Haunted House In Space.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “ALIEN” took a simple, 1950s ‘monster on a spaceship’ B-movie story and wrapped it in glossy, A-movie production design and quality. Its status among fans has since become legendary, on a par with horror films such as “The Exorcist” and “Psycho” as well as sci-fi opuses like “Star Wars” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Scott gave his relatively small cast detailed backstories on their characters, and the entire universe of the film felt gritty and lived in (much like Star Wars, which had partly inspired Scott). Watching ALIEN again recently on my at-home, (COVID-safe) 80” (203 cm) projection screen, I still jumped during a couple of moments, despite having seen the film more times than I can count. ALIEN is the textbook definition of ‘tough act to follow.’
Despite ALIEN’s box office success, it would be seven long years before a sequel would arrive in theaters. Writer/director James Cameron was hot off the success of 1984’s sleeper hit sci-fi thriller “The Terminator” when he and producer (then wife) Gale Ann Hurd (“The Walking Dead”) mounted a sequel that would see a reluctant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returning to the planet Archeron (aka LV-426) to confront the acid-for-blood creatures that still haunt her nightmares. What could be the motive for this traumatized woman to return to that planet? Cameron believed that it was Ripley’s chance to wipe out these monsters out once and for all–to give herself closure–that would be the key to her return. Add to the mix an endangered human colony that had settled on the planet in the 57 years Ripley’s escape shuttle had drifted “through the core systems.” This wouldn’t be a lone monster lurking in a dark spaceship… this was going to be war.
*****BIG ATMOSPHERE PROCESSING UNIT-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
This Time It’s War…
The tagline of the film (above) tells the audience that this sequel is going to be a different beast than its predecessor. As the opening credits slowly form the word ALIENS in electric-blue font, the music by the late James Horner (“Braveheart” “Titanic”) has an immediate tension to it, combined with an undercurrent of military drums. No more of the uneasy ambiguity we heard in Goldsmith’s opening theme for ALIEN–Horner’s score tells us exactly what lies ahead. After the credits flare out, we see Ripley’s surviving shuttle (the Narcissus) from the previous movie, which has been adrift since its escape from its detonated mothership Nostromo.
Towed aboard a massive salvage vessel, the shuttle is inspected by laser probing before two hazmat-suited humans board the ship and find Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in cryogenic stasis, along with the Nostromo’s feline mascot, Jones. One of the two men takes off his mask, more annoyed about losing a salvage claim than pleased to find a living survivor. Ripley groggily awakens in the gleaming white sickbay aboard “Gateway Station” in Earth orbit (think: the ISS on steroids). Ripley is feeling terrible after her long hyper-sleep, and she is full of questions.
In walks Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) a yuppie executive from the Weyland-Yutani corporation (Ripley’s nefarious employer from the previous movie). Burke reunites Jones with Ripley, and insists he’s “an okay guy.” Feeling disoriented, Ripley asks Burke to come clean and tell her how long she was “out there.” He tells her. 57 years. Before the bad news can fully sink in, a nauseous Ripley feels something happening in her belly, and begs to medic to kill her. Seeing an alien’s head just under her skin and about to punch through her abdomen, Ripley jolts herself awake…we are inside of yet another of her nightmares since returning home.
Note: Ripley’s line of “Kill me” is precisely what Captain Dallas asks of Ripley in the extended cut of ALIEN when Ripley is escaping the ship and comes across a cocooned Dallas about to give birth to a new alien inside of him as well. Speaking of extended cuts, at this point in the Special Edition of ALIENS, we see a fully awakened Ripley getting news from Burke of her daughter Amy, who died a few years earlier, at age 66. I will go into more detail about this scene and some others that were added back into the Special Edition after this synopsis/commentary. I’m synopsizing the theatrical cut.
We then see Ripley at an official Weyland-Yutani inquest, which as Carter Burke says afterward, “could’ve gone better.” The suits refuse to believe Ripley’s story of a single, acid-blooded alien that killed her entire crew, and they can’t see any justification for her destruction of the M-class star freighter Nostromo. Ripley goes into a justifiable rage over the inquiry board’s refusal to listen, which doesn’t help the case for her stability or judgment. When a defeated Ripley asks CEO Van Leeuwen (Paul Maxwell) to just “check out LV-426” in order to corroborate her story, he tells her they’ve had a terraforming colony on the planet for years without incident. Dozens of families are now living near that derelict alien vessel full of living parasitic eggs, waiting for hosts. Ripley is aghast.
Note: Once again, the next scene on the Special Edition is all about the discovery of the derelict on the colony, and the introduction of ‘Newt’ and her family, but we’ll get into that later…
Some time after the disastrous inquest, Ripley has cut her hair and has made a living on the station working on the loading docks, since she’s no longer deemed fit by the company to hold a commercial space license. She’s still plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder following her ordeal aboard the Nostromo, but she’s trying to make a life for herself. Burke pays a visit to the door of her tiny living quarters, along with Lt. Gorman (William Hope) of the Colonial Marine Corps. Trying to get Ripley to let him in, Burke tells her that they’ve lost all communication with the colony on LV-426 (aka Acheron, after the Greek river). Burke offers her a chance to renew her contract for space duty if she agrees to accompany the Colonial Marines to Acheron strictly as an advisor. She takes Burke’s card and shows the two men out. Later that night, she awakens yet again, soaked in sweat from another nightmare. Realizing she won’t get closure by staying home, she phones Burke and agrees to go on the mission only if it’s a search-and-destroy mission, not a sample retrieval. Burke gives her his word, as she promptly hangs up on him.
Aboard the United States Colonial Marine Corps vessel Sulacco, we see a lengthy row of cryogenic hibernation chambers (a simple trick accomplished with mirrors on the back wall of the set) as lights and other automated systems aboard the ship slowly reactivate in anticipation of reanimated passengers. All at once the chambers open, just as we saw aboard the Nostromo at the beginning of ALIEN…
One by one, we meet the Colonial Marines. The leader is the uptight Lieutenant Gorman, whom we met earlier at Ripley’s apartment. Gorman’s second-in-command is Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews), the top-ranking enlistee whom the grunts trust. Apone is followed by the ever-steady Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn, of “The Terminator”), arrogant jokester & closet coward Private Hudson (a hilarious Bill Paxton), tough-as-hell Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), cynical Private Frost (Ricco Ross), musclebound Private Drake (Mark Rolston), pilot Ferro (Colette Hiller) and medic Dietrich (Cynthia Dale Scott). We also see that Burke is onboard, along with a non-rank middle-aged crewman named Bishop (Lance Henriksen). Much like the crew of the Nostromo in the previous movie, we get to know the crew of the Sulacco fairy quickly, as they each have unique traits that make them stand out. This character shorthand is effective at conveying distinct personalities while stopping just short of horror-movie stereotyping. The larger ensemble of ALIENS doesn’t allow for the same subtlety with its characters as its predecessor, but the abbreviated characterizations are still effective enough.
Over breakfast, Hudson asks Bishop to “do the thing with the knife.” As Bishop places his open fingered hand on the table and grabs his knife, the muscly Drake forcibly grabs Hudson’s hand and places it under Bishop’s, putting Hudson in equal jeopardy. Bishop stabs the knife into the table between his (and Hudson’s) splayed fingers, as Hudson screams. When it’s finished, the group laughs, as the terrified Hudson checks his shaking hand for cuts (“that wasn’t funny, man”). Unfortunately Bishop has nicked one of his own fingers, as evidenced by a drop of white blood. Ripley notices the blood and angrily confronts Burke, “You never said anything about having an android aboard. Why not?!” Burke is taken aback by Ripley’s alarm, noting that it’s now ‘common practice’ to have a synthetic aboard. Burke tells Bishop that Ripley had a bad encounter with a predecessor of his aboard the Nostromo. Bishop tries to calm Ripley’s concerns by admitting that Ash’s model was a “bit twitchy,” as he insists his own programming specifically negates any possibility of harming a human being (for reasons similar to Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics). Ripley doesn’t believe him. Soon, the Sulacco arrives in orbit over Acheron…
In preparation for landing, the Marines are briefed by their commanding officer, Lt. Gorman and then by Ripley, who tries telling her story to the arrogant jarheads, who don’t seem worried or fazed by the prospect of running into the dangerous aliens. Only Corporal Hicks pays genuine attention to her story as Ripley stammers nervously, reliving the horror of it in her mind. Vasquez rudely interrupts, “Look man, I only need to know one thing…where they are.” As the squad begins high-fiving each other, Ripley sharply commands their attention once again by reminding them that “just one of those things managed to wipe out my entire crew.” Gorman then dismisses his Marines, as they begin loading ammunition aboard their dropship. Ripley, feeling useless, offers to drive a wearable exoskeletal power loader to help move cargo around the ship’s hangar. Apone and Hicks gain newfound respect for their civilian ‘advisor’, who proves she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty by helping out.
Note: The exoskeletal power loader seen in ALIENS is on its way to becoming a reality someday (https://bitrebels.com/technology/power-loader-from-aliens-soon-a-reality/ ).
The Marines begin practicing with their heavy ammo (pulse rifles, grenade launchers, flame-throwers, etc) as the dropship is loaded for launch. Once the crew are strapped into the armored personnel carrier (APC) ground vehicle, Bishop drives it up into the dropship’s ramp. The ramp then closes, and the crew count down. The Sulacco’s bay doors open over the planet, and the marine dropship is released hard and fast into the clouds. Pilot Ferro flies the craft through the turbulent atmosphere of Acheron, as Gorman and Burke spot the colony. From overhead, the colony appears quiet, as no one is visibly working outside of the complex, but power is still active. Lights on, but nobody home. Landing just outside the colony, the crew are driven out in the APC as the dropship lifts off again and retreats to a safe distance for later pickup. Gorman and Ripley remain aboard the APC, monitoring the helmet cameras of the Marines, as they bypass the locked power doors of the colony complex and deploy within…
Looking for any signs of life, human or otherwise, the Marines get out their motion trackers to track movement within the complex. The corridors of the colony are deserted, but signs of a violent confrontation are everywhere, as heavy objects are futilely used as would-be barricades, and giant holes are burned into the floor grating; the burned holes are where some of the fighting colonists might have successfully killed (or at least injured) some of the alien ‘xenomorphs’ (as named by Lt. Gorman). This corroborates Ripley’s story about the aliens having concentrated acid for blood.
Note: The motion trackers make a noise similar to a repeating ‘P’ sound. The sound raises in both repetition and intensity (with an added electronic ringing) as it picks up approaching objects, cleverly mimicking both the rhythm and feel of a nervous heartbeat (automatically synching the audience with the film’s tension level). The Marines’ motion trackers, with their easy-to-read video displays, are an improvement over the clunky “air density” trackers the android Ash improvised for Ripley’s crew aboard the Nostromo in ALIEN. The sleek new trackers suggest innovations that might have occurred during Ripley’s 57-year slumber. Some audience members felt that ALIENS didn’t reflect enough technological change for such a long interval of time, but there have been many periods in human history where technology plateaued without significant change for centuries (and has even, at times, regressed).
Apone reports to Gorman that there are no signs of movement within the colony complex so far. Prematurely declaring the area secure, Gorman exits the APC along with Ripley, Burke and Bishop. With the Marines as their escorts, they make their way through the deserted corridors into the colony’s med lab, where they find large specimen jars full of face-huggers–the same sort of creature that attached itself to Kane’s face 57 years ago, impregnating him with what became the monster that triggered the Nostromo’s destruction.
In one of the movie’s most effective jump-scares, Burke leans into one of the specimen jars as the still-living face-hugger slams itself against the glass, instinctively trying to reach the face beyond. There are two specimens still alive, the rest are dead. Bishop reads the autopsy reports, noting that the attending surgeon killed one of the colonists by trying to forcibly remove one of the face-huggers. Just then, Private Frost gets motion on his tracker. Something is coming up behind them in the corridors outside the lab…
The Marines see a blur run across the corridor as Hudson fires, missing the target. Catching up to the source, Ripley realizes it’s a little girl. Ignoring the danger and her Marine escorts, Ripley dives into an air duct after the child. Catching up to her, she finds the girl in an improvised living space in one of the dead ends of the air conditioning system. A patient Ripley grabs the semi-feral child, and gently strokes her hair, eventually calming her down. With the nicknamed girl “Newt” (Carrie Henn) back to the med-lab, Gorman foolishly uses adult interrogation techniques on the clearly traumatized girl, much to Ripley’s dismay (“Give it a rest, will you, Gorman?”). Ripley, with her warmer and more maternal touch, gets the little girl to tentatively open up to her, as they quickly form a bond. The traumatized Newt seeks a new mother figure and the equally traumatized Ripley is subconsciously seeking the child she lost while in hyper-sleep (see: Special Edition). Newt and Ripley are both very damaged people who need the comfort of each other in order to heal. Despite its action-heavy reputation, ALIENS has a deeply sensitive side to it as well.
Note: Carrie Henn would seemed to have had a promising career ahead of her as a child star after her success in ALIENS. But much like young Carey Guffey in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, she never returned to acting, choosing a career as a teacher instead. As the husband of a teacher, I can vouch that good acting and vocal skills are vital to that profession as well, as the goals of both educator and performer are very similar; both need to connect with an audience and keep fragile attention spans attuned to what they are saying.
Soon the colonists’ personal transmitters are detected, with the bulk of them located underneath the heat exchangers of the terraforming station’s nuclear reactor. The Marines are sent to investigate, and find a humid, warm lair full of secreted bio-resin sculptures made from the aliens’ themselves, like a massive hornet’s nest or a beehive, but also incorporating the reactor’s architecture in its design (continuing original ALIEN designer H.R. Giger’s aesthetic of biomechanics). Ripley immediately realizes that if the Marines fire their pulse rifles, they might risk rupturing the reactor’s cooling systems, destroying the entire facility in a deadly nuclear blast (the principle of nuclear fusion is mistakenly used here, but no matter). Gorman tells Apone to collect the entire platoon’s pulse-rifle magazines. Private Vasquez quietly keeps a spare cartridge against orders. Movement is soon detected but no heat signatures. Fearing that the aliens don’t show up on infrared scopes, the Marines are ambushed. Xenomorphs literally spring from the walls as they are camouflaged inside of their nest. In the first wave, many Marines are instantly killed, with their life signs flatlining on the APC’s command console. In the deadly melee, Vasquez begins firing. Cut off from his troops, Gorman panics and freezes. Ripley takes control of the APC and plows the tank-like car through the facility to pick up the retreating Marines, who’ve take on many casualties, including Apone, Frost, Dietrich, and others. As Ripley struggles to control the unfamiliar vehicle, Gorman is (mercifully) flung across the cabin, knocking his head on metal flooring and losing consciousness.
As Ripley arrives and picks up the surviving retreating Marines, more xenomorphs try to get inside the APC itself. Drake is killed when a bleeding alien fries him with acid, and Vasquez is enraged. Hudson’s arm is also doused, but he is bandaged in time. With everyone aboard, Ripley pulls out into the open, and Hicks calls for Ferro to pick them up in the dropship. However, dropship pilot Ferro has troubles of her own, as a xenomorph has snuck aboard her craft, killing her right in the cockpit, forcing a crash-landing. Soon, the Marines’ rescue ride is a flaming pile of twisted metal. Little Newt seems to be the calmest in the group, as if she’s seen this pattern all too often in the months before the Marines landed. Heeding the young orphan’s advice to take shelter as night approaches, the shattered group finds temporary refuge in the abandoned colony complex command center, taking the still-unconscious Gorman back to the med bay.
Hudson, still traumatized from the massive defeat in the reactor station, begins to lose any semblance of control and completely freaks out (Bill Paxton’s panic-acting became legendary after this film). Ripley tries to get him to focus by ordering him to pull up floor plans of the complex and find ways of securing its tunnels and other hidden entrances. Hudson calms down just enough to function. Ripley suggests welding all access conduits shut, with sentries just outside the sealed access points. Corporal Hicks appreciates Ripley’s sense of strategy, as the two become de facto leaders of their remaining forces. Hicks gives Ripley a wrist tracker for emergencies, joking that “it doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything” (though it’s very possible he might be feeling something for her at this point).
Ripley then takes a moment to check on Newt, and tucks the girl to sleep in the med bay with cameras keeping an eye on her as she sleeps. Ripley does her best to comfort the little girl, and even gives her the wrist tracker given to her by Hicks. Promising never to leave Newt (“hope to die”), Ripley kisses her goodnight. Checking up on the android Bishop in the med lab, she orders him to destroy all the face-hugger specimens once he’s finished with them. Bishop tells her that Burke ordered him to preserve them for transport back to the company labs. An enraged Ripley confronts Burke, telling his that his “bad call” to send people out to collect specimens from the original derelict ship has led to the deaths of all of the colonists (save for Newt). She vows to make sure he’s “nailed right to the wall” for his role in their deaths. Nervously, Burke begins to realize that his plan to get rich by weaponizing the xenomorphs for the company’s bio-weapons division (the same plan the android Ash followed 57 years ago) may be in jeopardy…
Note: Paul Reiser’s evil yuppie Carter Burke is the epitome of 1980s corporate villainy. “Greed is good” later became a catchphrase (used non-ironically) after first being uttered by the twisted Gordon Gekko (Oscar-winner Michael Douglas) in the 1987 film “Wall Street.” Incidentally, filmmaker Oliver Stone has said that one of his original inspirations for the greedy, sociopathic Gekko was, in fact, current US president Donald J. Trump, who at the time, was known more for his shady real estate ventures than any political ambitions. Burke’s utter indifference to the suffering of the Marines and the Acheron colonists has a very different resonance when viewed today, as we see and hear Donald Trump willfully ignoring scientific data regarding climate change and the current COVID-19 pandemic. At least Burke could fake sincerity.
With Newt asleep, Ripley rejoins Hicks and the others in the command center, where Hicks gives her quick crash course in how to use advanced Marine weaponry (needless to say, she catches on quickly). A head-bandaged Gorman awakens, offers a humble apology to Ripley, who immediately dismisses him. More problems soon emerge, as Bishop realizes that the firing of weapons in the reactor station damaged the cooling system (as Ripley predicted it would), and that they only have four hours till the whole colony goes up in a nuclear blast (which was, incidentally, a variation of Ripley’s original idea for ending alien menace). Now they have a ticking clock…
With their only chance of rescue remaining with the second dropship stowed aboard the currently unmanned Sulacco mothership in orbit, Bishop volunteers to grab a portable laptop terminal, crawl through a narrow access pipe to the main uplink tower, and bring down the second dropship by remote navigation. There’s also the slim hope that the aliens may not find the android to be a viable host and leave him alone. Vasquez seals the unarmed android into the pipe, and wishes him luck. Realizing she’s been up for over a day, Ripley decides to join Newt and catch some much-needed rest during the brief lull in the action. She joins Newt in the med lab, and finds the child sleeping under the bed (she’s even learned to sleep defensively). Ripley curls up behind her under the bed, placing her new rifle atop the mattress, within easy reach…
Note: Reportedly there was a scene, which may or may not have been filmed, where the unarmed Bishop encountered aliens during his trek to the uplink tower. The creatures sensed that he wasn’t organic somehow, and left him alone. Given that the creatures don’t have visible eyes, it’s very likely that their other senses are far more compensatory, or even that they have entirely different senses that humans lack.
Awakening in the lab, Ripley looks to see two empty face-hugger specimen jars on the floor nearby. She quietly reaches for the rife above, only to find it missing. Quickly, she sees it has been placed outside the thick, soundproof glass doors surrounding the room. Quietly but urgently waking up Newt, Ripley and the girl fight off multiple attacks from the ambulatory face-huggers, which leap from dark corners of the room. As Burke has turned off the room’s surveillance camera, Ripley’s gesturing for attention is futile. Thinking on her feet, she pulls a lighter from her bomber jacket (good thing she smokes, I guess…?) and places it under a fire sprinkler, which sounds the alarm and alerts the nearby Marines, who shoot out the glass and destroy the large, spider-like alien menaces. Ripley tells them it was Burke’s doing. A weaselly Burke is then confronted by Ripley and the Marines. Ripley lays out Burke’s entire plan, which would’ve also involved sabotaging the hyper-sleep chambers of the returning Marines as well (no witnesses). On his own authority, Hicks decides, for the group’s sake, to kill Burke…
Note: Anyone’s who ever had a large spider or other dangerous, unseen menace (like a snake) loose in their home will squirm in uncontrollable empathy during the loose face-huggers scene. Even 34 years later, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The puppetry controlling the face-huggers is all practical and very convincing. It helps that the set is shot mostly in heavy shadow, and later with red emergency lights and fire suppression sprinklers, which accent the horror and obscure easy vision.
… but before Hicks can carry out his summary death sentence of Burke, the main lights go out. Somehow these “animals” have cut the power into the complex. Red emergency lights come on, and the surviving Marines break out their motion trackers. Hudson becomes panicked once again, as the motion trackers show the relentless aliens advancing ever closer. When the trackers show the aliens to be less than three meters away, Ripley and Hicks fear the worst–the aliens are crawling along inside of the ceiling, right above their heads! As the creatures drop through the ceiling grating, it’s ugly hand-to-hand combat between the xenomorphs and the Marines. Burke runs to another chamber and safely locks himself in. Ignoring pleas from Ripley and Newt, he soon realizes he’s already sharing the room…with a very angry alien. Burke gets his death sentence, just not the way Hicks had planned for him. During the close range combat, Hudson, Vasquez and even the uptight Gorman all die heroic deaths, sacrificing themselves so that Ripley, Newt and Hicks can escape…
As Ripley and Newt try to escape through the air vents, Newt falls down a shaft and into a water reclamation system. Using the tracker to locate her, Hicks uses a portable thermal lance to cut through a floor grating directly above the young girl. The lance cuts very slowly through the thick metal grating, and Ripley picks up the motion of aliens rapidly approaching in the water near Newt. We see a tail and head rise out of the water behind Newt, as the screaming chid is grabbed by the monstrous entity. Finally cutting through the floor, Ripley and Hicks find Newt’s doll’s head floating in the water below. Ripley screams in a primal rage, as she knows that the creatures will use the little girl for embryonic implantation. Before they can find her, Hicks reminds Ripley that if they don’t rendezvous with Bishop at the landing platform, they won’t be able to help Newt. During their retreat in an elevator, Hicks is attacked and shoots the alien in close quarters, causing its deadly acid to burn through his battle armor and scar both his chest and left eye. Finding Bishop with a freshly arrived dropship, Ripley drags the wounded Hicks aboard. Once there, she takes several weapons, duct tapes them together and sets out to for Newt with her tracker monitor.
Before leaving the dropship, Ripley orders Bishop to wait at the landing platform until she returns, Ripley takes an elevator deep into the bowels of the complex, following Newt’s signal. Finding Newt freshly cocooned (those aliens really work fast) and about to be attached with an emerging face-hugger, Ripley shoots the would-be parasite and frees Newt. The two beat a path back to the elevator when they stumble into a chamber full of the leathery alien eggs–eggs being freshly laid through a massive ovipositor attached to the hind quarters of a 20 ft. tall alien “Queen.” Ripley, still carrying both Newt and her rifle/flame-thrower combo, confronts the monstrous mother. As the queen silently summons drones to defend her vulnerable position, Ripley aims the flame thrower at the queen’s eggs. The queen is intelligent enough to understand the threat, and the drones back off. An understanding is reached… the queen will let Ripley and Newt go, and her young will be spared. Making her slow retreat to the chamber’s exit, Ripley takes her shot at payback and drenches the entire nest with flames, even lobbing a few grenades into the mix as well. With her species’ future literally blowing up around her, the massive queen rips herself from her attached ovipositor and chases after Ripley and Newt…
Note: The design of the alien ‘queen’ was based on a design by both James Cameron and the late makeup/creature design genius Stan Winston (1946-2008), whose immortal contributions to cinema include “The Terminator,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman Returns,” “Jurassic Park” and “Iron Man” among many others.
Ripley runs out of ammunition and barely makes it to the elevator which reaches the level of the landing platform, only to find the dropship gone! Fearing the android Bishop betrayed her (as did Ash) she screams, “Bishop!! Goddamn youuu!” Holding Newt close to her, she sees the elevator ascending to her level with the alien queen aboard. With the queen about to kill them both, and the entire collapsing complex about to destroy all three of them, Ripley is resigned to their fate…until Newt sees the dropship rise up behind them! The two climb aboard the open ramp as Bishop ‘punches it.’ The dropship shoots into orbit, as the entire colony is vaporized in a bright white nuclear detonation. Despite massive turbulence from the blast, Bishop calls from the cockpit, “It’s okay, we’re okay.”
Note: The late Oscar-winning composer, James Horner (1953-2015) created some thrilling, pulse-pounding music for the dropship’s dramatic escape. If you remember going to theaters at all during the late 1980s through mid-1990s, you probably heard that same bit of music in countless action movie trailers, as it became a staple. Horner’s career began in Roger Corman movies such as “Battle Beyond the Stars”, and later in more mainstream movies such as “Wolfen” (1981) and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982). Horner eventually won an Oscar for his work in 1997’s “Titanic,” also directed by James Cameron, a longtime collaborator since first working together on ALIENS.
Upon landing aboard the Sulacco, Ripley leaves the unconscious Hicks strapped in as Bishop tells her they’ll bring a stretcher to take him to the ship’s medical bay. Bishop then contritely explains to Ripley he had to leave the increasingly unstable landing platform, but circled it repeatedly until he spotted Ripley and Newt again. Ripley, no longer suspicious of Bishop’s nature, smiles and tells the android, “You did okay.” Before the two can fully relax, they spot leaking acid from the ship, burning into the deck. Before they have time to run, Bishop is grabbed by the queen, who somehow survived the ascension into space by clinging to a large air intake on the dropship’s exterior. The angry queen rips the android in half, tossing his bifurcated self across the deck, spilling his white blood everywhere. Bishop’s head and torso hit the deck, and he looks up to see the queen rise to her full height. Ripley tells Newt to run, as she tries to distract the queen from chasing after the little girl. Thinking quickly, Ripley ducks into a cargo deck, slamming the door shut behind her. The queen resumes her relentless pursuit of Newt through the floor grating of the Sulacco’s hangar deck, just as the cargo doors re-open–and Ripley emerges in her exoskeletal power loader, which makes her roughly the same scale as the queen herself! Seething with anger, Ripley delivers the heroic line, “Get away from her, you bitch!” A battle royale ensues…
Note: To those not old enough to remember, that famous line of Ripley’s to the alien queen became the “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” of the 1980s, appearing in many TV and movie parodies with endless paraphrasing.
As the queen and Ripley fight to the death, Ripley remotely opens the massive airlock below. The alien queen uses her massive, whip-like tail to pull Ripley’s cumbersome power-loader suit into the airlock with her. With the weight of the power-loader pinning the queen against the outer door of the airlock, Ripley unbuckles herself from the device and climbs back to the inner door. With the trapped queen violently tugging on Ripley’s foot, Ripley impulsively hits the button that opens the outer door. The tenacious queen is blown out into the void of space, where it is hoped (?) she’ll eventually perish. As air from the ship is blown out in gale-force winds, a legless Bishop is thrown helplessly along the floor until he grabs onto the floor grating to stop himself. A screaming Newt blows by as well, and the bisected android grabs her with his free arm. Ripley fights the rushing of air whistling around her and manages to close the innermost door to the ship.
Note: Even a futuristic space movie isn’t safe from product placement as we see repeated shots of Ripley’s clearly labeled Reebok footwear.
With the queen gone, and the airlock doors both closed, Newt rushes into the arms of an exhausted Ripley, calling her “mommy.” We see Bishop, drenched in his semen-like white blood, where he jokes, “Not bad…for a human.” Ripley has (literally) exercised her demons, all-but-adopted Newt, and has even overcome her distrust of androids. Busy day!
After securing the injured Hicks and bifurcated Bishop into their hyper-sleep chambers for the long flight home, Ripley and Newt then clean up and prepare to sleep themselves. Ripley promises the little girl that with the monsters finally gone, they may both be able to dream safely now.
Note: At the very end of the credits, listen carefully and you’ll hear what sounds like the opening of one of the alien eggs…
By the way, have I mentioned how much I really hate that ALIEN 3 royally screwed all of this up?
The Special Edition (1991).
In the heyday of the laserdisc era (the 12” optical videodisc precursors to DVDs), I remember reading about an upcoming five-disc “Special Edition” of James Cameron’s ALIENS. Plunking down my hard earned $80, I still remember the crazy-joy of taking home his monstrous black box of optical media goodness home and popping it into my Pioneer laserdisc player. There were hours of bonus features to peruse (years before bonus features on DVDs were even a thing), including interviews and massive still galleries, but best of all, there was a new, 17-minute longer cut of the movie itself with newly completed (pre-digital) special effects finished only a year earlier by Oscar winning visual effects artists (and brothers) Dennis and Robert Skotak.
Watching this new cut of the movie, the first big surprise comes after Ripley reawakens in Gateway Station. Shortly after her nightmare, we see her sitting on a park bench in a tranquil outdoor setting…which is basically a bench and a few plants in front of a giant immersive wall screen (a clunkier, 22nd century version of Star Trek’s holodecks). Feeling no solace in the artificial park, Ripley grabs a remote and turns the tranquil immersive background scenery off like so much television.
Her relaxation is interrupted with the biggest bomb dropped in the Special Edition when Ripley asks Carter Burke, “Any news about my daughter?” It is then that we learn of Ripley’s daughter Amanda, who passed away in Little Chute, Wisconsin with no children, at age 66. Burke gives Ripley a pixelated photo of her daughter to keep (a still photo of Sigourney Weaver’s real-life mother). Ripley’s only tangible proof of her daughter’s existence is a photo of her as an old woman, now dead for several years.
This was a HUGE bombshell! Nowhere in the previous movie was it even hinted that Ripley was a mother of a young daughter, to whom she promised to return in time for her 11th birthday. But this vital bit of character information gives solid motivation for Ripley’s tenacity to stay alive in the first film. It also explains Ripley’s fierce, maternal devotion for Newt, whom viewers can now infer is Ripley’s second chance after the loss of her own daughter. At one point in ALIENS, after the Queen is finally destroyed, you can hear Newt call Ripley “Mommy!” as she runs into her arms. This moment has much greater impact when we learn the full story. That this vital scene was cut from the 1986 theatrical version is nearly unforgivable. Reportedly it was a studio mandate made over the vehement objection of director James Cameron.
Speaking of Newt, we’re also given a lot more backstory into both Newt’s family and her fellow colonists in the Special Edition as well. Right before the scene where Burke first tries to persuade Ripley to join the Colonial Marines in returning to Acheron, we see the colony shortly before communications are lost. The terraforming station known as “Hadley’s Hope” has children playing in its corridors (a contrast to the battle-scarred lifeless corridors we see later on). We even see a portly middle manager and his subordinate squabbling over company orders to “check out a grid reference” (the location of the derelict vessel first seen in ALIEN). The civilians given that task are Newt’s parents (Jay Benedict, Holly De Jong) and her brother (played by Carrie Henn’s real-life brother, Christopher). The Jorden family is driving their land vehicle out to the coordinates when they stumble across the giant, familiar horseshoe-shaped derelict vessel encountered by the Nostromo landing party. The audience remains in the vehicle with Newt and her brother while their parents go off to investigate. After some stage-time passes, the door to the vehicle’s cab is violently flung open, as Newt’s mother grabs the radio to declare a panicked mayday to the terraforming base. The camera pulls back to see Newt’s father, lying on the ground, with an attached face-hugger (!). Newt’s screams match the high pitch of the surrounding winds and then–the scene abruptly cuts to the silence of Ripley’s burning cigarette inside of her tiny living quarters at Gateway. While I can see why this material was cut (it doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t assume later on), it’s a fascinating insight into the planet that ties the second film even closer to the first.
The rest of the additions are relatively minor; bits of added dialogue about the alien’s life-cycle (comparing them to insect colonies) and other exchanges, including Ripley telling Newt about her own daughter. There is also a subplot involving automated sentry guns (recovered from the crashed drop ship) exhausting their ammunition, as the marines watch nervously on the other side of the hastily barricaded entranceways. The only other big revelation is a quick moment near the end as Ripley temporarily leaves a wounded Hicks to find Newt. Hicks asks Ripley her first name after revealing his own (Dwayne). She replies, “Ellen,” to which he adds, “Don’t take too long, Ellen.” It adds a bit to what the audience assumes might be a slow-simmering romance between the two characters (which, like everything else promised in this sequel, was shot to hell in what became ALIEN 3 six years later).
With the ALIENS Special Edition pressed in the rare “CAV” (constant angular velocity) format, I could finally use my laserdisc player’s near-atrophied still frame buttons, creating images which were as rock steady as the pause on a DVD or Blu Ray today (take that, VHS). Now I could soak in every detail of each frame of ALIENS on my little 20” Sony Trinitron (that old TV gave me 22 years of solid service). Watching the CAV-pressed laserdisc also meant that I only had roughly a half-hour of playback per per side before I had to get up to flip or change discs (this was five trips off the sofa with ALIENS). So many interruptions just to watch a single movie would be an unfathomable pain in the ass today in the binge-watching age, but it was totally fine for a movie geek living in the pre-digital, pre-streaming era of 1991. In fact, it kind of reminded me of changing reels on an analog movie projector… a vicarious connection to the film experience that setting up my digital projector and collapsible screen gives me today. The 1991 ALIENS Special Edition, is, of course, also available on DVD and Blu Ray as well. Overall, the Special Edition feels more satisfying, and the restoration of Ripley’s daughter subplot is vital to her character. If given a choice to watch either version, it’s a no brainer; go with the Special Edition, and forget about the theatrical cut.
Incidentally, 1991 was also the year that ALIEN auteur Ridley Scott’s much improved ‘director’s cut’ of “Blade Runner” would see a brief arthouse run and eventual home video release, but that’s another story.
Encounters With ALIENS.
Over the past two decades I’ve attended many conventions, and have have opportunities to see and meet a few of the cast and crew involved in ALIENS. At San Diego Comic Con 2009, I was able to see Sigourney Weaver as part of a panel on “Strong Women in Sci-Fi” (along with her “Avatar” costar Zoe Saldana). At the panel, Weaver said she was turning 60 later that year, which drew applause, as she looked amazing. Weaver definitely charmed the crowd, and showed great affinity for costar Zoe Saldana as well. Weaver said Saldana was so composed and well-spoken during the panel that she wished she would just give all of her answers as well. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to actually meet Weaver at that convention, but I got a seat fairly close to the stage (as the accompanying photos show). Maybe someday…
I also met Jenette Goldstein (“Vasquez”) at a sci-fi convention (“Sci-Fi Grand Slam”) in Pasadena back in 2004. She and I had a lovely conversation about her work in the criminally underrated vampire movie, “Near Dark” (1987), directed by future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (“Hurt Locker”), and costarring two of her ALIENS castmates, the late Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen (who played her Civil War veteran vampire lover). Goldstein lamented that the German company which handled publicity for the film dropped the ball a bit, and that the film also had the great misfortune to open the same weekend as its more teen-friendly rival flick, “Lost Boys” (starring the late Corey Haim and Corey Feldman). “Near Dark” is the far superior vampire movie in my opinion. Goldstein also talked about working with James Cameron on various projects, and judging by her sudden diplomatic tone, I inferred that working with Cameron wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. She did mention how his exactitude could be challenging, but there’s no denying the results speak for themselves. She would go on to do two more films for Cameron after ALIENS (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Titanic”). The delightful and affable Goldstein was very different from the tough, nihilistic Corporal Vasquez… a testament to her skill as an actor.
I met Lance Henriksen at a convention in Ontario California (Comic Con Revolution) in May of 2018, and he was a genuine character. At the time, I was cosplaying as Fred Flintstone, and he got a real kick out of that, saying that “you and I are from the same tribe.” I would speak to him twice over the two-day convention, buying a copy of his biography “Not Bad For a Human” (written by Joseph Maddry). When I returned the following day to take the above picture, I was a bit wowed after reading the first 50 pages or so of his biography. His early life experiences were so colorful and interesting that they could have been made into a movie as well. From a raucous (abused) youth discharged from the Navy, to hungry stage actor pounding the streets of New York (meeting many legends along the way) to finally getting roles in mainstream films directed by names like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron…all while being unable to read due to dyslexia (he learned lines by memory or he improvised dialogue to cover for his condition). This is a man wholly unafraid to own his dark side and turn it into positivity. I was also learned he is a talented artist as well, with a home studio full of paintings and sculptures. I gave him a card for my site, and he told me my card’s color and shadow use reminded him of an Edward Hopper painting. I could’ve spent an entire day interviewing him if I had the foresight and wisdom to set it up ahead of time. Lance Henriksen is a rebel, talented artist, and a genuine free spirit. I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone quite like him.
I’d also met both Carrie Henn (“Newt”) and Ricco Ross (“Private Frost”) at San Diego Comic Con 2016. Henn had left acting as a child, instead focusing on a career in education. My wife is also a teacher, so I admire her choice. She says that her friends still sometimes tease her by quoting lines from the film (“They mostly come out at night, mostly”) and that every now and then a parent will recognize her during parent-teacher conferences. I asked if she ever had trauma from filming any of those scenes, but she said the cast and crew (especially Weaver) took very good care of her. Ricco Ross was a tall, likable guy with an easy smile and a great laugh. He talked about how the casting director for ALIENS scoured the UK (where ALIENS was filmed) looking for either American actors living abroad or English actors who could do credible American accents (he was of the former category). Ross and I also talked about his memorable role in the classic 1980s Doctor Who episode, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” where Ross played a master of ceremonies in a surreal intergalactic circus on a bizarre desert world. He also appreciated my Los Pollos Hermanos cosplay from “Breaking Bad” (a TV series he was fond of as well).
Earlier this year, in February (a month before the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect and the rest of my convention schedule got cancelled for the year) I sat right next to ALIENS’ Oscar-winning visual effects artist Dennis Skotak at the Doctor Who convention “Gallifrey One” in Los Angeles. Dennis and his brother Robert both did miniature effects work for the almost-entirely practical visuals seen in ALIENS, and would complete unfinished shots for the 1991 Special Edition laserdisc release (which is available on DVD and Blu Ray as well). Skotak was at a panel paying tribute not to his work, but to his legendary late wife, writer/producer Dorothy Fontana (“Star Trek” “Logan’s Run” “Buck Rogers”), who’d passed away two months earlier in December of 2019. Skotak took to the podium, along with writer David Gerrold (who worked with Fontana on Star Trek) and others, giving a tearful tribute and farewell to his trailblazing wife, describing her as both headstrong and delightfully mischievous. As a married man of over 21 years now, I teared up at Dennis Skotak’s lovely, heartfelt eulogy to his late wife.
The summer of 2016 would see a full-reunion with the ALIENS cast and crew. I’d attended that particular San Diego Comic Con, but due to other obligations, I was unable to attend the “ALIENS 30th Anniversary” panel (not to mention that the infamous “Hall H” where it was held is a nightmare to get into). However, I did see the panel on tape the following day, and of course, I’m posting the panel here as well. It is well worth checking out. It was also the last time we’d ever see the late Bill Paxton (1955-2017) with his cast-mates. Paxton worked on several other films with Cameron, including “Terminator” “True Lies” and “Titanic.” The actor would succumb to a sudden stroke a mere seven months after his 2016 Comic Con appearance.
There is also the recently released “Making of” book from prolific author J.W. Rinzler, whose thick coffee table making-of books on the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones franchise, 1968’s Planet of the Apes and the first ALIEN are required reading for fans of those franchises. These books aren’t glossy, studio-mandated fluff pieces; they’re serious hardcore investigation into the minutiae of film production, from earliest script drafts to on-set conflicts to final publicity tours. I just got my copy of Rinzler’s “The Making of ALIENS” last Thursday and haven’t had the chance to fully read it yet, but based on my experiences reading all of the aforementioned titles, I’m very excited to do so.
As far as sequels go, ALIENS takes a very different approach from ALIEN. While the first movie was moody, creepy and atmospheric, the sequel adopts that approach only in its first hour– until it transforms into a guns-blazing war movie for the rest of the film. Cameron himself compared the first two movies as being the ‘haunted house’ experience versus a roller coaster… both are terrifying but in very different ways. I still remember going to see ALIENS in the summer of 1986 and coming out of the theater believing I’d just seen one of those rare times where a sequel equalled or arguably surpassed its predecessor, like “The Godfather Part II”, “The Bride of Frankenstein,” or “The Empire Strikes Back.” Today, I don’t necessarily believe “ALIENS” exceeds “ALIEN” in overall quality (it’s more like apples and oranges), but it is definitely on a par with its parent film. And it is certainly better than all of the subsequent sequels and spinoffs combined. One of the most basic mistakes the sequels and prequels have made since ALIENS is that they are basically minor variations on the two models established within the first two movies. They tinker with the concept (different planet, different ships, etc), but they don’t add anything fundamentally new to the mix. They’re either the haunted house or the roller coaster, or mixes of both, but that’s about it. Those first two ALIEN films mined the admittedly simple ‘monster in space’ concept for all it was worth. Subsequent films in the franchise just seemed to belabor to point.
“ALIENS” is currently available (as of this writing) for streaming on HBO Max, as well as rental streaming on YouTube and Prime Video for $3.99 (US) and can also be purchased on Blu-Ray/DVD (via contact-free shipping) on Amazon.com (just remember to get the Special Edition–you can thank me later). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 197,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. There may not be deadly alien xenomorphs out to cocoon us, but the invisible coronavirus can be equally dangerous and deadly.
Take care and be safe!