Aliens is a 1986 American science fiction action horror film written and directed by James Cameron, produced by Gale Anne Hurd and starring Sigourney Weaver. It is the sequel to the 1979 film Alien and the second installment in the Alien franchise. The film follows Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley 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.
Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill of Brandywine Productions, who produced the first film and its later sequels, served as executive producers on Aliens. They were interested in a follow-up to Alien as soon as its 1979 release, but the new management at 20th Century Fox postponed those plans until 1983. Brandywine picked Cameron to write after reading his script for The Terminator; when that film became a hit in 1984, Fox greenlit Aliens with Cameron as director and a budget of approximately $18 million. It was filmed in England at Pinewood Studios and at a decommissioned power plant in Acton, London.
Aliens was released on July 18, 1986 and grossed $180 million worldwide. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for Sigourney Weaver, winning both Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects. It won eight Saturn Awards (Best Science Fiction Film, Best Actress for Weaver, Best Supporting Actor for Paxton, Best Supporting Actress for Goldstein, and Best Direction and Best Writing for Cameron), and a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Empire magazine voted it the ‘Greatest Film Sequel Of All Time’. Aliens was the seventh-highest-grossing film of 1986 in North America.
A sequel, Alien 3, was released in 1992, with Weaver reprising her role as Ripley and Henriksen as Bishop in the film.
Ellen Ripley has been in stasis in a shuttle for 57 years. She is rescued and debriefed by her employers at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; they are skeptical of her claims that an alien creature killed her entire crew and forced her to destroy her ship the Nostromo, and they subsequently revoke her flight officer license.
The exomoon LV-426, where the Nostromo initially encountered the derelict ship containing alien eggs, is now home to the terraforming colony Hadleys Hope. When contact is lost with the colony, Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke and Colonial Marine Lieutenant Gorman ask Ripley to accompany Burke and a Colonial Marine unit to investigate the disturbance. Despite suffering from recurring nightmares about her original experience with the alien, she eventually joins the expedition on Burke’s word that their mission is to exterminate the creatures. Aboard the spaceship USS Sulaco, she is introduced to the Colonial Marines and the android Bishop, toward whom Ripley is initially hostile following her experience with the traitorous android Ash aboard the Nostromo.
A dropship delivers the expedition to the surface of LV-426, where they find the colony deserted. Inside, they find makeshift barricades and signs of a struggle, but no bodies; two live facehuggers in containment tanks in the medical lab; and a traumatized young girl nicknamed Newt, the sole survivor, who used the extensive ventilation system to evade the aliens. The crew uses the colony’s computer to locate the colonists grouped beneath the fusion powered atmosphere processing station. They head to the location, descending into corridors covered in alien secretions.
At the center of the station, the Marines find the colonists cocooned, serving as incubators for the creatures’ offspring. When the Marines kill a chestburster, the other aliens are roused and ambush the troops, killing Frost, Crowe, Wierzbowski, and Drake while capturing Apone and Dietrich alive to be cocooned as hosts. When the inexperienced Gorman panics, Ripley assumes command, taking control of their armored personnel carrier, and rams the nest to rescue Corporal Hicks, Private Hudson and Private Vasquez, the only three survivors. Hicks orders the dropship to recover the survivors, but a stowaway alien kills the pilots Spunkmeyer and Ferro, causing it to crash into the station. The remaining group barricade themselves inside the colony command center.
Ripley discovers that Burke sent the colonists to investigate the derelict spaceship where the Nostromo crew first encountered the eggs, believing he could become wealthy by recovering alien specimens for use as biological weapons. She threatens to expose him, but Bishop informs the group that the power plant was damaged by the dropship crash along with the previous firefight that ruptured the cooling system and will soon explode with the force of a 40-megaton thermonuclear weapon. He volunteers to crawl through several hundred meters of 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. Before the Marines can kill Burke, the power is cut, and aliens assault through the ceiling. In the ensuing firefight, Burke attempts to flee but is cornered by an alien, while Hudson is dragged away after covering the others’ retreat. Gorman and the injured Vasquez detonate a grenade and sacrifice themselves; 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.
- Weaver reprised her role from Alien. She received a Saturn Award for best actress for her performance and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, her first Academy Award nomination.
- Michael Biehn as Corporal Dwayne Hicks:
- Biehn was hastily cast a week after filming had commenced, and thus was not present for the military training that the other actors playing Marines went through 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 replaced due to being fired after he was arrested for drug possession. Only a few shots of him remain in the film, which is where the team first enters the alien hive, only his back is seen. This was because those sequences were too expensive to re-shoot.
- Paul Reiser as Carter J. Burke:
- Burke is a representative from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, sent to investigate LV-426.
- Bishop is an android serving as the executive officer aboard the Sulaco.
- Carrie Henn as Rebecca “Newt” Jorden:
- 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.
- Bill Paxton as technician Private Hudson:
- Paxton received a Saturn Award for best supporting actor.
- The Marines’ inexperienced commanding officer
- Jenette Goldstein as smart gunner Private Vasquez:
- Goldstein received a Saturn Award for best supporting actress
- Al Matthews as Sergeant Apone:
- One of the Marines’ commanding non-commissioned officers. Matthews attributed his casting to his military experience.
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.
Cameron opted to hire actors who had, or could imitate, American accents. After over 3,000 individuals in the United Kingdom 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 maneuvers, 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.
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, a sum 30 times what she was paid for the first film (and equivalent to $2,300,000 in present-day terms). Weaver nicknamed her role in the Alien sequel “Rambolina”, referring to John Rambo of the Rambo series, and stated that she approached the role as akin to the titular role in Henry V or women warriors in Chinese classical literature.
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.
Early concept art was created by Syd Mead, who had previously worked on Blade Runner, 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 “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.
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 armored 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 maneuvered 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 July 18, 1986, and August 29 in the United Kingdom. In North America, the film opened in 1,437 theaters 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.
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 April 5, 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.
Aliens received nearly 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 generally positive to very positive. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “A” on an A+ to F scale.
Critic Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4 and called it “painfully and unremittingly intense” and a “superb example of filmmaking craft.” He also stated “when I walked out of the theater, there were knots in my stomach from the film’s roller-coaster ride of violence.” Walter Goodman of The New York Times said it was a “flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-’em-up show that keeps you popping from your seat despite your better instincts and the basically conventional scare tactics.” Time magazine featured the film on the cover of its July 28, 1986, issue, calling it the “summer’s scariest movie”. Time reviewer Richard Schickel declared the film “a sequel that exceeds its predecessor in the reach of its appeal while giving Weaver new emotional dimensions to explore.” The selection of Aliens for a Time cover was attributed to the successful reception of the film, as well as its novel example of a science-fiction action heroine. Echoing Time‘s assessment, Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader called the film “one sequel that surpasses the original.” On the negative side, Gene Siskel described Aliens as “one extremely violent, protracted attack on the senses” and that “toward the end, the film resorts to placing a young girl in jeopardy in a pathetic attempt to pander to who knows what audience. Some people have praised the technical excellence of Aliens. Well, the Eiffel Tower is technically impressive, but I wouldn’t want to watch it fall apart on people for two hours.”
Reviews of the film have remained mostly positive over the years. 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.” In 2016, James Charisma of Playboy ranked the film #6 on a list of 15 Sequels That Are Way Better Than the Originals.
The film holds a 99% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 68 reviews, and an average rating of 9/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “While Alien was a marvel of slow-building, atmospheric tension, Aliens packs a much more visceral punch, and features a typically strong performance from Sigourney Weaver.” It also holds a score of 84 out of 100 based on 22 critics on Metacritic, indicating “universal acclaim”.
Aliens was also featured in Empire Magazine’s 500 Greatest films of All Time poll at #30 in 2008, in Empire’s 301 Greatest Films of All Time poll at #19 in 2014 and in Empire’s recent 100 Greatest films of All Time poll at #15.