Tag Archives: James Cameron

Alien$

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One rather pervasive story concerning Aliens is how writer/director James Cameron convinced Brandywine Productions to green light the sequel. One version that has become popular lately is better known as ‘Alien$’, and the story—allegedly related by series producer Gordon Carroll—often goes this way:

“Cameron was young. He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his “next project.” Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch because Alien was not a massive financial success. Alien 2 was not on the table. We expected a professional pitch from Cameron, an outline and a treatment of what he had in mind with a cursory budget; perhaps a couple assistants to run a slide show.

Instead Cameron walked in the room without so much as a piece of paper. He went to the chalk board in the room and simply wrote the word ALIEN. Then he added an ‘S’ to make ALIENS. Dramatically, he drew two vertical lines through the ‘S’, ALIEN$. He turned around and grinned. We greenlit the project that day for $18 million.”

Several sites have run with this quote in the last couple of years, including Film School Rejects, Movie Pilot, Cinema Blend and more. The problem with the tale is that it’s, as far as I can tell, very untrue.

I originally heard the story back in 2009, with the release of Rebecca Keegan’s biography of Cameron, ‘The Futurist’. However, Keegan is not the source of the anecdote, with its earliest example appearing online in 2008, a year before ‘The Futurist’ was published. The earliest source that I can find: a series of movie trivia sites specialising in scandalous and titillating Hollywood scuttlebutt.

First, let’s go through the story and see where it trips up.

First of all is the apparent storyteller, Gordon Carroll. At the time of Aliens’ writing and pre-production, Carroll was no longer associated with Brandywine, having left the company after the release of the original Alien to join Rastar Productions (where he helped produce Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby’s Blue Thunder). Carroll was credited for the rest of the Alien sequels, but was largely uninvolved with their production (similarly, Walter Hill and David Giler are credited on Alien: Resurrection, AvP, Prometheus and Covenant, despite having minimal to no involvment with their production.)

This in mind, it doesn’t make sense for me that Carroll was present at Cameron’s pitch with Brandywine when he was no longer involved with Hill and Giler. Carroll is not mentioned by Cameron, Giler or Hill in any of their recollections of the pitch. According to O’Bannon and The Los Angeles Times, the relationship between Carroll and his former company became rather fraught in the battle for royalties and fees following Alien‘s release.

When the ‘Alien$’ story first appeared online in 2008, Carroll, unlike Giler and Hill, was not around to refute it. He passed away in 2005.

Next…

“He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his ‘next project’. Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch ”

Cameron first met Brandywine Productions in 1983. At the time, he had been planning to shoot The Terminator in Canada throughout ’83, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was scooped up by Dino de Laurentiis for Conan the Destroyer. Cameron, with a year to burn, took on several writing assignments to fill the gap. After a meeting with David Giler and Walter Hill that went nowehere, Cameron was about to walk out the door when Giler pipped up, “Well, we do have this other thing.”

“Oh, what’s that?” Cameron replied. “And he said, ‘Alien II.'”

Cameron wrote Alien II for Giler and Hill throughout the remainder of ’83, and continued to write throughout production and post-production for The Terminator.

You can read the whole account of how Cameron met Brandywine and wrote Aliens here, at Writing Aliens.

Alien was not a massive financial success.

Twentieth Century Fox released fourteen films in 1979. The most lucrative, boasted that year’s internal annual report, was Alien. On a production budget of around $9 million dollars and an advertising budget of $6 million, the movie made over $100 million at the box office.

Here are a few headlines from the summer and autumn of ’79 and extending into 1980:

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Other headlines include ‘Alien becomes big hit at the box office’, ‘Alien snaps records in first week of road’, ‘Invasion of a box office smash’, and ‘Sci-fi film sends profits into outer space.’

At the time of the film’s release, Fox had also cashed in on its hype and success by selling TV airing rights to ABC (four airings of Alien at $14 million dollars) with a 10% downpayment. To quote executive producer Ron Shusett: “If this isn’t a successful film, what is?”

Curiously enough, Fox did try to argue in 1979 that Alien made very little in profit; an assertion that saw them litigated by the producers, director and other partners.

We greenlit the project that day for $18 million.

This is one of the more confusing and frankly ludicrous parts of the tale: nobody wanted to touch Alien 2… until they saw a graphical pun?

Finally, in some of the earliest and latest reproductions of this story, the source is often given as Lynda Obst’s 1996 book Hello, He Lied: Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches. Reckoning that many of the sites promulgating the story and citing Obst as their source were probably unable to read it for themselves, I tracked down and bought a copy:

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However, there is no account of the story in Obst’s book. Gordon Carroll is never mentioned, and neither is James Cameron (nor even Aliens.) I took a picture of the index for clarity:

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The situation brings to mind an old joke from the Alien Experience boards, where one member concocted a humorous story from the POV of James Remar witnessing Cameron, in a London nightclub in 1985, declaring that he was ‘King of the World’ as he displayed his disco moves. While clearly a piss take, some people, perhaps tempted by its visual hilarity, thought it quite credible.

Similarly, I’m chalking this one up to playful imaginations and the myth-making processes so often rooted in fandoms.

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Writing Aliens

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In 1983 Dan O’Bannon sat with Starlog magazine to talk about his career, including a customary overview of the Alien production and a poke at the possibilities of a sequel. “Also extraordinary,” the article read, “in this age of sequelmania, is the impossibility of Alien 2Return of AlienRevenge of the Alien, or anything else smacking of a second curtain call for the grisly astronaut-eater.” The problem, O’Bannon revealed, was that “The rights were altogether too divided among a number of us who can’t get along.” As far as he knew, he added, “There has never been any intention of doing a sequel.”

Contrary to his claims, producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll had mused on the prospects of a second film during the promotional run for the original film. “We’re involved in preliminary discussion right now,” Giler told Cinefantastique in 1979. “It’s still too early to say how it will unfold. Hill and I are working on it. I know a lot of people who think we intended the close-ups of the cat in the shuttle as a hook for the sequel. Not so. It probably won’t have anything to do with the cat.”

When Fantastic Films magazine pressed them on plans for any further sci-fi movies, Giler mentioned a sequel, on which Carroll elaborated, “We don’t have any one idea we like better than the rest. But I think it’s a very realistic idea.”

Fantastic Films: Will it feature the same Alien?
Giler: Probably not.
Fantastic Films: The company the crew works for seems to be very sinister. Will they be elaborated on more?
Carroll: That’s a possibility. I would think that’s one of the things we might do. We also have, for example, the planet and all that. I think that the sequel would have more. I’m not saying necessary of that planet, but of the fantasy of science fiction in terms of design.

The producers weren’t the only ones musing on Alien II, with director Ridley Scott admitting to Fantastic Films magazine that, concerning the first film, “What I missed most of all was the absence of a prognosis scene. There were no speculative scenes or discussions about what the Alien was and all that sort of thing either. I believe that audiences love those, especially if they’re well done. They give the threat much more weight. If they make Alien II, and if I have anything to do with it, the film will certainly have those elements in it. From a certain point of view, Alien II could be more interesting than Alien I.”

Ridley further mused with Cinefantastique that “In many respects it’ll be more interesting [than the first movie], from a pure science-fiction stand point. We’d get into speculative areas, deal with two civilisations.” He told Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies in 1984 that “It certainly should explain what the Alien is and where it comes from. That will be tough because it will require dealing with other planets, worlds, civilisations. Because obviously the Alien did come from some sort of civilisation. The Alien was presented, really, as one of the last survivors of Mars – a planet named after the god of war. The Alien may be one of the last descendants of some long-lost self-destructed group of beings.”

Then, not long after Alien’s theatrical run, rumours of a TV sequel, made in the vein of ‘Salem’s Lot, hit the trades:

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Not long afterwards, details for a movie sequel emerged in the press:

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  • The Alien, merely stunned by its close encounter with the shuttle engines, manages to survive outside the craft and reaches civilisation along with Ripley.
  • A second expedition to the planetoid is stranded there and, weathering a storm within the derelict and their own ship, its members deal with a group of Aliens, climaxed by the appearance to whose race the Space Jockey belongs.
  • A prequel, rather than a sequel, telling the tale of the Space Jockey and ending where Alien begins, with the arrival of the Nostromo crew.
  • The planetoid of the Alien explodes, sending Alien eggs to Earth where -shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers– a whole flock of the monsters run rampant.

But despite all of Ridley’s theorising and the commercial and cultural success of the original, the sequel did not appear. The reason for this is perplexing but simple: Twentieth Century Fox did not want it. Alan Ladd Jnr., the head of Fox who had heralded both Star Wars and Alien (and affectionately called ‘Laddy’ by Ridley Scott and co.) left the company in 1979 to found his own production firm, The Ladd Company, whom most will recognise as the producers of another science-fiction classic, Blade Runner. Ladd’s replacement was Norman Levy, who, according to Giler, opposed the very notion of an Alien II.

“Norman Levy wouldn’t even hear about it,” Giler told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “He thought it would be a disaster … I was introduced to John Davis at a bar one night, and I asked him, ‘When is your dad (Marvin Davis, owner of the studio at the time) going to make the sequel?’ He said, ‘Never. Norman Levy is going to save my father millions by not making that movie.'”

In an interview with Blade Runner fansite BladeZone, journalist Paul M. Sammon, responsible for the excellent Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, said of the sci-fi/horror genre at the time: ”You have to keep in mind that even though Alien was a smash, it was still a science-fiction/horror film. And back in the late Seventies/early Eighties, those two genres, at least in the opinion of many Hollywood executives, were barely a step above pornography, even if horror and science fiction films were suddenly becoming these huge cash cows.”

When Levy left his post in 1984, Giler and Hill finally managed to make some headway. Giler attributes the revival of the project to a Fox executive who stopped him in the car park. “I told him the story that was a cross between Southern Comfort and The Magnificent Seven,” said Giler. “He said, ‘Great! That sounds fine.’ And we all had a meeting and we were on.”

The producers then proceeded to band ideas about. “David and I sat down and had a discussion about what the sequel should be,” Walter Hill told Film International in 2004. “We figured the next one should be a straight action thriller -the military takes over- a patrol movie.” But though ideas had begun to materialise, Giler and Hill, who both confessed to sci-fi not being their area of expertise, made no headway on a screenplay for the film.

The breakthrough came when Larry Wilson, a development executive working for the Phoenix Co. (Giler’s production company), came across a script called The Terminator. “It was electrifying,” he recalled. “I put the script on David’s (Giler) desk and said, ‘This is the guy.’” Giler and Hill, after perusing the script, had to agree that Cameron had talents worth investigating, and they arranged a meeting with the budding filmmaker to discuss ideas for a film, though not specifically an Alien sequel.

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Cameron cut his teeth on films like Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) before branching out to write and direct his own features.

 “When I went over to visit the Corman facility, where the special effects were done, he was the genius, the resonant genius – everyone was talking about how great he was. I remember meeting him on the set [of Escape From New York], actually it was over in the San Fernando Valley, he was doing a glass painting for us. He was sitting on a hillside with some glass setup painting a New York skyline to be able to shoot the next shot. It was just beautiful – he was really technically great.”
~ John Carpenter, Sci-fi-online, 2008.

At this point in time Cameron was in a rut – his first directorial project The Terminator had been picked up by Hemdale and Orion Pictures, but shooting was put on an 8 month long hiatus due to Dino De Laurentiis pulling Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the movie to fulfill contractual obligations with a Conan sequel. Suddenly, despite having the entirety of The Terminator scripted, designed, cast, and ready to film, Cameron found himself with a lot of spare time to whittle away. So, not the type to sit on his hands, he sought new writing projects, taking on the sequel to First Blood as well as attending the meeting with Giler and Hill to discuss further projects. At first, the two offered him a take on Spartacus set in space which Cameron listened to with some bemusement. “It quickly became clear that David Giler wanted a swords and sandals-type film set in outer space,” Cameron said, “with literal swords and sandals.”

After some to’ing and fro’ing, the meeting stalled.“And I was sort of getting up and sort of making my way towards the door,” Cameron continued, “and David Giler said, ‘Well, we do have this other thing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ And he said, ‘Alien II.’ And all the kind of pinball machines lights and bells went off inside my head.” The original movie had left an indelible impression on Cameron. “I saw Alien on its opening night in 1979 and it had a great effect on me …  It created such a benchmark for visual design in science-fiction, as well as photography, acting, sound, and editing – all things that one did not necessarily associate with science-fiction.”

To aid him with the story, Giler and Hill pointed Cameron in the direction they thought it should take. “All they said was, ‘Ripley and soldiers,’” Cameron explained. “They didn’t give me anything specific, just this idea of her getting together with some military types and having them all go back to the planet.” The producers also imparted Cameron with their notes and story ideas. “I’ll never forget this,” commented Cameron, “The outline concluded with this sentence: ‘and then some other bullshit happens.’ Which I thought trivialised the entire process of figuring out what the story should be.”

Cameron, a science-fiction fan since his childhood, had already made attempts at sci-fi scripts in the vein of Alien and Star Wars before, none of which he had developed, but could now mine for his Alien sequel just as Dan O’Bannon had amalgamated his own Dark Star with a myriad of other ideas and influences. One of Cameron’s unproduced screenplays, titled ‘Mother’, was extensively reworked and would come to form the many throughlines of Alien II.

“In 1980 or 1981,” he explained, “I wrote notes and an initial treatment for a science fiction story that I initially called E.T., meaning extraterrestrial, a commonly used term in science fiction literature. As I was writing it, I found out that Steven Spielberg was making a film called E.T. The Extraterrestrial, so I promptly changed the title of my story. I used Protein as an interim working title, but then switched the title to Mother, because the story concerned a female genetically engineered creature attempting to ensure the survival of its young.”

“It featured a character very much like Ripley,” he continued, “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’.” The ‘Mother’ screenplay also originated many other Aliens tropes, including a company (Triworld Development Corporation, generally referred to as ‘the Company’) that funds inhabitation and resource-mining of other worlds, the term ‘xenomorph’, as well as a strong maternal theme. “I’d felt that that fit like a glove in the development of [Ripley]. I just grabbed all the stuff that I’d already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very mercenary, at the time.”

Cameron stayed up for three nights drinking coffee and working on First Blood II and the Alien II treatment, deconstructing his ‘Mother’ script for the latter and injecting it with Giler and Hill’s mandate that the military be involved. Luckily, his research for First Blood II offered an insight into the Vietnam War that he figured would meld very well with the story of an elite fighting force confronting “a less technologically advanced but more determined enemy” which, in his case, would happen to be not Viet Cong guerillas but a horde of murderous biomechanoids. “I was kind of fascinated by Vietnam at that point and what a weird and surreal kind of war that was. So my approach to [First Blood II] was a lot heavier, a lot more character.” Frustratingly for Cameron, Sylvester Stallone’s rewrites obliterated much of the depth that he had tried to instil in the film. “They kept a lot of the action,” he said of the film. “They just kind of made it a Mission Impossible thing – for me it took on kind of a superhero-type quality. I thought it was much more interesting to kind of explore this traumatized character.”

Not wanting to let a good theme go to waste, Cameron realised that Ripley’s encounter with the Alien would undoubtedly have traumatised her in a way that would be powerful and lingering. “One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam,” he told Time magazine in ’86, “who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised […] I used a bit of it in Aliens, having them come back from something they were traumatized by. There was a bit of that delayed stress syndrome stuff in Aliens they didn’t use in Rambo II.”

Another theme of Alien II would be one that James Cameron was fascinated with for some time: “Would you be willing to go into hell for someone, and if so, who would it be, and what would your relationship to them be?” Though the original Alien ended with what David Giler termed a “Sleeping Beauty … lyrical ending,” Cameron geared the sequel to encompass more than lyricism, but a sense of healing and catharsis for both Ripley and the audience.

“The first thing I did was give Ripley a past,” explained Cameron, “a life back on Earth – it’s just barely sketched, but there are resonances throughout the story: she was married, she got divorced because her career took her into space, and she had a daughter who, in the time that Ripley was on the Nostromo, grew up and died of old age. So there’s a sense that Ripley survived what happened, but there is still tremendous loss – all this was taken from her.”

Cameron’s hopes for the cathartic experience were best put by Stanley Kubrick, who said, though he was talking in regards to 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent – but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

But a snag came when Cameron, finally entering production of The Terminator in late ’83 and early ’84, had yet to finish the full Alien II screenplay. “Giler lost it,” Cameron recalled. “He actually said something I never thought I’d hear anyone say in Hollywood – ‘You’ll never work in this town again!’”

Luckily, Walter Hill was of a cooler disposition and advised Cameron to send in whatever he’d written, and the resulting 60 page treatment, submitted on September 21st, 1983, pleased Brandywine enough to keep him on the project. In fact, Giler & Hill liked Cameron’s treatment so much, they added their name to it, placing Cameron third in the credits and earning themselves a pay cheque from Fox. “Walter and David got a cheque for my treatment, and I got nothing,” he said. “I was pretty pissed off about that one.”

Alien II

Twentieth Century Fox, however, were not so impressed. “An executive told me he didn’t like the treatment because it was wall-to-wall horror and it needed more character development,” Cameron told the LA Times. As The Terminator went into production in March 1984, Fox made an attempt to sell the rights to the Alien franchise to producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja, but the deal ultimately fell through. When producer Larry Gordon replaced Fox studio production head Joe Wizan in the summer of ’84 he came across the Alien II treatment. “I couldn’t believe it hadn’t already been done,” Gordon said. “In this business there are those decisions you agonize and lose sleep over, but this was so obvious. It was a no-brainer.” Gordon, who had worked with Hill on the 1982 hit 48 HRS, kept the Alien II project alive and rolling. Though Cameron was busy directing his first feature, Gordon allowed him to continue to refine and complete the first Alien II screenplay draft throughout The Terminator’s production, even throughout the editing phase. There was even another promise: that if The Terminator was successful, then Cameron could also direct the Alien sequel. “I agreed to write Alien II on the basis– and on the sole basis –that I direct it,” Cameron said. “I created the characters, I created the scenario, and I got emotionally involved. I had a large creative investment in what I’d done up to that point.”

The first public announcement that Cameron had written the sequel came in December 1984, when he told Starlog magazine: “I have written the screenplay for Alien II. It does exist. What will be done with it, no one really knows. I can’t really say anything more about Alien II than that it exists.” While drafting the screenplay Cameron, who had never intended for his sequel to imitate the original film, concocted a title that shed the roman numerals and allowed it to immediately air its own identity. “I don’t know Dan O’Bannon,” he explained, “but I read an interview with him that said he was typing away one night at four o’clock in the morning, and he was writing , ‘the Alien did this, the Alien did that,’ and he realised that the word ‘alien’ stood out on the page. It was very much like that for me on this film. I was writing away and it was ‘Aliens this and Aliens that’ and it was just right. It was succinct. It had all the power of the first title, and it also implied the plurality of the threat. It also implied, of course, that it’s a sequel, without having to say Alien II.” The first draft was handed into Fox in early 1984, and was received with enthusiasm by the studio. There was some sweat shed over the cost: Cameron’s partner and producer Gale Anne Hurd insisted the film could be made for around $15.5 million; Fox estimated it would total an unacceptable $35 million.

A bigger snag came when Cameron insisted that only Sigourney Weaver could play the lead. Fox protested that taking such a stance would allow Weaver a great deal of leverage over her pay, and that they would make Aliens without her if possible. In return, Cameron and Hurd left the project and, recently married, honeymooned to Hawaii.  “We assumed it was a dead issue,” said Hurd, “and when we left for Hawaii we thought the movie was off.” But when they returned they found that the movie was still on, and that Weaver had been approached to resume her role of Ripley. Weaver, having found the script suddenly dropped in her lap, was impressed enough with Ripley’s characterisation to sign on. “The emotional content is much greater in Aliens,” she said. “I tried to imagine and comprehend something like that […] Coming back to a whole different world and haunted by the other one. Ripley’s personal situation is so bleak. I know I’m playing the same character, but I feel she has changed so utterly by what happens to her early in the film. I don’t think she’s the earnest young ensign she was when she went into space the first time.”

To begin with, Alien happened in space,” Cameron told Prevue magazine in ’86. “The characters literally existed in a vacuum – they had no past or life beyond that film. Ripley, of course was the only survivor because she was a very strong female, and that impressed me very much. I wanted to take the character further, to know Ripley as a person, to see some depth and emotion. The movie is about her, every scene. It gets inside her mind, takes her back to face her own worst nightmare – and conquer it, so to speak. In a way, Aliens is about her revenge.” Weaver affirmed Cameron’s concern that a Ripley without catharsis would ultimately end up as a self-destructive person: “I play a character who, probably, if she stayed at home and the nightmares continued, she might end up with a loaded gun next to her bed.”

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 “Ripley is very different [in Aliens]. The horrific experience she endured on the Nostromo changed her irrevocably from the eager young ensign to a really haunted person. And we must remember that she drifted in space for fifty-seven years … I firmly believe that Ripley’s mind never stopped working while she slept … she’s probably been over that experience in various nightmare forms through the years. Ripley has to start life over again and finds it very difficult to do so. There are so many ghosts in her life. And yet she agrees to face the horror once again … She feels she must finally lay to rest the ghosts and sadness of the past or there will be no future for her. But once on the planet and faced with the nightmarish situation, she finds a purpose … she finds she can identify with the little girl, Newt, who is the only other person to experience what Ripley experienced, and survive … She is a fellow creature who shares the same nightmare. When Ripley finds her, her life means something again.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Starbust, 1987.

Ripley’s actions on LV-426 were intended to serve as atonement for her (self-perceived) failure to protect her Nostromo crewmates. “Ripley still feels responsible for what happened on the Nostromo,” explained Weaver. “She has a feeling that she could have done more to help the crew to survive. It’s nonsense of course; but she can’t help thinking that she could have done a better job […] To me, it is the story of a woman who loses her whole life, and has to start over again,” she surmised. “I don’t think she’ll ever be the same again. I mean, she’ll never be that eager young ensign, but who’d want to be anyway? You’ve got to move on […] It’s been very satisfying to see how Ripley coped with what turned out to be a real tragedy in her life.”

Though the writing process was generally smooth, Cameron noted that “[Sigourney] tried to have an influence on Aliens, but it didn’t work! She said, ‘I don’t want to shoot a gun,’ I said, ‘No, you have to shoot a gun.’ ‘Oh, well, can I get killed?’ ‘No.’ When I saw the third film I cracked up, because it was all the things she’d asked for on the second film.” This isn’t to suggest that Cameron wasn’t accommodating to Weaver’s suggestions, as the latter praised his ability to interpret the character of Ripley correctly: “Jim is incredibly open to things. I always felt that he trusted my instincts and that he had his own very clear idea of Ripley. Whatever decisions I made about her mental and emotional attitude, he has tried to incorporate into scene changes, how we play them, and things like that. For the most part it has gone very well.”

Aliens finally went into production in September 1985, and would wrap in April 1986 on a budget of $18 million – half of what Fox had frightfully predicted. “If Jim Cameron hadn’t fallen in love with something about Alien,” stated Sigourney, “then a sequel wouldn’t have been made. No one really wanted to touch it … Luckily, Jim wanted to make his own movie.”

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Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s Alien 5

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“Ridley Scott and I have talked about doing one more where we go back to the original planet and see what these creatures came out of…”
~ Sigourney Weaver, IGN, 2005.

Alien Resurrection had barely started screening when talk of a fifth movie began circulating. “We firmly expect to do another one,” Tom Rothman, Fox’s president of production at the time, told Entertainment Weekly. “Joss Whedon will write it, and we expect to have Sigourney and Winona if they’re up for it.”

“There’s a big story to tell in another sequel,” Whedon said. “The fourth film is really a prologue to a movie set on Earth. Imagine all the things that can happen.” That same year he set out his manifesto for the fifth film: “If I write this movie, and it has my writing credits on it, then it’s going to be on Earth … And it’s going to be very different from the last one.”

“The studio talked about Alien Resurrection as a kind of placeholder,” he continued. “They said, ‘We want to do Earth or the big Alien planet, but we’re not convinced yet that this franchise has legs. So we want to do a smaller story.’ I don’t think you can do that with Alien 5. I think the time of people running around in a tin can has passed. You have to work on a broader canvas otherwise it becomes an episode and not a new movie. The way Cameron exploded from the first to the second, you have to do that again, and that means going somewhere new … With Alien Resurrection, I used the first two movies as models, but with this one I can promise you something new, something completely different from what’s been seen before.”

However, a frustrated Whedon lost interest in doing any work for another sequel after Resurrection’s release, and the fifth movie, which was rumoured to be titled ‘Alien Revelation’, ended up on Fox’s backburner. “I’ll tell you there was a time when I would have been interested in that,” explained Whedon, “but I am not interested in making somebody else’s franchise anymore. Any movie I make will be created by me.”

Still, rumours abounded throughout the late nineties and early noughties  about a fifth entry. Cinescape magazine for one reported that Alien 5 was to feature Ripley 8 travelling to the Alien homeworld to settle scores. There were intermittent rumours of the film being greenlit and release dates and inflated salaries for Weaver were reported and denied on an almost yearly basis. In 1999 Sigourney spoke to Sci-Fi Wire magazine about another film and her participation in it. “I don’t know if there are any plans to do another one,” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if some time in the next twenty years or so, you see a white-haired Ripley hobbling around out there. But I haven’t heard of anything.”

Eventually, in 2002, there seemed to be some mobilisation for Alien 5, as Ridley Scott was asked about his potential involvement and responded positively, saying, “You know I thought it’d be nice. I’d do it. It really is entirely dependent on the take on the material. It’s all about material. I’ve been asked about Alien 5, and I said of course. We’ve started a script meeting. I mean, I’ve started it off so I may as well close the door – if in fact this is meant to be the last one.”

“I will decide in the next 5 weeks. I’m looking at Alien 5 [for] sure. Why not? Maybe.”
~ Ridley Scott, The Latino Review, 2002.

In 2003 Ian Nathan interviewed Scott for The Times to celebrate the release of the Alien Quardilogy, and Nathan noted that he didn’t “even seem to want to recognise that two more films were made” after the second movie, which may have been a cause of consternation for Scott and Fox. This is conjecture, of course, but Scott’s unwillingness to heed the latter films (“One was set on a prison, wasn’t it?” he asked Empire in 2012) may have been a stumbling block for cracking the fifth film’s story. Ridley always spoke about exploring the Space Jockey and the concept of biological warfare, and he may not have been ready to weld it to Ripley’s clone and a film that he never held in much regard.

But Nathan dropped a more enticing tidbit: that there “has been talk of a heavenly partnership with Cameron to work out an idea” for a fifth Alien movie. Back in 1995 Starbust magazine had claimed that “James Cameron [was] behind the camera” for Alien Resurrection. This may have been wishful thinking, since he has never commented on being asked to direct the fourth movie (though he did say if Fox had gotten Ridley to direct one half of the proposed two-part third movie, he may have directed the second half.) Now, Cameron was mostly definitely back in the fold. “What came up was the idea of doing Alien 5,” he said, “and at one point I pitched that I would write it and produce it, and Ridley would direct it, and we had lunch talking about this.”

In 2003 Zap2it.com claimed that the plots to Alien 5 and 6 had surfaced. “Number five is set on Earth,” they claimed, “with the planet under attack from alien warrior drop ships, which made their debut in the original Alien movie. In the process they make Earth look like an incubator while attacking, leaving Alien eggs around the humans. When Ripley realizes her dreams have played a role in what’s happening she evacuates and confines herself to a cell, but inevitably she will meet her nemesis face to face again.”

The summary of the sixth movie was brief. “Number six takes place on the home turf of the navigator of the ship. Aliens are taking over other planets and Ripley finds herself forced to turn to the dark side in order to save civilization.”

Meanwhile, Cameron was stressing the need to be uncompromising when dabbling in this universe. “The original Alien holds a special classic niche as one of the great terrifying experiences,” he told The Edmonton Sun. “And the trick is you don’t go crazy and make a $150-million movie because you don’t want to have to compromise, you don’t want to try to do a PG-13 Alien that is all things to everyone. It’s got to still maintain its roots in this kind of cinematic Id. Ridley did it really beautifully. He just kind of put you into this Freudian nightmare space.”

“We’re looking at doing another one. Something similar to what we did with Aliens. A bunch of great characters, and of course Sigourney. I’ve even discussed the possibility of putting [Arnold Schwarzenegger] into the Alien movie.”
~ James Cameron, BBC One interview, 2003.

However, Ridley announced his departure from any Alien project in an issue of Total Film, explaining that it was now in Cameron’s court. “We were in violent agreement,” Cameron said of his meetings with Ridley, “then nothing happened.” It seems that Cameron continued working on the film in some capacity, but Fox intervened. “I started working on a story,” Cameron said, “I was working with another writer and Fox came back to me and said, ‘We’ve got this really good script for Alien vs Predator.’ So I stopped working.”

In 2004, Ridley spoke with Japanese publication Famitsu Wave about Alien 5. and indicated that it was still in everyone’s minds, but would not be greenlit until Fox saw how succesful the spin-off movie would be. He spoke cryptically about the plot and whether or not he would direct it.

Famitsu Wave: And what of the rumor of another Alien movie?
Ridley Scott: We have been talking about doing another one for years. It’s been a complex situation. At the end of the day, a studio has to be pleased, a core audience has to be pleased, and a director has to agree to all that. I am glad to say things are progressing…
FW: With you as director?
RS: I don’t think I’ll be directing, but I will have some involvement. It’ll probably be based on an idea I have, so I hope I’m asked to be involved.
FW: Can you talk about the idea?
RS: In broad terms, it’s something for those folks that want to see Ripley’s journey come full circle.
FW: Does that take her to the home planet of the Aliens?
RS: She won’t necessarily see the home planet, but you might…

Scott also told them that, regarding his work with Nicolas Cage on Matchstick Men and other projects, “If there’s room for him in the new Alien movie, we’d love to get him.”

After the release of AvP director Paul W. Anderson was briefly rumoured to be helming the fifth Alien installment: hearsay that he quickly shot down. “That’s not a reality,” he said. “I’ve heard that. I’ve been doing press lately for AvP and a lot of people said that. I don’t know where that came from. It’s not something I’ve been approached about.” His choice for Alien 5‘s director? Ironically, James Cameron.

AvP may have caused him to lose interest in making a new movie in the series, but Cameron still got around to seeing it.”I think of the five Alien films, I’d rate it third,” he diplomatically said of Anderson’s film, which is no real feat considering his opinion of the third and fourth movie. Ridley however couldn’t bring himself to see it or its 2007 sequel.

Empire: I’ve always wondered, did you see the Alien vs. Predator movies?
Ridley Scott: No.
Empire: (laughs) They don’t exist.
Ridley: I couldn’t do that (laughs) I couldn’t quite take that step.
~ Empire Online, Prometheus: The Interviews, 2012.

Of Ridley’s eventually return to the series, Prometheus, Cameron said in 2014: “I thought it was an interesting film. I thought it was thought-provoking and beautifully, visually mounted, but at the end of the day it didn’t add up logically. But I enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was made. I liked it better than the previous two Alien sequels.”

As for any involvement in the new strand of Alien stories that the prequel has opened up, Cameron was straightforward. “I don’t think I have anything to offer on the Prometheus sequels, that’s Ridley’s.”

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James Cameron’s Alien III (or ‘How it was Never Going to Happen’)

Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Jale Ann Hurd at the Aliens premiere, 1986.

Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Gale Anne Hurd at the Aliens premiere, 1986.

“I’m wondering if Alien 3 is in the typewriter?” Bobby Wygant asked James Cameron upon the release of Aliens in 1986. “Not for me it’s not,” he answered.

“I think Fox will want to see how this film does,” Cameron continued, “and if they’re still enthusiastic about, or if they become enthusiastic about a continuation beyond the film that Gale and I made then they’ll have to pursue that in their way. I mean find a writer, find a director, because we’ll be on to something else, I think. Some new territory.”

“But if the money were right?” Wygan teased. “No, I don’t think so,” he answered. “At this point, y’know, the way I work on films and the way my wife -who produced this film- works, is we throw ourselves into the picture right from pre-production through the end of post-production. It takes us a year or two, year and a half to do a film, and that means maybe my career will only be ten or twelve films – you can’t stay doing the same things over and over again.”

“[Another sequel is] entirely in the hands of people other than myself. The only thing I can say definitively right now is: from my involvement as a writer, the story was not constructed with an eye toward another sequel. But then, the first one wasn’t either.”
~ James Cameron, Starlog magazine, September 1986.

Wygan also asked Sigourney Weaver about Alien 3. “It took someone as talented -and crazy- as Jim Cameron to come up with a story that was as good as the first one,” Weaver said, “and I would be surprised if it could happen again. And I have a feeling, if it happened again, that Newt would have grown up and that she would be the one to go on and carry the guns, so to speak.”

In 1995 Carrie Henn briefly mentioned James’ ideas, or framework, for an Aliens sequel: “I know that James Cameron had planned to have Hicks, Ripley and me in Alien 3, to have a family-type thing.” Her feelings about that not happening? “Still, life goes on.”

Lance Henriksen also revealed that Cameron had discussed some character beats for Bishop in a potential third movie: “I also remember Jim saying to me [that] if we ever did another one that what he would have done is probably had that character realize that somebody had fooled around with his brain and make him constantly worried that he was going to do something dangerous. And so I thought, ‘Well, what a nice piece of conflict that is.'” Earlier in 2004 he had said: “Jim Cameron […] was talking about doing another Alien movie. He often pondered about what he might do with Bishop, saying that somehow they messed with his brain to make him dangerous.”

starlog 170

Starlog #170, September 1991

As for James’ opinion on David Fincher’s Alien 3? The swift and off-screen deaths of Newt and Hicks, and the pulverisation (and subsequent euthanisation) of Bishop were two points of contention. But Cameron wasn’t completely condemnatory towards the film. “I actually think that Alien 3 is a pretty good piece of work, in terms of film-making,” he said. “Fincher early on showed what he had as a film-maker, and I think the film has some great stuff in it, some beautiful photography.”

“But,” he added, “it’s hard for me to watch, because it feels like such a slap in the face to the people who have invested in the story through the first two films. I understand his reasons for doing it, but I think the best way to do a sequel is to honour the original and be original and creative in your own way. He was original and creative in his own way, but at the expense of the previous film and what a lot of people might have invested in that story up at that time. It makes it difficult for me to watch the film.”

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Biomechanoids

Alien Warrior

“Tight on several walls and ceiling niches as they come alive. Bone-like, tube-like shapes shift, becoming emerging Aliens. Dimly glimpsed, glints of slime. Silhouettes…”
~ Aliens script.

Recreating the star beast of Alien was arguably the sequel’s most deciding task. HR Giger’s original creature had reached near-mythic status among science-fiction and horror fans, but Aliens writer and director James Cameron wanted to do more than simply recreate the first eponymous Alien – he wanted to adapt Giger’s monster to the new, more grounded environment of Hadley’s Hope, reshape it for war whilst staying true to the original design, and make additions to the creature’s overall mythos without veering too wildly away from O’Bannon and Giger’s creation.

Copying Giger wholesale would have been straightforward, but Cameron felt that doing so would be a cop-out, and as an artist and designer himself, he wanted to have an influence on the Alien’s appearance. One immediate problem to tackle was the sheer number of creatures assaulting the screen.

Given that the budget would only allow the creation of several Alien suits (the original had been manufactured at the cost of more than $250,000) and considering that the original suit made several movements “impossible” (according to performer Bolaji Badejo), Cameron and Winston found that slavishly re-creating it was not a viable move to make. Instead, they used black unitards and pieced parts of the Alien form over the top of the material. As the emphasis was on merely suggesting the look and shape of the creature, rather than over-exposing it, the dark unitard would be hidden in shadow, with only the highlights of the Alien marauders visible in the strobing lights and muzzle flash.

The script for the first encounter between the Colonial Marines and the Aliens constantly refers to the creatures in physically ambiguous terms, describing them as “nightmarish figure[s]”, “dark shapes”, “silhouettes”, and the encounter itself as a “battle of phantoms” – though you saw more Aliens, you didn’t see more of them.

Xenomorph: Gorman refers to the unknown alien as a “Xenomorph”, a supposedly generic term in the USCM for an unidentified alien being. The term itself is a carry-over from an earlier Cameron project called Mother. “In Mother, humans have plundered Earth and look to exploit another planet,” explained Cameron. “In addition to mines on this planet, the Company sets up stations devoted to research and development. Because the planet’s environment is dangerous to humans, a ‘xenomorph,’ my term for a genetically engineered alien creature, is created based on a local life form in order to serve the needs of the Company.”

For Alien, Ridley Scott opted to show his creature in quick cuts or in the flash of a stroboscopic light for several reasons. Firstly, the suit was so unwieldy and cumbersome that it looked ridiculous when fully exposed. “It helped that the creature was so bad,” stated HR Giger, “because Ridley could only show it in glimpses.”

Nick Allder told Don Shay at Cinefex: “At one point the script called for it to run up and down the corridors like a human being; but when we finally got the finished costume … we found it would look ridiculous to see this thing running around – it would give the whole thing away immediately.”

The original Alien suit was meticulously crafted, but ultimately unwieldy and cumbersome. Many shots took an inordinate amount of time to set up and film, and most footage was thrown away. Cameron’s Alien suits on the other hand would be inhabited by dancers and gymnasts who needed maximum mobility. Here, we can also see Giger’s ribbed cranium and spike design, which was brought back to the surface for the sequel.

Stan Winston and his team crafted a series of 8 foot tall Alien puppets that could be set into inhuman poses and could also be rigged to explode when fired upon, spraying acid in all directions. The team also exposed Giger’s ridged cranium and smoothed over the eye sockets to retain the eyeless menace of the creature, though two barely legible indents mark the sockets.

Cameron’s Aliens would be required to run, leap, vault, crawl, climb, descend, and spring from the floor as well as the ceiling. Such movements were planned for Alien, but scrapped due to the suit’s logistics. During filming of the original, performer Bolaji Badejo bowed out of the Brett death scene due to discomfort: “I couldn’t do it,” he told Cinefantastique, “I was held up by a harness around my stomach, and I was suffocating trying to make these movements.”

Badejo also claimed that when crawling out of the bulkhead space inside the Narcissus, the Alien suit would split almost every time: “I must’ve ripped the suit two or three times coming out, and each time I’d climb down, the tail would rip off!”

Ridley had also planned sequences with the Alien roaring towards Dallas in the vents, “running and jumping full-circle around the walls” to snatch the Nostromo’s captain, but the logistics of the suit (in addition to being unable to build tunnel-like vent sets) curbed these ideas. “Ridley had a lot more ideas than what you see on the screen,” Badejo elaborated, “but some things were impossible.”

Considering the athletic abilities required for the new movie, the original suit’s fragility and cumbersome fit was not something that could be tolerated for the sequel. James Cameron: “I put the old [Alien] suit on myself, so that I could understand from standing outside what it was like to be inside … And I couldn’t see anything. I knew I would never get the kind of movements I wanted from the actors in that suit.”

He explained further: “I went more for motion as opposed to design. We kept the design more or less the same as [Alien] … We spent most of our R&D time on motion because I thought that quick blurring, lizard-like, or insect-like leap was more important than the physical, sculptural design of the suit. And I think that that’s a mistake that a lot of make-up and prosthetics people make when they’re dealing with this sort of thing is that they lavish all their attention on the sculptural detail –the surface texture, etc.– and they fail to realize that people need very few pixels of information to identify a human figure, and most of that identification is through motion. The way we walk is so ingrained in us mentally that you can see it just like that. So what we did was we actually re-designed the suit and made it simpler and less sophisticated and basically freed it so that it was much more flexible.”

“The silhouette of the Alien was the most important thing, and we were able to get that with these suits that were literally black leotards with pieces glued onto them. That gave the performers complete mobility, which allowed Jim to put them on wires and make them crawl up walls and flip the camera upside down so that it looked as if they were scurrying across the ceiling.”
~ Stan Winston, The Winston Effect, 2006.

“I think the biggest design changes when you went from Alien to Aliens was the fact that, technically, the suits were far simplified. That was in an effort to gain them maximum mobility. Cameron knew exactly how he was gonna shoot these things. He knew how it was going to be an interplay between shadow and light on these things. That was the whole element of the Aliens that he wanted to get across on film, seeing the movement of living creatures coming out of the dark and into the light, moving through the light and never really focusing, never studying them.”
~ Tom Woodruff, Making of Aliens, 2003.

One problem for the production was replicating the immense size of the Aliens. “For Alien,” explained Cameron, “they went out of their way to find a very tall person to be inside the suit – Bolaji Badejo was something like seven feet tall. We knew right off that we weren’t going to find ten people who were seven feet tall.”

Cameron’s concerns were allayed when he realised that Badejo only featured in certain scenes, with some of the first, infamous shots of the creature with Brett and Dallas being played by the smaller Eddie Powell. With careful editing and suggestion, Ridley Scott had fooled many viewers into thinking the Alien was consistently large.

“In studying Alien,” said Cameron, “we found that there was really only one shot in the entire film that shows a direct scale relationship between the creature and a human being. In all other shots, it exists separately in the frame.”

Cameron utilised Scott’s power of suggestion and editing, whilst eight-foot-tall puppets crafted by Stan Winston filled in for a larger performer (so technically speaking, the Aliens in the sequel are a full foot taller than Badejo. Or at least the puppets are.) Stunt performer Eddie Powell, who played the Alien as it kills Brett and snatches Dallas, also returned to don the suit.

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Bolaji as the Alien, contrasted to Stan Winston’s 8 foot tall puppets

To aid them in the specifics of the Alien’s design, Twentieth Century Fox shipped the original suit to Winston’s crew. “Our shop used to be on Parthenia Street,” explained Winston employee Shane Mahan, “and Stan says, ‘Look, there’s a big crate coming from London, about the size of a coffin and when it comes in, we have got to take a look at what is inside.’ … Fox had sent us the original suit … we uncrated it and of course the horrible smell of decaying rubber and sweat and all of that came pouring out, but there at the bottom of this thing were all of the components to what Giger had built. It was ratty and a bit torn up, but it was like, ‘There it is! There’s the monster right there!’ It was astonishing … It was definitely an inspiration.”

When they looked at the suit they found it was littered with bottle caps, macaroni pieces, oysters, bones, as well as pieces of a Rolls-Royce, all embedded onto the suit and sprayed black. For their own suits, instead of tacking and sewing pieces onto the rubber, they opted to form the tubing and pipes as small cohesive wholes or plates that could simply be glued onto the spandex undersuits in easy-to-fit chunks.

Stan Winston: “Details that were obviously tacked onto the first one -little hoses and things- we worked at in a sculptural way so that the organic and inorganic elements blended together better.”

 “We pulled this thing [the original Alien suit] out of a crate, and it was unbelievable to see how it had been constructed. It had black, hand-painted macaroni pieces glued all over it to give it texture, with black-painted bottle caps at the waist. And the feet were just black Converse tennis shoes, covered with a slip-latex skin! When we got this thing out, put it on a mannequin, and saw it in broad daylight, it was amazing to see what Ridley Scott had gotten away with just by using slime and careful lighting and the right camera angles.”
~ Howard Berger, The Winston Effect, 2006.

Though the body remained the same between the first two films, and the feet and hands received only minor adjustments, the most obvious change was to the Alien’s head. For the original film, HR Giger designed a ‘ribbed’ cranium with a skull placed at the forefront. This head was covered up with the famous dome, hiding the design underneath (though it can be spotted in some behind-the-scenes shots.) Initially, the Aliens of the sequel were to also have domed heads, but when Cameron considered the logistics he ordered that they were removed in favour of the ribbed head underneath.

Winston employee Alec Gillis explained: “We built [the suits] so that they were more durable; they could go on and off quickly and that they wouldn’t have pieces that might be more susceptible to breaking. For instance, the dome on the Alien, Jim [Cameron] just wanted to remove it, he thought it would be a hassle, was afraid of it cracking or it having to be replaced – we’d have to cut [filming] and switch the dome [if it broke mid-shot.]”

Winston Studios employee Shane Mahan elaborated further: “We built it [a domed Alien head] and it looked beautiful. We built it in England and we put it all together and thought it looked great and then Jim said, ‘Take the dome off. Those are going to come off and fall or maybe break during all of the stunts.’ We were like, ‘No, you can’t!’ He had us remove it and that became its own look there for a long time, sort of a more streamlined thing, but it was originally meant to have that piece on it. I think someplace we have photos of it. We all loved the first movie. We wanted to… almost to a fault… where we were trying to replicate it so much and Jim would say, ‘No, let’s make it our own thing! It’s got to be kind of its own creature,’ and we finally got the concept and what he was trying to do.”

Aside from being more feasible from a technical standpoint, Cameron also liked the design of the ridged head, feeling it was a worthy enough feature to adopt as part of the Alien’s physical aesthetic. “We planned to [have a domed head] with ours,” he explained in The Winston Effect, “and to that end Stan Winston had Tom Woodruff sculpt up a ribbed, bone-like understructure that would fit underneath and be slightly visible through the cowl. When it was finished, they gave it a real nice paint job, and then I took a look at it and I said, ‘Hey, this looks much more interesting the way it is.’ So we ditched the cowl and decided that this was just another generation of Aliens – slightly mutated.'”

To stay faithful to the eyeless menace of Kane’s Son, Cameron smoothed over the front carapace of the Alien’s head, excising the skull and leaving the creature faceless and unknowable (Cameron’s explanation of the fear-provoking nature of the Alien was that it was predominately all teeth – the last thing you see before being devoured by a predator.)

Though the design was essentially his own, HR Giger missed the domed head from the original movie when watching Aliens, as much as he liked the sequel, commenting: “Aliens was also terrific. I am sorry I was not asked to work on it. At first I thought, ‘This is like a war film,’ but it is really powerful. But I didn’t like the ribbed cranium of the Alien warrior, although you couldn’t see the Aliens very much. However I loved the Alien Queen designed by James Cameron.”

Alien heads.

The lycra/spandex suits with pieces glued on top.

Cameron called Aliens a war film, and in war films there are casualties on both sides, and sometimes you have to be Machiavellian or even self-destructive in order to win or preserve your society as a whole, and the Aliens in the sequel do precisely that. The Alien in the first film was likened to, by Dan O’Bannon  an inexperienced and curious child, albeit an extraterrestrial one: “It’s never been subject to its own culture, it’s never been subject to anything except a few hours in the hold of the ship.” Ridley described it as a self-propagating machine, a “biomechanical insect.”

The Aliens of the second film were likened to the Viet Cong or guerrilla fighters in that they are a hidden, nigh-on irrepressible, non-technological and not-at-all battle shy force. They’ve been to war before with the colonists. They’re essentially an army. They manage to mobilise themselves before demoralising and decimating their enemy. James Cameron told Starlog magazine: “The Aliens are terrifying in their overwhelming force of numbers. The dramatic situations emerging from characters under stress can work just as well in an Alamo or Zulu Dawn as they can in a Friday the 13th, with its antagonist.”

When the Marines wander inside the Alien nest, they find … nothing. At first. The biomechanic appearance of the Aliens allows them to meld perfectly within the walls of the Hive. They slide out of their holes and the walls begin to treacle down towards the troopers on the ground…

ANGLE ON WALL as something begins to emerge. Dimly glimpsed, a glistening bio-mechanoid creature larger then a man. Lying dormant, it had blended perfectly with the convoluted surface of fused bone. The troopers don't see it. Smoke from the burning cocoons quickly fills the confined space. Visibility drops to zero...

ANGLE ON WALL as something begins to emerge. Dimly glimpsed, a glistening bio-mechanoid creature larger then a man. Lying dormant, it had blended perfectly with the convoluted surface of fused bone. The troopers don’t see it. Smoke from the burning cocoons quickly fills the confined space. Visibility drops to zero…

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The Insect Influence

“What makes things baffling is their degree of complexity, not their sheer size; a star is simpler than an insect.”
~ Martin Rees, Scientific American, 1999.

“The Alien franchise bases its Xenomorph life cycle on parasitic wasps on Earth,” Terry Johnson, a bio-engineering researcher at the University of California, told Popular Mechanics. “It’s a pleasure to see a film that acknowledges just how weird life can be.” But despite the blatant insectile nature of the Alien (specifically its four-staged life cycle and cocooning) and despite O’Bannon, Ron Cobb, Ron Shusett, HR Giger, and Ridley Scott being clear on the issue, fans have been reluctant to admit the insect influence on the original creature, instead brushing it off as an addition made by James Cameron in the 1986 sequel. However, in light of the evidence pointing to the original Alien makers being heavily and happily influenced by insects, attributing this to Cameron is akin to blaming wet streets for rain.

“Works of fiction weren’t my only sources,” explained Alien writer Dan O’Bannon in his reflective essay, Something Perfectly Disgusting. “I also patterned the Alien’s life cycle on real-life parasites … parasitic wasps treat caterpillars in an altogether revolting manner, the study of which I recommend to anyone tired of having good dreams…” The connection between the Alien and insect reproductive cycles was so crucial that O’Bannon identified it as of “core psychological significance” before quoting biology and science journalist Carl Zimmer: “when an alien bursts out of a movie actor’s chest … it is nature itself that is bursting through, and it terrifies us.”

“I modelled [the Alien] after microscopic parasites that moved from one animal to the next and have complex life-cycles,” Dan explained. “I just enlarged the parasite. I was interested in the biology of aliens, so I wasn’t interested in streamlining the thing below interest level just for the sake of economy.” Ron Shusett, Alien‘s executive producer and friend to O’Bannon, told Cinefantastique: “It was our idea that it would be the life cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyse it, and lay its eggs in the spider … that we did want it to be …. We thought people might pick up on it and say, ‘yeah, an alien life cycle can be an insect life cycle.'”

Alien and Aliens conceptual artist Ron Cobb further explained the origins of the chestburster scene: “He got that from the paralysing wasp … it paralyses the spider and lays its eggs on the spider, then buries it in the ground so that the living spider serves as food for the wasp larva and you know, he always was so horrified at that idea.” Dan’s widow Diane O’Bannon reiterated this with scpr.com in 2014: “It’s the chest-burster scene — that’s what we call it. That was his concept. Basically from an insect that he read about that laid its eggs in other creatures and burst out, so that’s where the inspiration came for that one, and it sure was horrifying.”

In the 1999 DVD commentary, Ridley Scott explains: “The whole notion of this [creature] was taken off a certain kind of insect that will find a host, lay its eggs, and then in that host it will bury its eggs, and then of course the eggs will grow and consume the host. So that’s the logic of it all. Probably what makes a lot of nature go around.”

“I wanted him [the Alien] to be insect-like. Like an ant. Because if you examine an ant under a microscope they’re kind of elegant, and I wanted him to be very elegant and dangerous.”
Ridley Scott, The Alien Saga, 2002 (archival interview from 1991)

“We decided to make a very elegant creature: quick, and like an insect.”
HR Giger, Cinefex, 1979.

Many fans find the comparison to insects to be demeaning, probably because the words “bug” and “insect” are often used as pejorative terms (interestingly, nineteenth century writer Lafcadio Hearn documented that in China and Japan ants were considered to be Man’s superior in terms of social structure, longevity, ethics, etc.) But the insect world is one of complete brutality and wondrous, if not terrible, feats of strength and will and ingenuity. Murder, theft, displacement, and slavery is routine. Regicide is often simply a matter of succession. Like Mankind, ants are known to mobilise armies in order to annihilate rivals, a behaviour not even in the realm of our ape cousins, who in comparison engage in turf war rather than full-scale organised and destructive aggression.

It’s not that the insect world is a disordered one -creatures such as ants live in incredibly complex social systems- but that it is an amoral one, where even acts of reproduction require the painful death of a mate or parent insect. Praying Mantis’ devour their mates from the head down mid-coitus; pseudacteon flies lay larva which feed on a host’s brain before they decapitate and erupt from their heads; and botflies turn living bodies (animal and human) into colonies of larvae.

“A rather beautiful, humanoid, biomechanoid insect,” said Ridley Scott of Giger’s Alien designs. The artist’s Necronom images featured an Alien with bug-like eyes, as did his initial design for the movie, seen above. These were removed when Giger was told that they were reminiscent of a Hell’s Angel. Removing the eyes and attaining the eyeless dome did not stop insect comparisons, with Scott commenting: “whether [the Alien] could see, or simply sense like an insect, I didn’t need ever have to answer that question.”

Sex and insects weren’t new to fiction when represented in Alien, with the topic matter going as far back as the English metaphysical poet John Donne’s The Flea, published in 1633. Donne’s poem is narrated by a young man who watches as a fly suckles at his flesh, then moves to feed on a woman he desires. The poet’s language is very sexual throughout, and he notes: “Me it suck’d first, and now sucks thee, and in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” The insect has brought the two together, and the two are now also part of the insect, the creature’s innards now their “marriage bed … cloysterd in these living walls of jet.”

Where Donne’s poem was somewhat comical as well as sexual, O’Bannon’s Alien would focus not on sexual love, but rape, and not on bonding via the transmission of fluids, but on parasitism, all derived from the horrors of the insect world.

“[The Alien’s acid blood] reminded [Dan] of these ants that spray jets of acid to combat enemy ants … At the time of Alien, he had to consult books, watch documentaries, and it took time, but today you just have to explore the web for videos or amazing photographs that make you exclaim, ‘but who designed this?’ before you remember that it is the work of Nature.”
~ Ridley Scott, L’Ecran Fantastique, 2012.

And, as O’Bannon attests, horror abounds in insect circles. At roughly 1700x bigger, it’s easy for a human being to miss the potency and lethality of an ant. Relative to their size, ant muscles are bigger than those of humans, which enables the creatures to lift objects up to fifty times their own weight.

Driver ants, also known as army ants, live on the move, only stopping to establish temporary colonies formed entirely out of their own bodies, much like the nest structures seen in Aliens as well as in Alien’s deleted material. The ants link together using their mandibles, as well as spines and hooks attached to their limbs. These living nests are called bivouacs, can shelter a queen, and come complete with walls and tunnels. When it’s time to move on, the nomadic army ants dissemble and become marching columns that swallow anything in their path, often killing literally thousands of other creatures in a single day, from other insects and spiders, to birds and other large mammals. The ants’ mandibles are solely for killing, crushing, cutting, maiming, and dismembering, as the creatures are only capable of swallowing liquids.

“Gordon Carrol and I talked about this many times,” Ridley Scott explained, “You know, should we indicate the Alien has intelligence? Or great intelligence? Or is it just a time bomb, is it just a war machine? Are those eggs simply war machines? … Ants have, I think, no sense of beginning or end. They just are born, run around doing this thing like everybody else in the community, and die. And I think that may have been the Alien. So, maybe the Alien had no intelligence except pure intuition about survival. Right?”

Egg silo by HR Giger, embedded into the underbelly of the derelict spacecraft like, in Giger’s words, a termite nest. Originally, the eggs were to be housed inside a pyramid structure, but budget and time forced the filmmakers to economise. “[W]e had to combine the derelict ship and the hatchery silo,” said Giger. “I thought we could place the egg silo under the ship, a bit like termites do.” He concluded, “we decided it would be a good idea to have these eggs inside the derelict like termites inside the walls of a house.” Image copyright HR Giger.

To sum up the insectile traits of the Alien:

  • The parasitic life cycle: The Alien is a parasitoid, needing a host in order to reproduce, like parasitic wasps. Ron Cobb identified the paralysing wasp as influencing O’Bannon. These wasps paralyse potential hosts and implant their seed along with a virus that suppresses the immune system which allows the larvae to grow undetected by the host. The large, formidable looking ovipositor of the Ichneumon wasp is not used to sting and wound, but to sting and impregnate.
    The Alien can be more accurately described as a protolean being, defined by Wikipedia as creatures “that begin the growing phase of their lives as parasites, and in particular, typically as internal parasites. As a rule they end that phase of their lives parasitoidally by killing or consuming the host, and then they emerge as free-living adults.”
  • Larval, pupal, and adult life-stages: From the egg comes the facehugger, the first stage of the Alien life-cycle. The facehugger’s function is to locate, subdue, and impregnate a host via its proboscis. The impregnated host is the pupae stage. Once the Alien violently emerges from the host it must shed its skin and grow in order to become an adult. Butterflies go through a growing process known as Complete Metamorphosis – meaning its adult stage is completely different to its larval stage, as is the adult Alien from its infanthood as a chestburster. Once the chestburster has shed its skin (as most insects do, usually shedding exoskeletons numerously into adulthood) it leaves behind the instar stage of its life and becomes an adult.
  • Cocooning: The Cicada Killer Wasp cocoons its prey near the eggs of its young so that the newly hatched wasps have a food source. In Alien, the Alien cocoons Dallas and Brett not to feed on them, but for reproduction (though in early scripts, the Alien did eat parts of its cocooned hosts – it even ate Lambert whole in one version.) In Aliens, the colonists are abducted, subdued, and embedded into the walls of the hive to await death. In scripted, but unfilmed, portions of Alien 3, the prisoners were to come across the Alien’s nest, where they discover a cocooned Superintendent Andrews along with other half-eaten bodies. The characters identify the nest as a “meat locker”, presumably where the Alien stores hosts and food for its inbound Queen.

All of these elements bar the cocooning were present in the theatrical release of Alien. We see the Alien progress through the various stages of its life, getting a glimpse of some shedded skin along the way and even hints of the creature’s limited lifespan – “I wanted a sense of a timeless, slightly decaying creature that, maybe, only has a limited life cycle of, maybe, four days like an insect,” said Ridley Scott, adding: “the Alien lifeform lived to reproduce … [Ripley] killed it, but it would have died soon anyway. It’s like a butterfly.”

The Alien’s apparently impending demise was telegraphed through its lethargy aboard the Narcissus shuttle, in addition to a (hardly apparent) disintegrating paint job on the creature suit. In Aliens, the creatures at Hadley’s Hope are weeks old, scuppering the idea of a severely limited lifespan – with this in mind, we can easily chalk up the original Alien’s lethargy to it entering hibernation, much like the Aliens within the Atmosphere Processor before they are disturbed by the Colonial Marines.

The Alien and bacteria: Ash describes the facehugger as having “an outer layer of protein polysaccharides.” The polysaccharide comment may be a nod to bacteria, which are known to secrete protective slime layers usually composed of polysaccharides and protein, which helps the bacteria protect itself from antibiotics and even chemical sterilisation. Such layers also aid in attaching bacteria to other cells, and also as food, or rather, energy stores. The facehugger’s protective coating not only serves to protect the organism, but also helps any regenerative healing properties and keeps the creature energised (they do face a potentially long hibernation)… Either that, or the scriptwriters thought it merely sounded like an intelligent thing for Ash to say.

Insectile additions to the Alien life-cycle in the sequel:

  • The hive: like ants and most wasps (not all are eusocial), the Aliens adopt a functionalist, hierarchical social system. Contrary to popular belief, this does not consist of drones and warriors. Cameron scripted Alien drones in his 1983 treatment but cut them in the next draft. When JamesCameronOnline asked John Rosengrant if the drones even reached any preliminary design stages, he answered: “Not really, as far as I remember.” Cameron himself explained that the term ‘Alien Warrior’ was not to denote two different kinds of Alien (as is often mistaken) but was merely “my term for the single adult seen in Alien.” The expanded universe and fanon generated the idea that domed and ribbed head Aliens represent two different castes, but this has no basis in the release version of Aliens and perhaps belongs and owes its popularisation more to the comic books and games.
  • The Alien Queen: The Alien society within the hive consists of adult Aliens and their mother, the Queen. Unlike ants or termites, the Alien Queen does not have a need for a male counterpart (ants employ drones, and termites have kings to impregnate the queen). Like the creature in Alien, the Queen is ambi-sextrous, a hermaphrodite, capable of reproducing without the seed of a male. “There are insects like that [androgynous, asexual]” Ridley Scott said of his Alien, “so we based that on a little bit of good old Mother Nature.” The original creature was at first envisioned as a female, before becoming thought of as a  hermaphrodite by Scott once Bolaji Badejo was cast (initial efforts to cast a tall, thin woman failed). The Queen likely carries a feminine title (just as the first Alien was dubbed “Kane’s Son”) for clarity and because we tend to struggle without gender-specific labels (though it should be noted that Cameron referred to the Aliens in a male/female capacity – though he also noted that they can change gender if a Queen is present or absent).

It’s usually thought that the insect elements began and ended with Cameron, but in fact not only did they begin with Dan O’Bannon, but they were continued and pursued even by David Fincher for Alien 3. The parasitism and Queen (or an embryo, at least) returned from previous installments, but the third film’s Alien seemed to have picked up new abilities – firstly, we see it spit a wad of acid into a prisoner’s face, very much like some warrior ants who can even ‘self-destruct’ upon injury, drenching their enemies in toxins in the process. Furthermore, climbing, crawling Aliens in Aliens tended to need support, especially when crawling upside down, as the invading Aliens do during the Operations attack in Aliens. Fincher’s Alien, however, didn’t need any support at all:

Aliens hold on to piping for support…

…but not the “Runner”, who sticks to the ceilings like-

-an insect. Director David Fincher told Cinefex, “We wanted the creature to walk on the ceilings and really sell the idea that this thing is a bug from outer space.”

Alien 3 also carries the dubious honour of being the first film in the series where a character outright calls the creature a bug, seen when Morse mocks the lead-drenched Alien, calling out, “I hate bugs!”

Ridley returned to bugs to help with Prometheus’ creature concepts. Writer Jon Spaihts told Empire magazine: “Ridley is a great and ghoulish collector of horrible natural oddities, real parasites and predators from the natural world. He had a tremendous file of photography of real, ghastly creatures from around the world – they’re chilling, some of them! He would tell these tales with relish, of wasps that would drill into the backs of beetles and plant larvae, or become mind-control creatures. Terrible things happen, especially the smaller you get. As you get into the insect world or the microbial world, savage atrocities are perpetrated by one creature on another. And Ridley was thrilled with all of them. They inspired a lot of the designs and a lot of the ideas we tried.”

From the fears and morbid interests of Dan O’Bannon, through Ridley Scott’s research into insects, and Ron Shusset’s declaration that an insect life-cycle was the intention, it cannot be denied that the Alien is an amalgamation of horrific insectoid sexual aesthetics and traits, which contributed not only to the nightmare inducing nature of the creature, be its abilities, its visage, its growth cycle, but to its integrity as a space dwelling avatar of death as well. Strip the monster of all insectile traits and nothing reminiscent of the series’ Alien is left. Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3 managed to equilibrate the sexual and insectile overtones to create a startling, original beast, an equilibrium upset in the expanded universe and spin-offs, which saw a dilution of the creature’s sexual elements and subsequent diminishing returns.

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