The alien queen, star of James Cameron's 1986 film Aliens

An action-packed war film set on a desolate planet, Aliens continues the terrifying adventure of Alien. By adding gung-ho soldiers and high-tech guns to the fear and dread of the first film, you are taken on a spectacular rollercoaster ride into a battle against a hive of deadly parasitic creatures infecting a doomed human settlement.

Ripley, the lone survivor of the first film, reluctantly joins a unit of soldiers and returns to the planet where she first encountered the alien. Dodging facehuggers and shooting these acid-filled creatures, they come upon a solitary little girl who—like Ripley—used her wits and luck to survive. Ripley sits the traumatized girl down and tries to clean the grime from her face, as if she could wipe away all the death and pain that this little girl, and she herself, have experienced. At this moment, our heroine realizes that she will do anything to protect the child, and, donning guns and a flamethrower, she steps up and kicks some alien butt—leading to one of the best action climaxes you’ll ever see: a truly awesome one-on-one battle to the death between an alien and a human.

In 1979, James Cameron sat in the audience watching the opening of Ridley Scott’s Alien. He was overwhelmed—to him, it was a perfect film. As an ambitious Hollywood newbie working on Roger Corman’s famously low-budget films, he was on the rise—and only four years later he was hired to write the sequel for the script of the very film he had idolized: Alien. He wanted to direct it, too, but he had nothing good to show the studios. Cameron, however, had a trick up his sleeve: he was about to direct a low-budget science fiction film, and, if it was good, the studio would give him Aliens. Of course, that film was Terminator, and the rest is history.

Cameron knew that Aliens needed to honor the original film, and he fought to keep Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. But he also knew that he had different talents than Scott, and that his strengths were spectacular action and big emotions. So, drawing on the Viet Nam war as an inspiration, he called the film “grunts in space” and pitted technologically superior, battle-weary soldiers against a wily enemy that they weren’t prepared to fight—and for extra measure, he added a deadly 14-foot tall alien ‘queen’ that helped shift the film from horror to action.

Sigourney Weaver in James Cameron's Aliens

The alien queen herself was a technological marvel. Effects wizard Stan Winston constructed the largest and most sophisticated puppet ever used in film at that time—and probably still to this day. It combined all manner of mechanical controls into a single creature that encased two full-grown men and required a team of up to sixteen to operate. This contraption was brought to life using Winston’s philosophy that puppeteering is like a musical performance—it needs emotion to feel alive. It worked, and Winston later said that Aliens was the favorite film of his career.

The queen’s human foe, played by actress Sigourney Weaver, had some fun on the set with her co-stars. On the day that any actor performed their death scene, she would give them a bouquet of flowers. But on the day the film’s villain died, she gave him a bouquet of dead flowers. And in an Academy Award first, for her gripping performance, Weaver was nominated for Best Actress—before this film, actresses in this genre were simply not considered.

Aliens was barely completed in time for its release date, and since there had been no preview screenings, no one knew if the film would be a hit or a flop. But as producer Gale Anne Hurd sat at an opening night screening, Ripley’s famous line, “get away from her, you bitch,” brought the house down with cheers—she describes this as the most satisfying moment of her film career. Aliens was an enormous international success, staying at the top of the box office for four consecutive weeks. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards—and won two. In 1992 an extended version was released, but avoid it, the original theatrical release is better.

In an interview, Cameron began, “Aliens is about parental love, protectiveness and a sense of duty. And the ultimate sacrifice someone would give [for that]…” And this film was only the first in a string of massively successful blockbusters for Cameron. And who knows, the secret to his ongoing successes may lay in the rest of his quote, “All my movies are love stories.”

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