1986 in Film – Aliens

Release Date: July 18th
Box Office: $85,160,248

One thing I appreciate when watching films and just generally being a fan of stuff, is being there when something genuinely changes things. Like, let’s say The Matrix (199). I remember what it was like before that film and what it was like after. Things shifted around that film, it embedded itself into popular culture and became a thing. People would say “that’s Matrix-ey” and you’d know what they were talking about.

Conversely, it’s a bit sad not to know what that’s like. Take my son (please) who was born in 2004 so for him The Matrix is so much a thing he doesn’t even register it. This is the same for me for a lot of things, like I don’t even remember when I found out about Luke Skywalker’s parentage, it’s such an iconic moment it’s just there, everyone is assumed to know even those who haven’t seen it yet.

So imagine walking into Alien (1979) for the first time. Imagine seeing the alien ship for the first time, the chestburster sequence, the xenomorph. Sure, scary science fiction was around before but it was more of a B-movie thing with monsters and that. Alien was more than that and kicked off a whole cottage industry of people in space getting killed movies.

The question then becomes, in the studio executive mind at least, how do you approach a sequel to that? How do you get to Aliens (1986)?

Sequels have been around as long as film, from the silent era to The Jazz Singer (1927) follow up The Singing Fool (1928) to the Universal Horror films of the 30s and 40s. In fact, those films established a shared universe before Marvel Comics even existed. You had the Bond films of the 60s and the Pink Panther films of the 70s but it wasn’t until that decade when the numbered sequel came into full existence.

The first film sequel with a number is generally agreed to be Quatermass 2 (1957) however it was felt that numbering a film would alienate the audience who hadn’t seen the first film so the retitling of sequels continued until The Godfather Part II (1974) which was a critical and commercial hit as was French Connection 2 (1975) . So, naturally more sequels followed; up until the release of Alien at the end of the decade you had films like Jaws 2 (1978), Damien: Omen II (1978) and Rocky II (1979). Unfortunately, the quality was declining which was a warning of where sequels were going to go.

Mix in two things; the rise of the home video market and cheaply made horror films. Halloween (1978) was the catalyst for this, becoming the blueprint for the slasher industry that sprang to life at the start of the next decade; Friday 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980) and Silent Scream (1980) all became huge hits. Soon Friday 13th Part II (1981) followed and that was it, slasher films flooded the market. They may not have brought in much money from theatrical releases, like The Burning (1981) but they were hoovered up by people in the video library. Critics despised the films, but the people sure loved them.

Jaws 2 and Rocky II, whilst sequels, were essentially retreads of the previous films and that’s how the majority of sequels began to work. Hit the same beats, hopefully with the same cast, and repeat. The video market accentuated this as films would have a literal shelf life after they had finished on the big screen. Between the release of Alien and Aliens things went crazy. You had the following numbers sequels

  • Five Friday 13ths
  • Two Halloweens
  • Two Police Academies
  • Three Star Treks
  • Two Porky’s
  • Three Rockys
  • Two Supermans

And that’s without factoring in sequels with a change of title. The numbered sequel had been ran into the ground which didn’t bode well for Alien 2.

Luckily or not, depending on how you look at it, it took a while before the film got any traction. A sequel was looked into straight away but then changes at the studio and financial disputes clogged everything up. It was during the pre-production of The Terminator (1984) that James Cameron was offered the chance to work on the film on to strength of that film’s script.

It was strange how Terminator and Aliens would become intertwined; Cameron was a fan of Ridley Scott’s original film and used a delay in the start of filming on Terminator to start work on the script for Aliens. That script was liked and the studio head said that if The Terminator was a success then Aliens would get a green light.

I think we can guess as how that turned out.

Aliens returned to the same world as the first film, only fifty years or so on. Ripley, the sole survivor of the first film, drifted through space in suspended animation for those decades and is now readjusting to civilian life. Only, wouldn’t you know it, it looks like the xenomorph might be back so off we go to space again.

It’s not a horror film. Sure, it has some scary bits but the intention clearly is to move from horror to thriller. That’s why we get the space marines and guns and lots of aliens. Cameron wanted to use the film as a metaphor for the Vietnam War; a brash and cocky invading force brought to its knees by a determined indigenous force. Sure, said force might have acid for blood and a bad attitude but the point still stands.

The filming of it could have been classed as a war as well. Here was a young, brash and cocky film director coming to Pinewood Studios to only face a determined indigenous film crew. They were firmly behind Ridley Scott so didn’t go out of their way to help Cameron out at all. The original director of photography was fired over how to light one of the sets and new one brought in to complete the film.

Casting was also an issue: initially Sigourney Weaver turned down the chance to return to the role of Ripley however Cameron changed her mind. The studio, however, didn’t want to pay her want she wanted to be in the film. Pressure was put on Cameron to rewrite it with out her but he stood her ground and the studio eventually relented.

And it was good that they did; Aliens without Ripley is almost unimaginable, her path through the film so well crafted and woven into the action and everything around her. She gives the film a solid emotional core, sure the soldier around her are a bit sketched in but each serves their role to the story well.

The film was a huge box office success but also with the critics as well. Centring the film around really was the greatest success of the film creating a mainstream feminist icon: here was what would normally be the damsel in distress character taking charge in a genre dominated by muscle bound men. The role even netted Weaver an Academy Award nomination, unheard of for a science fiction genre film.

Aliens shows the potential of what a sequel can be, rather than the quick cash in that they were becoming in the 80s. A truly great sequel can take the ideas of the first film and twist them enough to be able to say something different. Cameron would go on to prove just how good he was with sequels with the gigantic hit Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), whilst the Alien franchise continued on never quite reaching the heights of the first two films.

That doesn’t matter though. What we have here is a stone cold classic that has and will stand the test of time. Sequels may be looked down upon but every now and then, when someone gets them right, you get a film as good as Aliens.

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