A30: ALIENS pt 1


And while we're on the subject ... although it is the thirtieth anniversary of the first film in the ever-expanding Alien franchise ... I would be failing in my appreciation of the film if we didn't look in similar depth at its sequel which is, of course, so much more than just a sequel.


In the constant film-buff debate over whether there are any really good sequels, everyone seems to agree that Godfather Part 2 was a masterpiece. After that, everyone (including the cast) agrees that Speed 2 stank big-time. In between are hundreds of movies which divide film-goers and film-critics alike.

In an attempt to find a good sequel, some people point to Mad Max 2. There are those, of course, who owe their allegiance to Terminator 2. Some even mutter quietly about Spiderman 2 and X-Men 2. The film which seems to generate the least argument, is the one which dared to be different - it made the radical move of losing the ‘2’.

Aliens was the film which propelled director James Cameron on to the Hollywood ‘A’ list. It opened the way for him to reintroduce Hollywood to a scale of movie-making unseen since DeMille hung up his riding crop. Within five years of completing Aliens, Cameron had made the first movie ever made almost entirely under water (The Abyss) and the first to cost more than $100 million ( the afore-mentioned Terminator 2), within ten years he had almost tripled that cost in making the film which would very quickly become the first ever to earn over a billion dollars (you know, that one with the boat ... oh, what’s it called again ...?). Now, of course, Cameron is teetering on the brink of releasing Avatar a film which he’s been working on at least since he became self-styled King of the World eleven years ago, which has reputedly cost even more money than Titanic and which, if the hype is to be believed at all, will change the way audiences think about 3D and the whole cinema-going experience.

And to think, he began his career as a man with a reputation for getting great things done quickly and cheaply!

After studying Physics at University, James Cameron found himself wandering into a career in films. Starting with art direction and special effects work (on Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980, and Escape From New York, 1981, respectively), he earned his directing stripes working with Roger Corman. As such, he followed in the footsteps of Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, even Martin Scorsese and, most famously, the great Francis Ford Coppola, who all (among many others) graduated from that same ‘school’.

Cameron’s directorial debut was the somewhat ignominious sequel to Joe Dante’s 1978 quickie Piranha. Piranha 2 - Flying Killers (1981) is not even considered by its director to be a good sequel, and is a film he prefers not to be reminded of. Instead, his fans like to think of his career beginning with the 1984 sf revelation The Terminator, which propelled both Cameron and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in to varying intensities of lime-light.

Even before Terminator was in the can, Cameron was approached by Brandywine Productions, the owners of the first Alien film. They had been impressed by the script of The Terminator and wanted to talk to him about writing a possible Alien sequel. He provided them with a treatment - a sort-of detailed synopsis rather than a full script - and an ultimatum that they could only have it if he got to direct it. Well, they loved it, and so, even before his first film was shot, he was hired to make his second.

Of course, in his spare time, he was also writing the script to First Blood 2: Rambo, which hardly bears mention, save that it did introduce Cameron to the whole Marines-at-war-in-an-unfamiliar-environment idea.

Fairly obviously, a Cameron Alien film would be different from a Ridley Scott one, since their motives and working practices at the time were so very different. As Cameron says in an interview in ‘Film Review’ magazine in 1986:

“[Scott] had the luxury (I’m sure it was by choice) of a very simple, very straightforward story and could spend a tremendous amount of energy himself and through his designers and camera people adding baroque detail to it ... With Aliens, we were telling a lot more story ... there was more action. To create Scott’s style of visual involvement in every scene would have made the film absolutely unmanageable.”

The only pointer producers Walter Hill and David Giler gave to Cameron was at the very beginning when they simply told him: “Ripley and soldiers ... [Because] there’s a whole list of science fiction writing going back to the ’20s that explores the idea of the military in space, but it hadn’t really been done on film.” We've already discussed at length how the original Alien follows in the tradition of Old Dark House thriller movies, well, Aliens very clearly owes a bigger debt to films like Guns of the Navarone and The Dirty Dozen!

It says something for the popular influence of Aliens that, two decades on, big budget science-fiction films commonly feature the adventures of the military in space. Starship Troopers (based on Robert A Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name) being the prime example. But Aliens has also had a massive influence over a medium which can hardly have been said to have even existed when the film came out: Video Games. Would there be any Starcraft or Halo series without Aliens? Surely not. As for Gears of War, well, the comparisons are too numerous to count.

Although Brandywine had been content to sit and wait for Cameron to finish Terminator; once this was out of the way they furnished him with a crippling schedule. Pre-production began in May, with the cameras set to roll in September. Because he had no time for mistakes, Cameron hired the best designers - people who were capable of getting things right first time.

For the slick, cutting-edge design of the military cruiser ‘Sulaco’, the obvious choice was self-styled ‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead, the man who gave the distinctive look to Blade Runner (1981), Tron (1982) and 2010 (1984). Cameron also brought back veteran of the first Alien, Ron Cobb, who had virtually single-handedly created the look of the interiors of The Nostromo, it was therefore fitting that he should create the look of the Acheron Colony buildings, since they were also manufactured by Weyland Yutani, the company known previously only as ‘The Company’.

Cobb told ‘Cinefex’ magazine that his approach to the film was to see it as less of a science fiction film and more as “ ... a grand takeoff of Vietnam, with all those odd echoings of Apocalypse Now ... Its more like a contemporary war film. From the vehicles to the weapons to the patches on their uniforms, its more a reflection of Vietnam than it is the future.”

Cameron seems to have agreed, as he employed a similar philosophy when it came to designing the film’s celebrated (and much-emulated) weaponry. He felt that the best (and possibly cheapest) way to produce believable fire-arms was to scavenge bits from real weapons.

So, for the chunky M41 Pulse Rifle, take a Thompson submachine gun and add the pump-action from a SPAS 12. For the heavier M56 Smart Gun they took a Spandau MG42 machine gun and daringly attached it to a floating harness called a Steadicam. This is a standard (but very expensive) piece of movie camera kit. It effectively allows the camera-man’s body to become a tripod; he can move - even run - yet the camera stays perfectly level, making any shot a smooth glide. In the film, it allowed one soldier to carry a massive weapon with a vast supply of ammunition. Apparently, thanks to this idea, the film can count among its fans weapons designers from around the world, who saw real potential in this cunning idea.

Having come through the art-department at Roger Corman’s studio, Cameron was loath to leave his designers alone, as he had plenty of ideas of his own. For example, in the ‘Film Review’ interview, he explains how his vision for The Sulaco and the Acheron camp would be communicated to his designers - he wanted everything to look convincingly lived-in: “This is a sort of mental exercise I go through: If this place really existed and I could go there, how would I shoot it? And then I work backwards from that. It influences the design of the set and how it will be photographed.” This possibly also explains how, when preparing to shoot Titanic ten years later, he felt the need to jump into a submarine and visit the actual wreck before beginning pre-production.

For reasons of economy (as well as continuity with the first film) the decision was made to shoot Aliens in England, so Cameron and his wife/producer Gale Anne Hurd moved their office to Pinewood studios in July, and pre-production began in earnest.

Because the decision had been made to add special effects through live rear-projection (particularly for those scenes involving those UD4L ‘Cheyenne’ Utility Drop-Ships) rather than the more common (but more-expensive) method of matting effects in afterwards; many of the models had to be built and filmed before principal photography began.

The two men given the unenviable task of turning Cobb, Mead and Cameron’s blue-prints into one-sixth scale models, almost over-night, were the American brothers Bob and Dennis Skotak, who worked very closely with technical supervisor Pat McClung, who told ‘Cinefex’: “Not only did Jim need most of our models for the process plates [the rear-projections], but there was also lots of video material needed for monitors inside the drop-ship and the armoured personnel carrier.”

Some of the most exacting work went into fabricating an eighty-feet long model of the Acheron Colony and shanty town. The main entrance was built full-size, for the scene where the Marines alight from their M577 APC and break-in, but everything else you see is that giant model.

Following Cobb’s designs and Cameron’s wishes, the Colony buildings were to have a real run-down, ramshackle look. Bob Skotak became accustomed to Cameron bombarding him with Polaroid’s of fixtures such as rusty doors, with instructions to make the Colony’s doors look just like that. “Lots of times, rather than paint in the rust, we’d go after the real thing. At the studio there was a big dump by the 007 stage where virtually everything was burned ... So there we’d be, on a Sunday afternoon rooting around for choice bits of sixth-scale junk, finding all this neat stuff like tin cans and cables and metal sheets that were rusted out - anything that could conceivably fit into our set - and then hauling it all back to the stage in buckets.”

Of course, it is the nature of the movie-business that all this ingenuity and hard-work would go unnoticed by the film’s initial audience because the scenes shot in the Colony as a bustling, active habitat, were cut-out, and remained unseen until the ‘Special Edition’ was released years alter.

One of the last models to be built - because it wouldn’t be needed until post-production - was the ‘Conestoga’ Class Troop Carrier USS Sulaco. The design of this was Syd Mead’s baby. However, he couldn’t sit back and wait, because the set-designers would need to know what the exterior looked like, if they were to design a cryogenic-locker-room, a galley and, most significantly, cargo and drop-ship hangers, to go inside it.

Within three days of Cameron passing him the script, Mead was at work. He is a master of making form fit function, and, in this case, he had to put together a ship which was both maneuverable, heavily armoured, and capable of carrying, if necessary, a huge pay-load of drop-ships and soldiers. Also, as Private Hudson memorably informs us, the Sulaco is capable of nuking a planet from orbit.

All of these factors had to be considered. As did the fact that the design would then have to fabricated as a model and photographed as if in motion. Drawing his inspiration in part from designs of existing aircraft carriers (in-keeping with Cobb and Cameron’s technique of redesigning present technology for the future), Mead eventually came up with a very linear, very compact form.

Cameron’s script had described it as a mountain of steel bristling with metal spires. Mead’s interpretation of this is fronted by a bristling array of blade-like antenna followed by a form which he described in ‘Cinefex’ in delightfully inexpert terms: “ ... it had to look very elaborate, it had to look gigantic and it had to have this highly articulated finished appearance to it. And a lot of ins and outs so it would not look like a solid object covered in detail - you could see through different parts and in and around suspended pods and things.”

It is interesting that, when you see pictures of them next to each other, you realise that, possibly subconsciously, the design Cameron accepted for the Sulaco, looks not dissimilar to the design he himself came up with for the Marines’ standard-issue pulse-rifle. So, in a way, you can see the soldiers as highly-trained bullets fired out of a gigantic gun. And if that isn’t a metaphor for Cameron’s vision of our armed forces, I’m a face-hugger’s uncle!

Next, I’ll look at the demands the aliens themselves made on the production staff, as well as taking a close-up at some of those scenes you may not have seen.

Quotes come from:

‘ALIEN: THE SPECIAL EFFECTS’ Written by Don Shay and Bill Norton. Published by Titan Books, 1997.

Interview with Cameron by David Castell from ‘JAMES CAMERON – A DIRECTOR AND HIS WORK’ an independent television profile produced by Special Treats, 1986.

Interview with Cameron by Don Shay as part of the supplementary material from the ‘ALIENS: THE SPECIAL EDITION’ DVD, originally released by Fox Video, 1991.


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