Aliens, directed by James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic), opened 30 years ago this week, and for the occasion The Bits features a compilation of box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, passages from vintage film reviews, a list of the 70-millimeter “showcase” presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with a group of Alien franchise authorities.
- 1 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
- 1 = Rank among top-earning R-rated movies of 1986 (calendar year)
- 2 = Number of Academy Awards
- 2 = Rank among top-earning R-rated movies of 1986 (legacy)
- 4 = Number of weeks nation’s top-grossing movie (weeks 1-4)
- 4 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1986 (summer season)
- 6 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1986 (calendar year)
- 7 = Number of Academy Award nominations
- 7 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
- 7 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1986 (legacy)
- 9 = Rank among Fox’s top-earning movies of all time at close of original run
- 56 = Rank among top-earning movies of the 1980s
- 59 = Rank on all-time list of top box-office earners at close of original release (rental)
- 63 = Rank on all-time list of top box-office earners at close of original release (gross)
- 151 = Number of 70mm prints
- 1,437 = Number of opening-week engagements
- $89.95 = Suggested retail price of initial home video release
- $6,995 = Opening-weekend per-screen average
- $10.1 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross
- $18.0 million = Production cost
- $39.6 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
- $42.5 million = Box-office rental (domestic)
- $85.2 million = Box-office gross (domestic)
- $93.5 million = Box-office rental (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
- $98.2 million = Box-office gross (international)
- $183.3 million = Box-office gross (worldwide)
- $187.4 million = Box-office gross (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
- $215.9 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
- $403.1 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)
A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES
“The class act thriller for many summers to come…. Guaranteed to knock the wind and wits out of you.” — Peter Travers, People
“Spectacular! For sheer intensity, Aliens is not likely to be matched by any movie this year. A triumph of bravura action.” — David Ansen, Newsweek
“[W]ritten and directed by James Cameron, the Canadian boy from Chippawa, Ont., Aliens is smartly conceived and executed, and it does contain its share of thrills and scares. But it is very much a sequel, and the element of surprise, the most invaluable of commodities in enterprises such as this, has been lost.” — Ron Base, Toronto Star
“Director James Cameron makes all the right moves. [H]e brings to Aliens a solid gift for action, pacing and excitement…. Though Aliens is unable to eschew some obvious sci-fi conventions and those of other genres as well, it brings a fresh and lively spirit to this tired cinematic clime. Scene to scene, encounter to encounter, its tension builds unrelentingly. So, fasten your seat belts. It’s a blast.” — Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
“Aliens is about nothing at all beyond squeezing yet another buck from what seven years ago was an original, arresting — and profitable — science-fiction-horror [film]. Alien was so good because it said all that needed to be said on its subject. [S]equels are superfluous, dictated by pure greed as opposed to any driving artistic compulsion.” — Richard Freedman, The (Springfield, MA) Morning Union
“One of the best science fiction movies ever!” — Michael Healy, The Denver Post
“If the sequel doesn’t equal Alien in cardiac-arrest value, it’s only because stainless-steel teeth, repulsiveness and slime have gone about as far as they could go (with John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing), then gone on to be a laughing matter in Ghostbusters.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times
“The greatest horror movie since Frankenstein!” — Scott Cain, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Long after the thrills and chills wear off, I would argue that Aliens will be remembered not for its military saltiness, but for the role that Weaver takes to full-bodied heroics.” — Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle
“Director James Cameron’s continuation of Ridley Scott’s Alien is long on brawn and short on brains. Too many Marines, too much noise, and too many acres of heavy hardware clutter up the scenery.” — Catharine Rambeau, Detroit Free Press
“[Aliens is] a sequel that exceeds its predecessor in the reach of its appeal while giving Weaver new emotional dimensions to explore.” — Richard Schickel, Time
“Aliens could have used a lot more of what made the first ill-fated voyage such a harrowing experience: creeping horror that is so cold-blooded and unspeakable you scream but nothing comes out.” — Glenn Lovell, San Jose Mercury News
“An action-thriller that women will cheer for.” — Judith Crist, WOR-TV
“In a summer of disappointing sequels, it’s a pleasure to announce that Aliens is every bit as good as the original. That said, it’s also quite different, which is probably why it succeeds where other sequels have failed.” — Marylynn Uricchio, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Talk about relentless. There probably has never been a cliffhanger as outrageous or as ingeniously sustained as Aliens, writer-director James Cameron’s absolutely smashing sequel to Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction/horror classic…. Aliens proves that a bigger budget and more elaborate special effects haven’t spoiled Cameron, and that he can still generate that involvement. In many ways, this is one sequel that improves on the original.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times
“Count me out of the fan club for this one. To me Aliens is one extremely violent, protracted attack on the senses…. Toward the end, the film resorts to placing a young girl in jeopardy in a pathetic attempt to pander to who knows what audience. Some people have praised the technical excellence of Aliens. Well, the Eiffel Tower is technically impressive, but I wouldn’t want to watch it fall apart on people for two hours.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
“The director, James Cameron, has been assigned to make an intense and horrifying thriller, and he has delivered. Weaver comes through with a very strong, sympathetic performance. The supporting players are sharply drawn. The special effects are professional. I’m giving the movie a high rating for its skill and professionalism and because it does the job it says it will do. I am also advising you not to eat before you go to see it.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“[L]ittle touches make Aliens much more fun than the run of the science-fiction genre. And its creatures are much more ingeniously mean than the gremlins of two summers ago.” — Marsha McCreadie, The (Phoenix) Arizona Republic
“[O]ne of the things that makes Aliens work is the performance of Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role from the first film. She is strong and serious and very human. And she puts to shame the spate of one-dimensional macho heroes we’ve had lately who all look like plastic imitations of each other.” — Christopher Hicks, (Salt Lake City) Deseret News
“The special-effects specialists are featured prominently in the credits that precede Aliens, and so they should be. Under the direction of James Cameron, they have put together a flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-’em up show that keeps you popping from your seat despite your better instincts and the basically conventional scare tactics.” — Walter Goodman, The New York Times
“The original Alien was a haunted-house movie, brilliantly transposed to outer space. Claustrophobia was its primary tool of terror, and it featured a gross out unparalleled in movie history. Aliens writer James Cameron had the good sense to try to make a different kind of movie. Aliens resembles less its predecessor than The Terminator.” — John Podhoretz, The Washington Times
THE 70MM ENGAGEMENTS
The following is a list of the first-run 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo premium-format presentations of Aliens in the United States and Canada. These were, arguably, the best theaters in which to experience Aliens and the only way to faithfully hear the movie’s Oscar-nominated audio mix and Oscar-winning sound effects editing. Only eleven percent of the film’s initial print run was in the deluxe, expensive-to-manufacture 70mm format. And of the 200+ new movies released during 1986, Aliens was among only sixteen to have 70mm prints produced, and the film had the highest number of large-format prints that year and the second-highest in 20th Century Fox’s history behind Return of the Jedi (1983).
For this release, Fox employed the services of Lucasfilm’s Theater Alignment Program (TAP) to evaluate and approve the theaters selected to book a 70mm print. As well, the movie was booked into as many THX-certified venues as possible.
The film’s 70mm prints were blown up from spherical 35mm photography and were pillarboxed at approximately 1.85:1. The noise-reduction and signal-processing format for the prints was Dolby “A,” and the soundtrack was Format 42 (three screen/one surround + baby boom).
A 70mm trailer for The Fly was sent out with the 70mm Aliens prints and which the distributor recommended be screened with the presentation.
The listing includes those 70mm engagements that commenced July 18th, 1986. The listing does not include any of the additional wave, mid-run upgrade, move-over, second-run, re-release or international engagements, nor does it include any of the movie’s thousands of standard 35mm engagements.
So, which North American theaters screened the 70mm version of Aliens? Read on…
- Calgary — Famous Players’ Palace
- Calgary — Famous Players’ Sunridge 5-plex
- Edmonton — Famous Players’ Londonderry Twin
- Edmonton — Famous Players’ Paramount
- Phoenix — Plitt’s Cine Capri
- Phoenix — United Artists’ Chris-Town Mall 6-plex
- Little Rock — United Artists’ Cinema City 7-plex <THX>
- Burnaby — Famous Players’ Lougheed Mall Triplex
- Vancouver — Famous Players’ Capitol 6-plex
- Alhambra — Edwards’ Alhambra Place 5-plex
- Buena Park — United Artists’ Buena Park Mall 8-plex <THX>
- Cerritos — United Artists’ Cerritos Mall Twin
- Costa Mesa — Edwards’ South Coast Plaza Triplex
- El Cajon — United Artists’ Parkway Plaza Triplex
- Hayward — United Artists’ Hayward 5-plex
- Huntington Beach — Edwards’ Charter Centre 5-plex
- Long Beach — United Artists’ Marina Marketplace 6-plex
- Los Angeles (Hollywood) — United Artists’ Egyptian Triplex
- Los Angeles (North Hollywood) — United Artists’ Valley Plaza 6-plex
- Los Angeles (Sherman Oaks) — General Cinema’s Sherman Oaks 5-plex <THX>
- Los Angeles (Westwood Village) — General Cinema’s Avco Center Triplex <THX>
- Los Angeles (Woodland Hills) — United Artists’ Warner Center 6-plex <THX>
- Marina del Rey — United Artists’ Marina Marketplace 6-plex
- Monterey — United Artists’ Cinema 70
- Mountain View — Syufy’s Century 10-plex
- National City — Pacific’s Sweetwater 6-plex
- Newark — Syufy’s Cinedome West 7-plex
- Newport Beach — Edwards’ Newport Twin
- Oakland — Renaissance Rialto’s Grand Lake 4-plex
- Orange — Syufy’s Cinedome 6-plex
- Pasadena — United Artists’ United Artists
- Pinole — Syufy’s Century 9-plex
- Redwood City — United Artists’ Redwood 6-plex
- Sacramento — Syufy’s Century 6-plex
- Sacramento — Syufy’s Cinedome 8-plex
- San Diego — United Artists’ Glasshouse 6-plex
- San Diego — United Artists’ Horton Plaza 7-plex <THX>
- San Francisco — United Artists’ Coronet
- San Rafael — Marin’s Regency 6-plex
- San Ramon — Festival’s Crow Canyon 6-plex
- Santa Barbara — Metropolitan’s Arlington
- Santa Clara — United Artists’ Cinema 150
- South San Francisco — Syufy’s Century Plaza 8-plex
- Thousand Oaks — United Artists’ Oaks Mall 5-plex
- Westminster — United Artists’ Westminster Mall Twin
- Colorado Springs — Commonwealth’s Cinema 70 Triplex
- Denver — Commonwealth’s Continental
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
- Washington — K-B’s Fine Arts
- Coral Springs — General Cinema’s Coral Square 8-plex
- Fort Lauderdale — General Cinema’s Galleria 4-plex
- Largo — AMC’s Tri-City 8-plex
- North Miami Beach — Wometco’s 163rd Street Triplex
- Orlando — General Cinema’s Colonial Promenade 6-plex
- South Miami — Wometco’s Dadeland Triplex
- Winter Park — Wometco’s Winter Park Triplex
- Atlanta — Columbia
- Atlanta — GTC’s Lenox Square 6-plex
- Kennesaw — Storey’s Town Center 8-plex
- Savannah — Litchfield’s Tara 4-plex
- Tucker — AMC’s Northlake Festival 8-plex
- Honolulu — Consolidated’s Cinerama
- Belleville — BAC’s Cinema 4-plex
- Calumet City — Plitt’s River Oaks 8-plex
- Chicago — Plitt’s Carnegie
- Evanston — M&R’s Evanston 5-plex
- Evergreen Park — M&R’s Evergreen 5-plex
- Niles — Essaness’ Golf Mill Triplex
- Norridge — M&R’s Norridge 8-plex
- Northbrook — Center’s Edens Twin
- Schaumburg — Plitt’s Woodfield 9-plex
- Overland Park — Dickinson’s Glenwood Twin
- Baton Rouge — General Cinema’s Cortana Mall Triplex
- New Orleans — General Cinema’s Robert E. Lee
- Winnipeg — Famous Players’ Metropolitan
- Catonsville — Einbinder & Brehm’s Westview 8-plex
- Boston — Sack’s Cinema 57 Twin
- Ann Arbor — United Artists’ Fox Village 4-plex
- Bloomfield Hills — Redstone’s Showcase 10-plex
- Cascade — Redstone’s Showcase 8-plex
- Harper Woods — AMC’s Eastland 7-plex
- Livonia — Nicholas George’s Mai Kai
- Southfield — Nicholas George’s Americana 8-plex
- Sterling Heights — Redstone’s Showcase 11-plex
- Troy — United Artists’ The Movies at Oakland 5-plex
- Bloomington — General Cinema’s Southtown Twin
- Roseville — United Artists’ The Movies at Pavilion Place 7-plex
- St. Louis Park — General Cinema’s Shelard Park 5-plex
- Independence — Mid-America’s Blue Ridge East 5-plex
- Richmond Heights — AMC’s Esquire 4-plex
- Springfield — Dickinson’s Century 21
- Lincoln — Commonwealth’s Cooper/Lincoln
- Omaha — Commonwealth’s Indian Hills Twin
- Las Vegas — Syufy’s Cinedome 6-plex
- Paramus — RKO Century’s Route 17 Triplex
- Sayreville — Redstone’s Amboy 12-plex
- Albuquerque — General Cinema’s Louisiana Blvd. Triplex
- Albany — Cinema Centers’ Crossgates Mall 12-plex
- Cheektowaga — AMC’s Holiday 6-plex
- Henrietta — Loews’ Towne 4-plex
- Commack — Redstone’s Commack 10-plex
- Hicksville — Town & Country’s Mid-Plaza 6-plex
- Levittown — Loews’ Nassau 6-plex
- Nanuet — United Artists’ Route 59
- New York — Loews’ 84th Street 6-plex
- New York — Loews’ Orpheum Twin
- New York — RKO Century’s Warner Twin (#1)
- New York — RKO Century’s Warner Twin (#2)
- New York — Trans-Lux’s Gotham
- Valley Stream — RKO Century’s Green Acres Triplex
- Halifax — Famous Players’ Scotia Square
- Beavercreek — Chakeres’ Beavercreek 7-plex
- Cincinnati — USA’s Carousel Twin
- Columbus — General Cinema’s Eastland Mall Twin
- Woodmere — Loews’ Village
- Oklahoma City — General Cinema’s Quail Springs Mall 6-plex
- Mississauga — Famous Players’ Square One 4-plex
- North York — Famous Players’ Town & Countrye Twin
- Ottawa — Famous Players’ Nelson
- Scarborough — Famous Players’ Cedarbrae 8-plex
- Toronto — Famous Players’ Runnymede Twin
- Toronto — Famous Players’ University
- Beaverton — Moyer’s Tanasbourne Triplex
- Portland — Luxury Theatres’ Eastgate Triplex
- Bensalem — AMC’s Premiere Twin
- Montgomeryville — Budco’s 309 9-plex
- Philadelphia — Budco’s Orleans 8-plex
- Philadelphia — Budco’s Regency Twin
- Dorval — United’s Dorval Triplex
- Laval — United’s Laval 5-plex
- Montreal — United’s Imperial <THX>
- Sainte-Foy — Cinemas Unis’ Canadien
- Addison — United Artists’ Prestonwood Creek 5-plex <THX>
- Austin — Presidio’s Arbor 4-plex <THX>
- Dallas — General Cinema’s Northpark West Twin <THX>
- Houston — General Cinema’s Galleria 4-plex
- Houston — Plitt’s West Oaks 7-plex
- San Antonio — Santikos’ Northwest 10-plex <THX>
- Riverdale — Plitt’s Cinedome Twin
- Salt Lake City — Plitt’s Crossroads Triplex
- South Salt Lake — Syufy’s Century 5-plex
- Richmond — Neighborhood’s Ridge 7-plex
- Virginia Beach — AMC’s Lynnhaven 8-plex
- Bellevue — SRO’s John Danz
- Lynnwood — SRO’s Grand Cinemas Alderwood 8-plex
- Seattle — SRO’s Northgate
- Seattle — United Artists’ Cinema 150
- Tacoma — SRO’s Tacoma Mall Twin
- Tukwila — SRO’s Southcenter
- Milwaukee — United Artists’ Southgate
- West Allis — Marcus’ Southtown 6-plex
Andrew David Clark is writing the biography of Trevor Steedman (who played Private Wierzbowski in Aliens) and is the director of Alien Encounters: Superior Fan Power Since 1979, a documentary about the fan culture that evolved around the Alien franchise. He was an Art Editor in publishing in the United Kingdom, working at The Daily Mirror, Loaded, The Big Issue and as an illustrator and photographer had works published in The Times, Total Film and Empire among others before making a career change to directing documentaries, music promos and working as a news cameraman. He lives on the road in a motorhome called RV-426.
Willie Goldman contributed materials to the Alien Quadrilogy DVD and Alien Anthology Blu-ray sets. He is the co-executive producer and co-creator of the hit Food Network series Ace of Cakes and author (with brother Duff) of The New York Times Bestseller Ace of Cakes: Inside the World of Charm City Cakes. A screenwriter and producer, Willie began his career at NBC Burbank, where he worked on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Later with Greg Kinnear, and Hang Time, and then moved on to Warner Bros. Television, where he worked on the Emmy-winning drama ER for seven seasons. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, daughter, and massive collection of Aliens memorabilia.
Harry Harris is owner/curator of The Harry Harris Aliens Collection and Archive, one of the largest collections of costumes, props and production material from Aliens. In addition to featuring the collection in both magazines and television, Harry was a key contributor to the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set and a Creative Consultant on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray set. He also served as co-producer on the documentary Alien Encounters: Superior Fan Power Since 1979, and currently works with several 20th Century Fox licensees in helping bring fresh and new Alien themed products to market.
Charles de Lauzirika is the producer of the special features on the award-winning Alien Quadrilogy DVD and Alien Anthology Blu-ray sets. Charles is an acclaimed film documentarian and DVD/Blu-ray producer with over 100 credits, including Blade Runner, Twin Peaks, Prometheus, Top Gun and The Martian. His feature directorial debut Crave, starring Ron Perlman, was released in 2013, and won multiple awards at festivals around the world. He recently produced the Star Wars: Launch Bay featurette now playing at both Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, which explores the past, present and future of the Star Wars franchise.
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Aliens worthy of celebration on its 30th anniversary?
Andrew David Clark: Aliens has just got better with time. Young people I’ve met who weren’t even born when it was released often credit it among their favorite films. That’s partly because unlike modern blockbusters that follow a formulaic, studio safe template in order to make money, films such as Alien, Aliens, Jaws and Star Wars had far more to do with passionate writing, art, design and director’s vision than much of today’s output that’s micro managed by studio executives. And the kids do notice the difference. The proof is most definitely in the pudding. There’s a reason why they prefer the older Indiana Jones movies, the older Alien movies. Like all those classics, 30 years later people still talk about Aliens, they quote lines from it, other movies and computer games still borrow from it. That’s what a classic is, a movie that transcends generations of audiences to entertain as powerfully as it did when it was first released…. Thirty years on and we’ve had conventions where the cast and fans gather to discuss all sorts of aspects of the film, often attended by people in costume dressed as colonial marines and even Aliens — it’s crazy, the love for the film that people have and it shows just how respected this movie is. And this July at San Diego ComicCon, even the director James Cameron will make a rare appearance on stage to join Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and the rest of the principal cast for a reunion that few other films can muster three decades on. It will probably be the biggest draw of the entire convention…. I attended DragonCon in Atlanta a few years ago and there were 70 colonial marines and four Aliens parading through the city center, flocked by thousands of people at the sides of the street. That’s extraordinary. Star Wars is known for that kind of thing but it would probably surprise people just how popular Aliens really is…. Aliens had a few “firsts”: mixed gender combat units; ‘Nam era subtext; Terraforming; believable Alien life cycles rooted in science and reason; smart weaponry; even wide screen monitors — back in 1985…. Okay, so some of those things may have appeared in sci-fi literature previously, like in some of Heinlein’s work but it was fresh to cinema audiences. There’s so many reasons for Aliens’ enduring appeal that I suspect somewhere people will be celebrating its 50th anniversary one day.
Willie Goldman: You’re probably asking the wrong guy, since I celebrate its worthiness constantly! Honestly, though, so many reasons. Aliens is the reason it became a “franchise.” If Alien 2 had tanked, that would have been it, but instead it did the complete opposite. Putting Empire Strikes Back aside, as a kid in the 70s and 80s, I think a lot of us were conditioned that sequels were always subpar rehashes of what’s come before — but this movie comes along, and did something that made me fall in love with storytelling: it logically followed-up on the events of the first film, but did so with a story that was absolutely unique and a fresh take. It absolutely respected the narrative trajectory of the first film, and asked the question, “Okay, if this really happened in this universe, what logically would happen next?”…. James Cameron has this scene in Terminator 2 — an action movie — where he gathers all his characters around a kitchen table and they... talk to each other. They explain the fantastical situation they are in — and it was my favorite scene in the film, because it made sense — it made it real. Way too many storytellers rely on characters simply not talking to one another in order to superficially advance the plot — but here Cameron did the opposite, and I really admire the way he thinks logically within the context of the sandboxes he plays in…. And I think this is a huge reason a lot of folks were let down by the story in Alien 3. The bad guy in 1 and 2 ain’t the alien — it’s the evil corporation and their desire to get their hands on this creature at all costs. We spent two movies where that single goal drove both plots, and logically should have been the focal point of the third film. It was the unfulfilled promise of Alien and Aliens. I always say the end of Aliens was the greatest lay-up shot in modern movie franchise history, and they totally bricked it. The set up was all there: the four survivors returning to Earth, the much heard about bio-weapons division — if that isn’t a set up for a great Alien story, I don’t know what is (ironically well followed-up and explored in alternate timelines featured in comics, books, and games)…. Maybe this is something that will ultimately get addressed in what Neill Blomkamp is championing — and as a long-time fan, I have no problem with this. Every Alien movie made begins with Ellen Ripley in a state of sleep — the role of sleeping and dreaming is even explored further in Prometheus — so if the events of 3 and 4 end up being addressed as a hypersleep dream, well, works for me. It doesn’t erase those films or events from existence — so personally I’d be happy with a new take on what happened after the events on LV-426. If you really wanted to get picky, there are certainly plenty of “tells” in Alien 3 that could allude to those events taking place in memory as opposed to the original universe (the Sulaco logo colors, the cryo tubes, etc.)…. So, all this time later, worth celebrating? Absolutely. Aliens came in at a perfect time prior the onslaught of FX-driven filmmaking — where you had this wonderful marriage of story and practical effects. It was a movie where you not only have so many creative participants firing on all cylinders, but the craftsmanship on display absolutely serves as a historical showcase of special effects techniques. So just on a technical level, if you love film it’s completely fascinating — but when you add the addition of a fantastic story, worthy of what’s come before, that’s not just the sort of thing that gets celebrated 30 years later, that’s a franchise maker.
Harry Harris: If you ask people to name five great sci-fi movies, Aliens will probably be in that list. It’s one of the greats for me, a seminal sci-fi movie up there with Star Wars, Blade Runner, Terminator (1 and 2), Predator…. I could go on!
Charles de Lauzirika: I think it’s fair to say that Aliens remains the most popular Alien movie, at least with mainstream audiences, and is still referenced throughout pop culture to this day. It’s almost impossible to go through life without hearing someone quote Hudson at some point. But more than that, I think Aliens stands as a powerful and immensely pleasing sequel that has inspired many other films, comics and video games. And I say all of that as a dyed-in-the-wool Alien purist.
Coate: Can you recall the first time you saw Aliens?
Clark: I first saw it at the cinema and I was nervous going in because I’d seen the first one when I was eleven and it gave me nightmares for ages! I think that set me up for some palpable anxiety and the movie didn’t disappoint. It was a relentless adrenaline rush of a film and I remember it being so dark, it really weighed down on you. There’s not a lot of films that achieve that; the original Dawn of the Dead is another one that succeeds in doing that. Roger Ebert expressed similar in his review of the film at the time…. People like to harp on Aliens being an action film and it is, I guess. But to simply label it as such does it an injustice, I think, because there is real horror to the film. It’s like watching someone else’s nightmare. It even starts and ends with someone asleep…. Talking of which…. I really thought that Cameron did an amazing job mimicking some of Ridley Scott’s stylistic ideas, while making a very different film at the same time. I liked the way he moved the camera in a similar manner and pace in some scenes, which helped it connect to Alien. And in the way that at times he also achieved stylistic similarities by not having music at key points, which as Ridley Scott proved, helped to make scenes more realistic…. When you get to the part where Bishop rescues Ripley and Newt in the drop ship, you’re totally satisfied that you’ve seen an amazing film and you think you’re at the end and then — bang! — you get to see Ripley suit up in the loader and she’s fighting the Queen in hand to hand combat, pretty much. It was just a jaw dropping and unexpected amazing, final scene. Cameron had aped what Scott had done in the first film but he really pushed the boat out with Aliens, the way he’d managed to keep the film going at the end with the false ending. That trick has been used a lot over the years but both those guys really nailed it with their endings. When you see Weaver come out in that power loader, you know it’s on. And it’s the most incredible battle you’ve ever seen!.... As in Alien, the bar just keeps getting raised as Aliens goes along, and that’s one of the reasons I think it succeeds in amazing the audience.
Goldman: I first saw Aliens in the summer of ‘86 at the mall theater in Tysons Corner, Virginia — I remember it was blazing hot outside, and the theater was such a cool relief. I saw it with my brother and a few of our mallrat friends, and we all just went nuts for it — I remember all of us cracking ourselves up, quoting Hudson’s lines on the walk back home. I think what struck me the most, even at such a young age was just how believable the world was. It just all seemed so real to me (as opposed to a lot of the genre films of the time) — and that’s when I think I learned that if you’ve got a good enough story, it makes it that much easier for everything else to fall into place.
Harris: I remember it well! I saw it back in ‘86 in my home town in the UK. A friend and I had gone to the cinema to see another movie which was sold out so we decided to see this film called Aliens, which I don’t think we really knew about. I mean I’d definitely read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Alien and had probably seen it on video by then but I wasn’t aware of a sequel…. It must have been towards the end of its run because it was on screen 4 (of 4 screens; remember this was the eighties!) so it was pretty small, less than 100 seats definitely. I was completely blown away by everything I saw, and I remember leaving the cinema with a great sense of exhilaration; I mean what a ride, right? Looking back and thinking of that quote from James Cameron that while Alien was a creepy haunted-house, Aliens was a rollercoaster that you couldn’t stop or get off until the end. I completely agree and that was how I felt at the time (and still do!)…. I was only in my early 20s so I don’t think I was experienced enough to think “what fantastic production design,” or “how impressive that nearly all the effects were practical and in-camera” or any of that stuff (that came much later). But something about it stuck with me. I clearly remember thinking how “believable” it all seemed, or at least could have been in the real world. That for me is what sells it in many ways.
Lauzirika: As I mentioned in our previous conversation about Top Gun, I was living in Europe while many of the films from the summer of 1986 were being released. But even while I was living in Barcelona, that first teaser trailer for Aliens had been released there and thoroughly blew my mind. I remember standing in the rain to watch that teaser over and over again as it played on a video monitor outside a local theater. I returned to Los Angeles about two weeks into the theatrical run of Aliens, so I had already heard the raves and the hype. On my flight back, they even had the Time Magazine with Sigourney Weaver on the cover available to read. So as a huge, huge Alien fanatic, my expectations were very high. Probably impossibly high. But I saw it for the first time with a sold out crowd at the Avco Theater in Westwood. The energy level was so high, it was kind of like going to a rock concert. But I ended up having two very different experiences during that first viewing. The movie geek in me had a blast. I was screaming and cheering and laughing along with everyone else. But the Alien snob in me sat there with some concerns. I mean, tonally it was different. Visually it was different. The Aliens seemed different. The humans, aside from Ripley, felt more like comic book characters than the relatively real people who inhabited Alien. And overall, it kind of covered a lot of the same beats as the first film, including the fourth act surprise at the end. So to me, Alien was such an immersive and harrowing visceral experience, while Aliens seemed more like a kick-ass movie-movie. Keep in mind, I still loved Aliens very much. But that love came with a bit of that skeptical super nerd squint where you’re not entirely convinced it’s as great as people are saying it is. But now I look back on it as tremendously engaging film that completely captures an audience the way that few movies do.
Coate: Does Aliens work as a stand-alone movie, or is it effective only as a piece of a series?
Clark: It’s hard for me to say, since I saw all the movies in order and I’ve always viewed them as a trilogy (I can’t stand the fourth one). Having said that, much as I like the recent(ish) “assembly cut” of Alien 3, that one always felt a bit out of place so I’ll be interested to see what the proposed Blomkamp sequel to Aliens turns out like and whether or not that will feel like a proper end to the story…. I guess the director’s cut of Aliens would play better as a stand-alone film to someone who hasn’t seen any of them, since the set up at the beginning is fleshed out more. Someone watching would gather that the Alien was something inside the derelict and wouldn’t need references to the first film to make sense of it. I think Cameron put enough in Aliens for that to be the case and certainly any producer would have to insist on it making sense to a virgin audience, to a certain degree. But it’s definitely stronger though, when you put it next to Alien. There are few sequels that complement the original so well.
Goldman: I think Aliens works as a stand-alone movie, sure — and I know plenty of people who discovered the series through the second film first, and then enjoy the discovery of the others. While I have one die-hard friend that likes to refer to Alien as the Aliens prequel — I really do think both films complement one another in a fantastic story and journey of this character. We really do learn a whole lot more about Ripley in the second film, and when combined, the two films give her a much more complete arc. Three really could have taken it in a fantastic direction, but sadly, well….
Harris: I think both, and that’s probably the secret to a good sequel. You don’t need to have seen Alien to see Aliens, although Alien obviously does enhance your experience of Aliens, but it doesn’t complete it, if that makes sense. Cameron sets it up perfectly to not have to have seen Alien to understand and enjoy Aliens…. There’s a whole other debate here about whether the Alien series of films is accepted in the fan-base, and I’m more on the side that the series stops at Aliens, but that’s a personal opinion of course.
Lauzirika: I think you could watch it as a stand-alone movie, since it recaps enough information for you to get by with, especially with the Weyland-Yutani inquest scene. But you’d miss out on quite a bit of important foundation and emotional investment established by the original film. It’s funny when I talk to people of a certain age who saw Aliens before Alien. They almost always consider the first film boring, which I naturally find very amusing. And, with all due respect, wrong.
Coate: How is Aliens significant in terms of genre filmmaking?
Clark: I have think Cameron’s masterstroke was making Ripley the action hero as opposed to Hicks, which was the convention at the time. Ripley was Rambo in a way, for a moment, particularly in the scene where she obliterates Alien eggs with a Pulse rifle in the Queen’s chamber. This was a turning point for actions films because it showed that the girls could do it, too — and believably so. Aliens also upped the ante for the action genre simply because of the clever dynamics of the film. It’s not a case of a great action scene at the end. There’s loads of action scenes. And each one fuels the next. It’s not a typical case of set piece after set piece like a lot of contemporary movies. And by the time you get to the final confrontation with the Queen and the power loader, you’re aghast. I remember the first time I saw it I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing because it looked so real. Up to that point you’d already felt like you’d seen a full movie and all of a sudden you’re presented with this huge scene, this epic battle and I remember thinking that each action sequence was getting bigger and bigger but not for the sake of it, not purely for spectacle, but because that was always where the story was going.
Goldman: When you watch all those incredible behind-the-scenes documentaries that Charlie produced, you realize that Aliens really was a Corman film with a decent budget. The techniques they applied on all the FX work, from the models and miniatures and rear projection, with the money and “tech” they had at the time — pure magic — it all just gelled so perfectly. These guys used every “low-budget” trick in the book and they made it look incredible. As for the creature itself, budgetary constraints may have kept the Alien in the shadows in the first two films, but damn if that constraint didn’t completely service the story. You make an Alien movie today, with hundreds of well-lit CG Xenomorphs running around, and it completely pulls you out of the verisimilitude.
Harris: For me it’s significant because it’s a perfect example of telling a great story. I’ve seen dozens of sci-fi films where the story isn’t as complete or as rounded as that of Aliens. And it’s multi-layered; the Ripley and Hicks possible romance, the Ripley and Newt mother/daughter relationship, the expansion from the eggs being present to us seeing the Queen that’s laying them…. It definitely set the bar, and in terms of influencing others; I mean Aliens is everywhere! There are nods to it in The Simpsons, Red Dwarf, Robot Chicken, Firefly — you name it. If that isn’t a measure of how significant this movie is to people then I don’t know what is. I’m sure there are filmmakers out there now who wanted to do what they do because they saw Aliens when they started out.
Lauzirika: It used down-and-dirty filmmaking ingenuity to create an off-world epic on a relatively low budget, which in turn inspired several filmmakers to push their own boundaries. Not just technically, but also artistically and emotionally. It’s a fun film that also demanded you to take it seriously. I think some people missed all that and just wanted to indulge in the “bug hunt” war porn of it all. But beneath its rollercoaster surface, Aliens is a pretty sophisticated genre classic.
Coate: Which is better: the theatrical cut or the extended “home video” cut?
Clark: My preference leans toward the director’s cut, although it’s understandable why they made those cuts for the theatrical release, notably, time constraints. In Alien, Scott cut the Dallas cocoon scene in the original edit to keep the pacing of Ripley’s escape to the shuttle craft as fluid and suspenseful as possible. Cameron achieves the same thing in Aliens; the relentless pace of the theatrical cut compounds the helplessness of the characters’ situation, and I think that in a movie theater that cut makes much more sense and is partly why so many people describe the experience of watching it as “a roller coaster ride”…. The advent of home video afforded us the luxury of experiencing the longer cut without having to get cramps in an uncomfortable multiplex seat, allowing us time to explore in more detail how events unfolded on LV-426. So watching at home on a hi-def Blu-ray on a big TV or projector, the director’s cut is a no-brainer. Those additional scenes are rich in illustrating a colony we don’t see in the theatrical cut, one where we actually get to see a working population on the base and just how normal it is with people going about their business, children playing and really showing the audience the vulnerability of the people there — the families…. There’s more time for Cameron to connect to Scott’s Alien, showing a geologically ravaged Derelict and explaining just how the Aliens infiltrated the colony base. By revealing Newt’s family and Ripley’s long lost daughter early on, Cameron deftly sets up real motivation for Ripley’s maternal instincts coming to the fore as well as Newt’s initially reluctant acceptance of a much needed mother figure. All of which plays neatly into the final act with the Queen and her instinct to protect her own, as is often commented on.
Goldman: This one is easy — I absolutely love the longer cut. Look, I’m an Aliens nut, I’m of the mind that any more of this movie can only be a good thing. I was lucky enough to work with Charlie on the Blu-ray and got to spend a lot of time in an editing room watching dailies, alternate takes and scenes, etc., and from a rabid fan’s perspective, it was completely mind-blowing. Cameron really didn’t leave much out, but it was a blast to see. I understand why there was the original cut, but the addition of both the colony infestation and sentry gun scenes, along with the extended bits on Gateway, really do help give the story a little more gravity. I know when we cut to the colony it’s the first time in the series we leave the Ripley narrative, but it never really bothered me, and I loved seeing the Hadley’s Hope before the infestation.
Harris: I think the Theatrical Cut works extremely well as Cameron removed exactly the right bits that we didn’t need to see to understand the story (the colony establishing scenes, the entire Sentry Gun sequences and other smaller moments), but every fan wants to see more of what they love so I’ll have to say the Special Edition works best for me.
Lauzirika: I think they’re both very good but I prefer the leaner, meaner theatrical cut. It gets to the point and isn’t bogged down by interesting but ultimately unnecessary side stories. I will say that as far as deleted scenes go, the additional material that was added to the longer Special Edition is pretty damn good. Usually you understand why scenes are removed but in this case, with the exception of the completely unused Burke Cocooned scene, it’s all really good stuff. There was just too much of it for a mainstream theatrical experience. The extra footage is all really great for later viewings. Whenever I introduce Aliens to anyone, I begin with the theatrical cut.
Coate: Of all the roles Sigourney Weaver has played in her career, where does Ripley rank?
Clark: There’s little doubt that Alien shot Sigourney Weaver to stardom and I think that Aliens helped to raise her up even more. While she has a pretty mixed body of work, having been involved in everything from indies to documentaries, her most iconic role, Ripley, is what she’ll mostly be remembered for, (mostly)…. It’s well known that her portrayal of Ripley in Aliens is generally accepted to be the first female action hero, paving the way for heroines galore which today, sees possibly as many female action lead roles for women as there are for men. Ripley made it okay for women to be tough yet sensitive but pragmatic enough to take charge and to kick ass without the need for a tough guy…. Ripley is a bona fide cinema pop icon. And you can’t think of Ripley without thinking of Weaver. Which is why people will flock to see her in Alien 5. If they ever try and remake the Alien films, they’re going to have a tough time of casting anyone that’ll come close to Sigourney…. Aliens is right up there for Weaver as far as performances are concerned. It’s a powerhouse performance which draws solid acting from the rest of the cast anytime they’re in a scene with her. And she has some of the most quotable lines in modern cinema. Who could forget, “Get away from her, you bitch!”? Everyone knows that line.
Goldman: As far as ranking this amount Sigourney’s body of work — right at the top. I mean her performance in the first one was such an important milestone for having a female lead in that role, and she hit it out of the park. I don’t even know if you could even quantify her performance in the second one as “better” — again, back-to-back, she just completely and believably takes the audience on Ripley’s journey — you never not believe she isn’t the character, which obviously is the hallmark of a talented performer.
Harris: Ripley is probably the character that people most strongly associate with Sigourney, and it is of course the role that started her career. I haven’t seen everything she’s done but just in terms of how she’s best known; Ripley is up there.
Lauzirika: Considering she was nominated for an Oscar for Aliens, I think it should rank very highly. She brought an amazing emotional range to what could have just been a standard popcorn flick. But between her commitment and Cameron’s inventiveness, they elevated Aliens far above what it would have been in the hands of other filmmakers. Honestly, I think Sigourney Weaver is superb in all three films of the original Alien trilogy and actually doesn’t get enough credit for her really strong work in Alien 3. Across the first three films, she takes Ripley on an epic personal journey and because of her performances, we’re along for the ride with her every step of the way.
Coate: Where do you think Aliens ranks among director James Cameron’s body of work?
Clark: As far as James Cameron’s body of work is concerned, my feeling is that Aliens is one of the few films that, despite his undeniable talent as a filmmaker and also as a writer, is generally more acclaimed by both fans and critics alike, as opposed to more commercial successes such as Titanic and Avatar…. As is often remarked of rock bands and music artists, it’s also the case with film makers that for many it’s the early stuff that is revered most fondly. Aliens occupies a space with Terminator 1 & 2 as a film that feels plausible in spite of its fantastical premise. There isn’t much wrong with Aliens, it’s one of those films that you couldn’t really suggest a way of improving it. How could you make it better? You probably can’t, it’s as good as it gets, perhaps…. We all know now you could improve The Phantom Menace: Jar Jar. Easy. But Aliens? How? And why? Why is the bigger question because there’s no need. It’s just an incredible film and one that has high replay value. If you’re switching channels and you have it on for a few minutes then you’re probably watching it til the end. Again…. I think that James Cameron succeeded on so many levels with the film that it’s sort of hard to top in many ways. In many ways, he has topped it when you consider some of his other work, notably Avatar with some of the amazing accomplishments of that film, especially visually…. But I think Avatar is flawed, story-wise, but Aliens isn’t and I also think that the adult nature of Aliens is quite rare in science fiction movies and I strongly believe that audiences want more of these kind of stories…. I put Aliens right up there with any of Cameron’s stuff, to be honest. I think he had a hunger and passion when he wrote and made that film, and sort of willed the stars to align.
Goldman: I rank Aliens right at the top of Cameron’s CV. It’s great when you watch his films in chronological order and see his progression as a director — but also spot all his other little trademarks and echoes that give his movies such distinct signatures. I have to admit, one of the things that impressed me the most, and still does today, is not only did he direct the film, but he wrote it. If you ever have a chance to read it, the script is like a master class in action screenwriting technique — it really is so incredibly well done — and one of those facts about the movie that tends to get overlooked. I enjoyed Avatar — I’m a sucker for mil-tech, and sure I’m excited to see where the next installments take us, but I still hope to see him do something from outside that world as well.
Harris: That’s such a subjective question as it’s like saying, “what’s your favorite James Cameron movie?” As I said earlier about Sigourney it’s probably the movie that he’s most strongly associated with, well maybe Aliens and Terminator 1 & 2.
Lauzirika: I would rank only The Terminator and The Abyss higher than Aliens. I’m more in awe of Cameron’s work when he’s up against the limits of budget and technology, and he has to use his extraordinary vision and talent to will something new into existence. The scope of his later films is certainly impressive by any measure, but his earlier films, where he had to rely upon his Roger Corman chops to make his imagination a reality are what I find to be truly inspirational. And Aliens certainly falls into that category.
Coate: What is the legacy of Aliens?
Clark: One of the legacies of Aliens is an enduring fascination for space exploration and, in particular, the space marines that might inhabit such a future. This is constantly explored in video games, Halo being an obvious example, but there are many others and there’ll be plenty more to come…. Movies though, can’t seem to capture our attention in the same way. No one’s done it better since, or even come anywhere close, for that matter…. And if you go to an Aliens convention some time, or even to San Diego ComicCon this July, you’ll probably see some guys — and girls — dressed in Colonial Marine armor and maybe even the odd Alien dotted around. And if you ask them their age, you’ll likely find some weren’t even born when the film was released. Aliens is here to stay. The only question now is, how do they keep it going without fucking it up? Hopefully, Neill Blomkamp will have the answer.
Goldman: I think the legacy of Aliens is that it turned the series into a franchise. Again, if Alien 2 had been a big miss, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Most likely there would have been nothing more to say. But Cameron came in, followed up on the first film with some wildly innovative ideas, and really gave us a much larger universe to explore. I think the simple fact that now here we are, three decades later, and this summer you’ll be able to go out and buy action figures of Vasquez, Frost and Newt is a huge testament to the legacy of the film.
Harris: I think the best example of its legacy is that we’re still talking about it 30 years on. It makes me happy that a film that I love so much is still so popular, and over the years I’ve met many cast members who are surprised and happy that there’s still so much love for it today. Just look at how Aliens still holds up, not only in that it’s hardly dated (Sigourney’s haircut being the only example I can think of and even that’s not too bad!) but also in terms of how much it’s respected, and imitated…. After 30 years the fan base is still incredibly strong and fans still want new stuff; there are videogames, merchandise (look at how crazy the world went recently for a few hundred pairs of Reebok sneakers), comic books, and novels. There are companies making replica props, fans costume as Aliens and Marines — plus as a collector, prices that original, screen used items from Aliens go for are probably at an all-time high.
Lauzirika: As a Reagan Era revisionist shoot ‘em up fantasy, I think it’s terrific. But its examination of Ripley as both a mother figure and a reluctant warrior also makes it more sophisticated than I’ve been giving it credit for. It’s the perfect end to a Cameron-written trilogy in which Rambo: First Blood Part II deals with warriors from the past, The Terminator deals with warriors in the present, and Aliens deals with warriors in the future, all of whom are forced to use their wits to survive. I think Aliens is an essential product of its time but it will always engage an audience simply because it has its finger on the pulse of the viewer and knows how to keep the thrills coming.
Coate: Thank you — Andrew, Willie, Harry, and Charlie — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Aliens on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
Primary references for this project were promotional material published in hundreds of daily newspapers archived digitally and/or on microfilm plus numerous articles published in film industry trade publications Billboard, Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety.
Copyright Brandywine Productions, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Harry Harris image by Russell Clark. 70mm presentation logo art designed by Bobby Henderson. Home-video cover-art collage by Cliff Stephenson. 70mm frames courtesy Rebecca Lyon/Celluloid Chicago.
Greg W. Anderson, Julian Antos, Claude Ayakawa , Laura Baas, Don Beelik, Deb Bier, Bert Branson, Raymond Caple, Andrew David Clark, Scott Clark, Andy Crews, Nick DiMaggio, Diane Donham, Stephen Gailey, Willie Goldman, Sheldon Hall, Harry Harris, Bobby Henderson, William Inge, Matthew Kendall, Sarah Kenyon, Bill Kretzel, Charles de Lauzirika, Mark Lensenmayer, Monty Marin, Tim O’Neill, Joshua D. Owens, Stephen Rice, James Shearouse, Alex Smith, Cliff Stephenson, John Stewart, J. Thomas, Jessica Wakefield, Sean Weitzel, John Wilson, Vince Young, and to all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project.
All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.
- Roy Charman (Production Sound Mixer), 1930-1990
- Paul Maxwell (“Van Leuwen”), 1921-1991
- Tip Tipping (“Private Crowe”), 1958-1993
- John Lees (“Power Loader Operator”), 1942-1997
- Ray Lovejoy (Editor), 1939-2001
- Mary Selway (Casting), 1936-2004
- Michael A. Carter (Re-Recording Mixer), 19??-2004
- Don Sharpe (Supervising Sound Editor), 19??-2004
- Gordon Carroll (Producer), 1928-2005
- Adrian Biddle (Director of Photography), 1952-2005
- Stan Winston (Alien Effects), 1946-2008
- Dan O’Bannon (Based on characters created by), 1946-2009
- H.R. Giger (Original Alien Designer), 1940-2014
- James Horner (Composer), 1953-2015
- Trevor Steedman (“Private Wierzbowski”), 1954-2016
Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link.