There are only a select few sequels in movie history that not only match their cinematic predecessors, but by many accounts outdo them. Godfather II, Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, and The Wrath of Khan all belong on that list, as does James Cameron’s Aliens. Transitioning from the one alien premise of the first film to an entire hive of creatures, from a crew of space miners to a team of space marines, from claustrophobic horror to all-out action (replete with a full-on boss battle against a xenomorph queen), Aliens set the benchmark for sequels that up the ante in thrills and excitement. Aliens stands the test of time as a truly great film, and as is often the case with many great films, the story behind the making of the film is great in its own right.
Enter: Titan Books’ newly released The Making of Aliens by J.W. Rinzler.
With the financial success of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, it made a good deal of sense for 20th Century Fox to comb through their film catalog in search of sci-fi movies to make a sequel out of. On the outset, Alien seemed like a logical place to start. While the film had been a hit, Alien (1979) wasn’t commercial juggernaut that Star Wars had been, and lacked anywhere close to the same level of merchandising. By the mid-’80s, many of the Fox executives behind that original film had long parted ways with the studio following several major regime changes. Moreover, the box office success of horror was believed to be on the decline, and Walter Hill and David Giler (the writing/producing duo who had hands on involvement with the first Alien) were embroiled in a muddy lawsuit with Fox regarding profit participation.
Serendipitously, however, the lawsuit was finally settled alongside a settlement stipulation which required Fox to put an Alien sequel into development. But Hill and Giler weren’t out of the woods just yet. Fox was under no legal requirement to move the film beyond the development phase, and our writer/producer partners were still on the hunt for a director.
James Cameron also got his start on the heels of Star Wars’ success, saying, “In a way, I suppose I owe it all to George Lucas. He made science fiction a viable genre again.” Looking to appease lucrative Orange County dentists interested in investing in the next big sci-fi film, Cameron and T2 co-writer Bill Wisher set out to work on a $20,000 proof-of-concept reel entitled Xenogenesis. Not only does the title draw similarities to “xenomorph,” the specified name Cameron would latter bestow upon the creatures within the Alien franchise, but the short even featured a heroine engaging in battle utilizing a giant mech (an early trial run for the loader climax of Aliens).
While Xenogenesis was never developed into the feature film that was planned, Cameron would go on to work behind the scenes for the likes of Roger Corman and John Carpenter, all the while whittling away at his script for the first Terminator. As Cameron’s script was making the rounds in Hollywood, Hill and Giler were pushing for their next Alien film to be more of a war movie (a cross between Southern Comfort, a film made by the duo, and The Magnificent Seven). As The Terminator went into production, Cameron seemed like the right man to write Hill and Giler’s Alien sequel. When The Terminator became a box-office hit, Cameron also seemed like the right man to direct.
James Cameron’s experience on the set of Aliens oddly mirrored that of original Alien director Ridley Scott’s on the set of Blade Runner. In much the same way, the domineering Scott had to contend with an American crew that largely detested him. Cameron found himself having to prove his worth to a British, Pinewood Studio crew that thought him unfit to be taking the reins from Sir Ridley. Cameron, alongside his producer wife Gale Anne Hurd, would strive to get scenes in on time and under budget as British crew members would take schedule breaks for tea. Cameron, like Scott before him, managed to prove himself with one of the most thrilling films the sci-fi genre has to offer.
All this and more can be found in the pages of The Making of Aliens by J.W. Rinzler. Like its predecessor, The Making of Alien (also authored by Rinzler), The Making of Aliens is one the most comprehensive books you’re going to find and read regarding the film. Longtime Aliens fans can see early sketches of the Colonial Marine drop ship, the queen alien and the famed power loaded (the latter of which originally resembled the mechs used in Cameron’s Avatar as opposed to the construction site forklift design which fans are familiar with). Replete with the preliminary 1983 treatment for the film by Cameron himself, quotes from the various cast and crew members as well as a plethora of high gloss set photos from the film, The Making of Aliens is an absolute must for Aliens fans the universe over.