- Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley: A Warrant officer and the sole survivor of an alien attack on her ship, the Nostromo.
- Michael Biehn as Corporal Dwayne Hicks.
- Paul Reiser as Carter J. Burke: A Weyland-Yutani Corporation representative.
- Lance Henriksen as Bishop: An android serving aboard the Sulaco.
- Carrie Henn as Rebecca “Newt” Jorden: A young girl living in a human colony on exomoon LV-426.
- Bill Paxton as Private Hudson.
- William Hope as Lieutenant Gorman: The Marines’ inexperienced commanding officer.
- Jenette Goldstein as Private Vasquez.
Al Matthews as Sergeant Apone: One of the Marines’ commanding officers.
Also featured are Mark Rolston as Private Drake, Ricco Ross as Private Frost, Colette Hiller as Corporal Ferro, Daniel Kash as Private Spunkmeyer, Cynthia Dale Scott as Corporal Dietrich, the Marines’ corpsman, Tip Tipping as Private Crowe, and Trevor Steedman as Private Wierzbowski. Paul Maxwell portrays Van Leuwen, the head of the review board that revokes Ripley’s flight license, and Carl Toop portrays the aliens and alien queen.
David Giler declared in 1979 Brandywine Productions were intent on “immediately making a sequel” to Alien, having the full support of 20th Century Fox president Alan Ladd Jr.. However, that year Ladd left amid Fox’s transition to new owners Marc Rich and Marvin Davis, and the new studio management had no interest in the sequel. Giler accused new president Norman Levy of being the one that held back the film’s production; Levy would later declare that “It was a movie I wanted to make,” but he felt another Alien would prove too costly. In the meantime, Giler and partners Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll sued Fox regarding the disbursement of the Alien profits. By the time the lawsuit was settled in 1983, Fox had new executives that got interested in continuing Alien. Giler pitched the project to one of the executives as a cross between Hill’s Southern Comfort and The Magnificent Seven.
While the producers and development executive Larry Wilson sought a writer for Alien II, Wilson came across James Cameron’s screenplay for The Terminator, and passed the script to Giler, feeling Cameron was right for the job. Giler then approached Cameron, who was completing pre-production of The Terminator. A fan of the original Alien, Cameron was interested in crafting a sequel and entered a self-imposed seclusion to brainstorm a concept for Alien II. After four days Cameron produced an initial 45-page treatment, although the Fox management put the film on hiatus, as some disliked the pitch, and they felt that Alien had not generated enough profit to warrant a sequel. A scheduling conflict with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger caused filming of The Terminator to be delayed by nine months (as Schwarzenegger was filming Conan the Destroyer), allowing Cameron additional time to write a script for Aliens. While filming The Terminator, Cameron wrote 90 pages for Aliens, and although the script was not finished, Fox’s new president Larry Gordon was impressed and told him that if The Terminator was a success, he would be able to direct Aliens. Cameron even declared that he spent production of The Terminator thinking on which elements of that film could “make a good dry run” for the Alien sequel.
Following the success of The Terminator, Cameron and producing 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 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 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 plus a percentage of the profits (equivalent to $2,400,000 in present-day terms).
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.” The attitude of the Colonial 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 technologically inferior but more determined enemy, the outcome is not what they expect. Cameron listed Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers as a major influence that led to the incorporation of various themes and phrases, such as the terms “the drop” and “bug hunt” as well as the cargo-loader exoskeleton.
Cameron opted to hire actors who had, or could imitate, American accents. After over 3,000 individuals in the UK were unsuccessfully auditioned, American actors were chosen instead, including three who had previously worked with Cameron on The Terminator: Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Michael Biehn. 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 manoeuvres, for two weeks. 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 because of other obligations, but Cameron felt that this suited their characters as “outsiders” in the film.
Weaver reprised her role from Alien. Biehn was hastily cast a week after filming had commenced, and thus was not present for the military training. James Remar was originally cast as Hicks but left the project over creative differences with Cameron. In an interview on episode #128 of the Sidebar podcast, Remar stated that he was fired after he was arrested for drug possession. Only a few shots of him remain in the film, such as when the team first enters the alien hive, because those sequences were too expensive to re-shoot; only his back is seen.
According to the casting director, Newt was the most difficult role to cast: school children were auditioned, but many of them had acted in commercials and were accustomed to smiling after saying their lines. Henn, from Atwater, California, was chosen out of 500 children for the role, although she had no previous acting experience. She received a Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor, but chose not to pursue an acting career, and became a teacher. Matthews attributed his casting to his military experience.
Aliens was filmed over ten months on a budget of $18 million at Pinewood Studios in England. Cameron, bound by a low budget and a deadline, found it difficult to adjust to what Paxton called the “indentured” working practices of the British crew, such as the tea breaks that brought production to a halt. Many of the crew had worked on Alien and were fiercely loyal to Ridley Scott, and they believed the 31-year-old Cameron was too young and inexperienced to direct. In response, he arranged a screening of The Terminator, which had not yet been released in the UK, but many of the crew did not attend. They also mocked producer Gale Anne Hurd, insisting that she was only receiving the producer credit because she was married to Cameron. Cameron clashed with the original director of photography Dick Bush when Bush started production saying the schedule could not be met and when he insisted on lighting the alien nest set brightly. Cameron insisted on a dark, foreboding nest, relying on the lights from the Marines’ armour. After Bush was fired, the crew walked out. Hurd managed to coax the team back to work, and Adrian Biddle was hired as Bush’s replacement.
Some scenes of the alien nest were shot at the decommissioned Acton Lane Power Station in Acton, London. The crew thought it was a perfect place to film because of its grilled walkways and numerous corridors, but had to spend money to remove asbestos from the station. The Atmosphere Processor set was not dismantled after filming, and was reused in 1989 as the Axis Chemicals set for Batman (1989).
Music composer James Horner felt he was not given enough time to create a musical score. Horner arrived in England and expected the film to be completed and to write the score in six weeks, which he thought was a sufficient amount of time. Horner, however, discovered that filming and editing were still taking place, and he was unable to view the film. He visited the sets and editing rooms for three weeks and found that editor Ray Lovejoy was barely keeping up with the workload for reasons of time restrictions. Horner believed Cameron was preoccupied with sound effects, citing that Cameron spent two days with the sound engineer creating the sounds for the pulse rifles. He also complained that he was given an outdated recording studio; the score was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, a then-30-year-old studio that was barely able to patch in synthesizers or use the electronic equipment that Horner required.
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, impressed with Horner’s score for Braveheart (1995), asked him to compose the score for Titanic.
Early concept art was created by Syd Mead, who had previously worked on Blade Runner, 2010 (1984), and Tron (1982). 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 “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 an F-4 Phantom II and AH-1 Cobra.
British Airways was re-equipping several of its aircraft tug tractors, and the crew managed to purchase a 635 hp Hunslet ATT 77 tug to use as the armoured personnel carrier. It initially weighed 70 short tons (64,000 kg), and although the crew removed 35 short tons (32,000 kg) of lead ballast, 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 707. 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 Colonial 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.
Weapons used by the Colonial Marines were based on 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 forend 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 manoeuvred with Steadicam-like 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.
Aside from the alien queen, designed by Cameron himself, the aliens were inspired by H. R. Giger’s designs for the original. The only change was removing the translucent dome that gave the creature’s head its sleek shape in Alien, exposing the ridged, spined cranium beneath. Cameron felt the dome was too fragile for the practical effects, and also felt that the cranium design was more visually interesting without it.
Brothers Robert and Dennis Skotak were hired to supervise the visual effects, having previously worked with Cameron on several Roger Corman movies. Two stages were used to construct the colony on LV-426, using miniature models that were, on average, six feet tall and three feet wide. Filming the miniatures was difficult because of the weather; the wind would blow over the props; however, it proved helpful to give the effect of weather on the planet. Cameron used these miniatures and several effects to make scenes look larger than they really were, including rear projection, mirrors, beam splitters, camera splits and foreground miniatures. Due to budget limits, Cameron said he had to pay for the robotic arm used to cut into Ripley’s shuttle in the opening scene. Practical effects supervisor John Richardson (who won a special effects Oscar for his part in the film) declared his biggest challenge was creating the forklift power-loader exoskeletons, which required only three months of work and had Cameron complaining about visual details during construction. The model could not stand on its own, requiring either wires dangling from the shoulders or a pole through the back attached to a crane. While Sigourney Weaver was inside the power loader model, a stunt man standing behind it would move the arms and legs.
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. Various 8-foot-tall (2.4 m) mannequins also were created to make aliens that stood in inhuman poses, and could have their bodies exploded to simulate gunshot wounds. Stan Winston’s team created fully articulated facehuggers that could move their fingers; these were moved by wires hidden on the scenery or the actors’ clothing. The one that walked towards Ripley had a mechanism akin to a pull toy, with pulleys that moved the fingers, and its jump combined three models shot separately: the walking facehugger, a stationary model dangling on a table leg, and another model being pulled towards the camera.
According to production staff, scenes involving the alien queen were the most difficult to film. A life-sized mockup 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 14 feet (4.3 m) tall, 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 16 were required to move it. All sequences involving the full-size queen were filmed in-camera with no post-production manipulation. Additionally, a miniature alien queen was used for certain shots.
Eagerly anticipated by fans following the success of Alien, Aliens was released in North America on 18 July 1986, and 29 August in the UK. In North America, the film opened in 1,437 theatres with an average opening gross of $6,995 and a weekend gross of $10,052,042. It was #1 at the North American box office for four consecutive weeks, grossing $85,160,248. Aliens was the seventh-highest-grossing film of 1986 in North America. The film’s worldwide total gross has been stated as high as $180 million, making Aliens one of the highest-grossing R-rated films at the time. In 1992, Fox noted the worldwide gross was $157 million.
Aliens received universal acclaim. Test and pre-screenings were unable to take place due to the film not being completed until its week of release. Once it was released in cinemas, critical reaction was very positive.
Aliens was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Actress, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction. 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 previously was given little recognition.
Aliens received four BAFTA award nominations and won in the category of Visual Effects. It won eight Saturn Awards in the film categories of actress (Sigourney Weaver), supporting actor (Bill Paxton), supporting actress (Jenette Goldstein), performance by a younger actor (Carrie Henn), direction (James Cameron), writing (James Cameron), special effects (Stan Winston and the L.A. Effects Group), and science-fiction film.
Time magazine named Aliens in its 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 35th 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.” Empire voted it the ‘Greatest Film Sequel Of All Time’.
The film is also recognised by American Film Institute in the 2003 list AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains: Ellen Ripley as the #8 hero.
Aliens was first released on VHS in 1987, finishing as the tenth-best-selling title of the year. A “special edition” of Aliens that restored 17 minutes of deleted footage was released in the UK on VHS on 05 April 1990 and in the US on LaserDisc in 1991 and on VHS the following year. These additions include a segment showing Newt’s family first encountering the derelict spacecraft on LV-426, Ripley’s learning that her daughter died during the years she was in hypersleep, a scene in the operations building in which the Marines use sentry guns against the aliens, and several extended dialogue scenes between Ripley and the Marines. These scenes had been deleted from the original theatrical release as 20th Century Fox representatives thought the film was showing “too much nothing” and spent an unnecessary amount of time building suspense.
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 incomplete, 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 20th Anniversary Edition DVD box set in 1999 along with Alien, Alien 03, and Alien Resurrection. 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 03, and Alien Resurrection. A separate two-disc “special collector’s edition” DVD of Aliens was released on 06 January 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. The film was first made available on Blu-ray in the 2010 box set Alien Anthology, before receiving a stand-alone release the following year. Fox released the 30th-anniversary Blu-ray of the movie on 13 September 2016.
- On a budget of $18 million the film grossed $131.3-183.3 million at the box office.
The Alien vs. Predator franchise combines the continuities of the Alien franchise with the Predator franchise and consists of two films as well as various series of comics, books, and video games.
You can find a full index and overview of the Alien Series here.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): James Cameron.
- Producer(s): Gale Anne Hurd.
- Writer(s): James Cameron, David Giler, and Walter Hill.
- Music: James Horner.
- Cinematography: Adrian Biddle.
- Editor(s): Ray Lovejoy.
- Production: 20th Century Fox and Brandywine Productions.
- Distributor(s): 20th Century Fox.
- Release Date: 18 July 1986.
- Running Time: 137 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.