“What’s bigger, meaner, more terrifying than an Alien?” poses James Cameron’s Aliens treatment. The answer is blunt: “its momma.”
Another draft reveals more, describing “A massive silhouette in the mist, the Alien Queen glowers over her eggs like a great, glistening black insect-Buddha … Her fanged head is an unimaginable horror. Her six limbs, the four arms and two powerful legs, are folded grotesquely over her distended abdomen. The egg-filled abdomen swells and swells into a great pulsing tubular sac, suspended from a lattice of pipes and conduits by a web-like membrane, as if some vast coil of intestines were draped carelessly among the machinery.”
The concept of the Alien Queen pre-dated Aliens, originating from a discarded script that Cameron wrote in the early 1980’s, called ET. For obvious reasons, he changed the title of this script, which became known as Mother. The unproduced screenplay was later cannibalised when Cameron pieced together the fledgling Alien II. “[Mother] featured a character very much like Ripley, had its own type of Alien Queen, and ended with a final battle between the protagonist and Mother while the main character was encased in what I’d later call a ‘power-loader’ … I just grabbed all the stuff that I’d already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very mercenary, at the time.”
For the showdown on the Sulaco, Cameron likewise looked to another one of his early film efforts, a short film called Xenogenesis. In that sci-fi short, the male lead (played by Cameron pal and Terminator 2 co-writer and cameo-er, William Wisher) hangs by his fingers over a precipice whilst a demented robot looms over him. His female compatriot seems to have abandoned him, but as the robot closes in a far shutter doors opens up — to reveal his partner encased in another robotic machine. The two mechs proceed to battle it out. The composition of this scene and its action mirrors Ripley’s battle with the Alien Queen very closely.
“I thought it was very important to have something beyond that hadn’t been seen before in the first film, even though we have a number of Aliens throughout the main body of the film. They’re mainly a reprise of Mr Giger’s design. I thought it was important to show some new form beyond that. And, I think there’s a lot of revelation going on there, as to how their whole social organization works. I think of the Queen as a character, rather than as a thing or an animal. [Ripley] has to take it very seriously as a thinking entity.”
~ James Cameron, 1986.
According to Cameron, the Queen is one of the first chestbursters to emerge from a host at the colony. She sets up a nest within the Atmosphere Processor whilst the other Aliens gather colonists to imbed in its walls and impregnate. “That adult [Alien] form -one of them, anyway- couldn’t possibly have laid the thousand-or-so eggs that filled the inside of that derelict ship. So working from that image -acres and acres of these quite large eggs, two and a half to three feet tall- I began to focus on the idea of a hierarchical structure where the central figure is a giant queen whose role is to further the species.” Cameron elsewhere referred to her role as the Aliens’ “central guiding authority.” The Queen’s existence is teased in the film as Ripley and the remnants of the Colonial Marines take a breather and muse on the Alien threat:
RIPLEY: They grabbed the colonists, then move them over there, and immobilized them to be hosts for more of these… Which would mean there would have to be a lot of these parasites, right? One for each colonist… that’s over a hundred at least.
BISHOP: Yes. That follows.
RIPLEY: Each one of these things comes from an egg, right? So, who’s laying these eggs?
With the creature incorporated into the Alien sequel, Cameron, an artist in his own right who had previously sketched and painted the concept for the Terminator, set about designing it. “Right from the start,” explained Stan Winston, “Jim had a concept of the Alien Queen in the back of his head. In fact, when we first began talking about the project he showed me the beautiful rendering he had done of it which I liked immediately.”
Cameron, working from a Giger-ish aesthetic, imbued his Alien Queen with overtly feminine qualities. In addition to its reproductive capabilities the Queen sports high-heeled feet and a pair of secondary arms that serve as breast substitutes. Her head has extended into a ‘crown’, with a retractable mouth.
Though he responded favourably to Cameron’s design for the Queen, Winston found the prospect of a fully articulated puppet absurd. “But then I had to stop myself,” Winston said, “and say, ‘yep, you know what, it will probably work.'” Winston attempted several Queen design variations of his own, as he had on The Terminator. However, he ended up shelving these and went back to the original design provided by James. Both Cameron and Winston traded sketches to refine the creature’s appearance until both were satisfied.
Cameron’s aesthetic with the Alien Queen was to integrate the biomechanic style of HR Giger with his own artistic license: “I had an image of what I wanted this thing to look like,” he said. “I wanted to continue with [Giger’s] design philosophy but I wanted to give it certain other characteristics in terms of size and speed and grace and certain feminine characteristics that the Alien warrior didn’t have.”
Alien Ladies: The original Alien was described by Ridley Scott as being “a man with a feminine shape – a hermaphrodite,” but Scott had also attempted to portray his Alien as a female, even going so far as to try and hire a woman to play the part, a job which fell to Ivor Powell. Ultimately, finding a seven-foot tall woman to play the role was too arduous a task. “Originally I wanted a very feminine creature,” Ridley said. “The idea of associating danger and sexual desire, to have a creature that was at once desirable and lethal and that was exciting … I wanted to not only have a strong heroine, but I also wanted to make the creature female as well: two women battling one another would have had a great sexual connotation.”
Cameron also based the Queen’s hands on those of the creature in Giger’s Alien Monster IV painting. “Although Giger wasn’t directly involved,” Cameron said, “his ghost sort of hovered about. I must say, though, that I feel a sense of authorship when it comes to the Queen. Somebody once described it as an anorexic dinosaur, which I suppose is inevitable even though that’s not what I had in mind. In fact, I wanted specifically not to suggest a dinosaur concept -at least overtly- because that would have been a little too commonplace and boring. For me, the Queen is really a blend of what Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”
Designing the creature didn’t seem to pose the film-makers too many problems. With Cameron’s artwork finalised, the challenge lay in bringing the Queen to the screen. A small puppet seemed feasible enough -such a technique brought a full bodied Terminator to life via stop motion- but problems arose when the production had to consider how the Queen would interact with other objects, notably in the frenetic powerloader battle.
“As a director,” said Cameron, “I find it tough to deal with stop-motion. I was very happy with what was done on The Terminator, but by that point in the story we were dealing with a mechanical device and I didn’t feel the look of stop-motion violated anything we had already done. I was a little more worried about it with Aliens. The scenes involving the Alien Queen were very important, and what we were trying to do was create a real and believable character. Plus, when we started to analyse the types of shots we were doing we realized that most of would require fairly quick action -turns and spins and rapid strides- the sorts of moves that in stop-motion would cause so much displacement per frame that the arms and legs would end up strobing. There are things you just can’t do in any other way, though, so originally the plan was to have a rod-puppet version and a stop-motion version. But eventually it got down to budget and it became a choice of either one or the other. Given that, the rod and cable actuated puppet seemed more appealing for a number of reasons. One was that I had never worked with that kind of thing before and I wanted to fool around with it and see what could be done. Also I just had a feeling that with a lot of the floor effects that we’d be using -smoke and steam and that sort of thing- we’d have more flexibility with puppets we could shoot live on a miniature set.”
Camera shy: James Cameron himself provided the ‘voice’ for the Queen, a factoid he revealed at the Terminator 2 fan convention in 1991, saying: “We had synthesizers … things like that … In fact, I was the voice of the Alien Queen that was in the movie.” Other Cameron cameos include the voice of Stan Morsky -Sarah’s cancelled date- in The Terminator and the dying wails of the T-1000 in Terminator 2. Other cameos include the voice of a helicopter pilot in True Lies, and another voice in Titanic -in the ship’s engine room, “All ahead full”- and also in Titanic as Jack Dawson’s sketching hand. Finally, he also provided his cords to a pilot voice-over in Avatar.
Winston and Cameron devised a system where two operators, locked inside an articulated puppet, could manoeuvre the Queen’s arms whilst her body was supported by a crane and her head controlled by puppeteers. Nick Gillard and Malcolm Weaver were the two stuntmen inside the Queen who operated her arms, (Gillard would return to play an immolated prisoner in Alien 3 – and breaking a record whilst at it.) Before leaving for England to shoot the movie, Winston and his team created a mock-up Alien Queen to test the feasibility of a large crane-operated puppet. Satisfied, they packed up for Pinewood.
When built, the towering, multi-limbed Queen puppet reached an intimidating fourteen feet in height. “I think we had the advantage of her not being exactly an anthropomorphic figure,” said Cameron, “so she obviously is not a person in a suit. Your willing suspension of disbelief is aided by the fact that it’s clearly not a performer in a suit. On one hand, you know that it’s achieved by a sort of puppeteering technique, but the fact that you also know that it’s not just a person dressed up immediately helps you perceive it as a living creature.”
Queen’s Return: The Queen’s animatronic head would find itself in collector Bob Burns’ collection, and would be loaned out, repainted and reused in Alien Resurrection. On the creature’s return in Alien vs. Predator, the Queen was redesigned and built by Amalgamated Dynamics, and her graceful body would be -personal opinion incoming- reduced to thunder-thighed silliness more evocative of a dinosaur, exactly the look Cameron didn’t intend.
“I wanted the final confrontation with the Alien to be a hand-to-hand fight,” Cameron said of the film’s finale. “A very intense, personal thing – not done with guns, which are a remote way of killing … [so] when Ripley goes at it with the Queen she uses a powerloader, which we hoped would be the futuristic equivalent of a forklift … In both Aliens and Terminator, a piece of technology that was designed as a tool becomes a weapon through man’s ingenuity – everything designed as a weapon proves useless, so Linda Hamilton uses a hydraulic stamping press to destroy the Terminator and Sigourney Weaver uses a power-loading machine to kill the Alien.”
Filming Ripley’s battle with the Alien Queen took place near the end of principal photography in December/January 1986, once all of the scenes involving the Marines had been shot. The battle scene would be a combination of live-action, full-size puppetry spliced with footage of the miniatures. Both the full-size Alien Queen and powerloader would require two people operating, with around a dozen others controlling each respective puppet’s motion off-screen. “To Jim’s credit,” said Winston employee Shane Mahan, “he knew how to shoot that fourteen foot puppet, that had a huge crane behind it and a big C-bracket that was on a gimble of sorts, and you never see it in the film.”
Tossing the Queen out of the Sulaco’s airlock “seemed the only way to go” for Cameron. “There was no other way that satisfied me. Crippling her to death would have been impossible. Remember, the acid blood… The image that I could not shake free was the idea of literally hanging, being suspended over an infinite abyss. It was not so much getting rid of the Alien as the jeopardy that Ripley was in after the Alien was already out. I wanted to have the image of standing along something, and the doors open, and there is nothing there but stars. Which I don’t think had been done in a film. The closest thing was in Alien.”
“I loved that,” said Weaver of Aliens’ finale, “loved that. That’s, I think, one of the favourite moments that people have: that battle.” HR Giger also liked the film’s final scenes, telling Sci-Fi Invasion magazine in 1998: “I like the fight at the end very much … The Alien Queen is very complicated, like the way I would have done. I like how she moves, and the scenes with Ripley are very good.”
Giger also told Cinefantastique, “When Aliens came out I questioned the change in tone and pacing from the original. It was an unexpected surprise to me, as it was for everyone. When I was able to put aside my personal disappointment in not having been asked to work on it, I soon realised that it was the change from the first film which made it an excellent and original movie, not another predictable sequel. It is a movie I’ve enjoyed more and more with every viewing and I consider it among the best action films ever made. And when I heard James Cameron himself designed the Alien Queen I was even more impressed by the talents of this versatile director.”