“[Acheron] is a feature in the ninth circle, I believe, in Dante Alighieri’s Hell,” James Cameron said in an 1986 interview. “There never was a name for the planet in the original film, so I made up one. [Acheron] seemed to be the sort of thing that some sort of colonist who had a literary bent might have named the place.”
Ridley Scott’s Alien presented space exploration as a tedious, blue-collar affair inhabited by glorified truckers, miners, and low-level officers. Aliens would do the same, and expanded the universe not only by presenting grunts in space, but by opening up a space frontier inhabited by colonists and planetary immigrants. These space frontiers face a gruelling life on the miserable planetoid now designated LV-426: the sun burns cold and even daylight is bleak; the terrain is malformed; near-perpetual storms lash across the surface; and bolts of lightning sear at the earth.
“The ugly little planet had been an anonymous alpha-numeric on the star charts until the first survey team christened it ACHERON, after the frozen swamp at the center of the ninth circle of Dante’s Hell [see Trivia 1# ~ Valaquen] With a stubborn optimism characteristic of hardy frontier types throughout history, the people of the colony ECA/C486 call their little community ‘Hadley’s Hope’, after one of the founding members. That’s what the sign set in concrete pylons between the landing field and the main complex reads, or would at least, if gale-force winds hurling rain laced with carbonic acid hadn’t corroded the paint off it. The terraforming stations dotted around the planetoid have succeeded in warming and oxygenating the atmosphere sufficiently so that closed spacesuits are no longer required. Near the equator, where the colony is located, it is usually above freezing. Unfortunately, the terraforming plants create almost perpetual nasty weather, the birth pains of a new ecosystem. The colonists have so far achieved a state of continuous freezing rain…”
~ Aliens treatment, by James Cameron, 1983.
In the planet’s current state, livestock seems unable to thrive, likely leaving the colonists with a poor diet. The climate forces them into boxed-in, pre-packaged blocks. The only light is largely artificial. A stormwall protects the colony from the worst of the howling wind, but the persistent rain turns the ground into muck. Settlers in the American Frontier of the 19th century, if they were lucky enough, often came to rely on Native American generosity to survive during harsh winters. Poisonous snakes and rival missionaries were legitimate hazards, along with starvation, disease, and misadventure. Cameron’s space settlers, however, are only connected to civilisation by the thinnest of threads and the greatest of distances, and are apparently forced to be completely autonomous on a world that Dan O’Bannon described as a “baneful little storm-lashed planetoid, halfway across the galaxy.”
Trivia 1# “It’s a frozen swamp,” Cameron says of the mythical Acheron, though he confuses it with Cocytus, the frozen lake that lies at the nadir of the ninth circle, within which stands an entrapped Satan. Acheron, in Greek myth as well as Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, is a river that serves as the outer boundary of Hell/Hades. Virgil, who leads the Pilgrim through the circles of Hell, describes the periphery of Acheron in Canto III as a “sorrowful shore”. The rivers of Hell -Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon- all conjoin at a lower point to lead to Cocytus. Though Cameron mixes up the two, the imagery is no less potent: “Here sighs and cries and shrieks of lamentation echoed throughout the starless air of Hell …”
Trivia 2# Who is Hadley? According to the treatment, s/he is one of the founding members of the colony. But what makes this person so distinguishable? According to the crew dossiers seen in the inquest scene from Aliens, Kane, some years before the events of Alien, was a medical student who abused medication, resulting in his hospitalisation. He subsequently underwent “psychological reorientation” at Mann Hadley’s medical clinic. It’s not a stretch to conclude that this enigmatic, likely famous public figure is also the namesake for the colony on LV-426. Whether s/he was a technological pioneer, business-person, or a Curie-esque figure, we can only imagine.
“It’s a raw and primal world,” Cameron said, describing Acheron. “Windswept, not a place you’d wanna live.” Why exactly people would leave Earth for the space colonies is addressed in one early iteration of the script. In the first draft is a TV commercial, only mentioned in passing by Ripley in the finished movie, that depicts the promise of space frontierism:
The wall-screen is on, blaring vapidly.
VOICE FROM VIDEO: (o.s.) Hey, Bob! I heard you and the family are heading off for the colonies!
BOB: (o.s.) Best decision I ever made, Bill. We’ll be starting a new life from scratch in a clean world. No crime. No unemployment…
“[The planet is designed] in every line and every bit of lighting and colour and everything, just to be incredibly hostile,” Cameron continues. “Wind, lightning, rain. These tormented rock forms that are eroded by the wind into strange shapes. And then it’s all very dark and shadowy and when you look at these shapes sometimes you see things that aren’t there … I wanted to say, ‘this is definitely unlike anything that exists on Earth, but with points of familiarity –mountains, clouds, rain, that sort of thing– and using that to create a sensation, not of something that’s inhuman and bizarre, but just of a place that’s very, very difficult to survive in.”
To design the colony, Cameron sought out Ron Cobb, a friend to Dan O’Bannon who also designed the Nostromo from the original movie, and who also contributed to the idea of the Alien having acid blood. As with Alien, where O’Bannon bounced preliminary ideas and plot difficulties with his artist friend, Cobb found himself happily collaborating with the sequel’s writer when it came to designing the film: “There was always a lot of collaboration with Jim,” he explained, “because he always had a sketch or two and contributed. Then I’d go into the details … I did the airlock and the colony control room. I did all that and I did all the labs, and all the operating rooms and certainly most of all of the colony, really. The casino and a cafe and the lousy weather and such. It all just fell into place.”
Hadley’s Hope is cut into three distinct areas. First is the main complex, which houses Operations, and where we spend the majority of the film. Next up is the frontier town, which holds the bar and clubs. Finally, in the distance, is the Atmosphere Processor. Also on the outskirts of the colony is the Airfield, which is where the dropship deploys the APC.
The colony is described by I.C.C. executive, Van Leuwen, as a “shake n’ bake” project, a term often used to denote something that has been pre-made and quickly pieced together at low cost and effort. The laserdisc notes that “the frontier town was supposed to look like cargo containers and other scraps strung together to form a liveable environment. The concept here was that the colonists would dismantle their spaceships in order to create their new living quarters and towns.”
The colonists’ feelings of dissatisfaction with their adopted world can be seen in the film: upon the Hadley’s Hope sign someone has scrawled a sardonic have a nice day message, and in one piece of concept art another disgruntled colonist has written this place sucks by the stormwall entranceway. Inside, the colonists we meet seem weary and harried by their work and environment. Milling around the colony are several vehicles designed by Ron Cobb, some with their own nicknames (“Wee Hulk”, “Iron Fairy”) bestowed on them by the film’s model makers.
Cameron explained further: “the colonists that live there are like pioneers in a very unforgiving climate, and they work very hard to get a toehold.” Cameron describes the inhabitants in his scriptment as thus: “Tough. Pragmatic. Grapes of Wrath faces. Calloused hands.” The inside of the colony, specifically the Operations room, is ramshackle but functional: “Jammed with computer terminals, technicians, displays … most of the business of running the colony flows through here. It’s high tech but used and scrungy. Papers piled up. Coffee cup rings.”
For the general aesthetics of Hadley’s Hope, Cameron pushed for a cynical sort of pre-packaged, assembly line look to the buildings. “I figured the colony would have a more straightforward, rudimentary-type technology,” said Cameron. The modular colony buildings were envisioned as being pre-fabricated and ready for a quick assembly on the planet’s surface. Cobb explained that he designed the buildings as “long hexagonal, cylinder-type things that could be transported intact, lowered into place from some sort of hovercraft, and then mounted on huge concrete piers.” The colony’s model builder, Pat McClung, described the buildings as being built “out of giant shipping containers”. Cheap, downtrodden and weather-beaten, Hadley’s Hope is akin to a holiday home on the fringes of Hades.
Trivia 3# The Operating Manager at Hadley’s Hope, Simpson, is played by Mac McDonald, who played a similar sort of role as the exasperated Captain Hollister in the BBC TV comedy, Red Dwarf, which features another blue-collar, beaten down comedic universe seemingly inspired by Alien‘s ancestor, Dark Star. The Assistant Operations Manager, Lydecker, is played by William Armstrong (credited as Bill), who played Lau’s lawyer in The Dark Knight, as well as a lawyer character in 1408.
The colony interiors were also designed by Cobb, but as before, Cameron provided creative input: “Jim had done some sketches of how he wanted it,” said Peter Lamont, the film’s production designer. The set designers took “old VCR decks, backs of TVs … hundreds of them” as well as aircraft scrap to decorate the corridors of the colony. “British Airways were just doing away with their ticketing computer,” Lamont explained, “and when you took the covers off, the interior was just mind boggling with kinds of boards and wiring and all that … so suddenly in the complex itself we could have great banks of this.”
The Atmosphere Processor is described in one version of the screenplay as a “roaring tower … a metal volcano thundering like God’s Lear jet”. “One of thirty on the planet,” Burke explains to Ripley, before the number was whittled down to one in the final script and film. “They’re completely automated.” The grand irony in the structure is that this life-giving machinery becomes the Alien nursery in which the colonists, men, women, and children, all meet a torturous death.
The denizens of LV-426 seem to live in their small sequestered colony with no real handle on their new world. Barren and violent, the planet does not seem to reward travellers. Explorers, such as the survey family to which Newt belongs, apparently explore the surface in an incremental way. When they stumble across the derelict ship from Alien, they are described as being beyond “the Ilium range”, which suggests a boundary of sorts, seldom reached or crossed, (“Ilium” is another Greek reference alongside “Acheron”. Ilium, in Homer’s The Iliad, is another name for the city of Troy, which finds itself besieged by the Achaean armies of Agamemnon. The ilium is also, fittingly, the largest bone in the human pelvis – apt for a world where HR Giger’s biomechanoids are resident).
The derelict’s warning beacon has long fallen silent. In Alien‘s script, storyboards, and novelisation, the crew discover the beacon device inside the derelict and deactivate it, silencing it forever. Though these scenes are not apparent in the movie, the beacon’s inactivity in the sequel is still explained by the damage wrought on the ship by seismic activity.
The derelict model itself had fallen into disrepair after Alien, but Cameron secured it for use in the sequel, with the ship being filmed in the States, as the model was in too fragile a condition to import to Pinewood. The real-life damage seen on the model ship was largely the product of time, but translated well into Aliens’ story.
Newt’s parents, excited and in awe of their discovery, venture inside. When they return, Russ Jorden’s curiosity has obviously gotten the better of him. A facehugger has latched to his head and tightens its grip around his throat. Newt’s mother lunges for the radio and calls for aid from the colony. In the original screenplay, the story continued to show us the rescue team arriving to pick up the surveyors. The team head inside the ship with Anne Jorden as a guide. They discover the Space Jockey:
INT EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL SHIP — Through the biomechanoid corridors. They pause briefly to shine their lights over the body of a huge alien … fossilised in his command seat. The figure has been half-submerged by an inpouring of volcanic ash.
As well as the Alien egg chamber:
The eggs erupt. One. Two. Three. Then a volley. Screams are muffled by the facehugging creatures….Screams echo, escalate. The chamber is a writhing, living horror.
From here, the rescue team, along with Russ Jorden, return to Hadley’s Hope with the Alien spore, and ensure the doom of the colonists. The infestation begins…