36 Things We Learned From the ‘Aliens’ Commentary

Explore everything we learned from the DVD commentary for James Cameron's Aliens.

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Who’s to say we can’t break away from the Summer movie season tie-ins for a while? There isn’t much to connect with Rock of Ages. Or That’s My Boy. Does Happy Gilmore even have a commentary track? This week we felt we wanted to stick around the Alien universe a little bit longer. Besides, this Alien Blu-Ray box set is truly a thing of beauty. Scientists are going to be finding this thing centuries from now and think it was something we worshipped. They wouldn’t be too far off.

This week, we’re digging into the follow-up to Ridley Scott’s Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens, a film so highly regarded by fans of the series, there are those who claim it’s the only sequel in any franchise to ever surpass its original. That’s another debate for another day. What isn’t arguable, though, is that Cameron’s sequel brings with it as much iconic imagery and memorable moments as the 1979 original. The Alien Vs. Aliens debate will carry on for ions, long after Cameron has built his kingdom by the Mariana Trench and brought the world to its knees with the wave of his fist. Come to think of it, James Cameron would make a good Bond villain.

Here’s everything our favorite, would-be Bond villain and a ton of cast and crew had to say about Aliens.

Aliens (1990 Director’s Cut, originally released in 1986)

Commentators: James Cameron (writer/director), Gale Anne Hurd (producer), Stan Winston (alien effects creator/makeup and visual effects master), Robert Skotak (visual effects supervisor), Dennis Skotak (supervising director of photography), Pat McClung (model shop supervisor), Carrie Henn (actress “Newt”), Chris Henn (actor “Tim Jorden”), Michael Biehn (actor, “Corporal Hicks”), Lance Henriksen (actor, “Bishop”), Jenette Goldstein (actress, “Private Vasquez”), Bill Paxton (actor, “Private Hudson”)

  • When Cameron was tasked with putting together a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, he took one of his own stories, one titled “Mother” about an alien on a space station, and retooled it to be a follow-up. The Power Loader was an idea from this original story.
  • The day Cameron landed the writing job for Aliens, he was also offered the job of writing a sequel to First Blood. When the writer/director asked producer David Giler what he should do, Giler said he should clearly take both jobs. Cameron did that, though a Rambo Vs. Alien has never come to be.
  • It wasn’t in the budget to create the opening imagery of a robotic arm cutting into the shuttle and discovering a sleeping Ripley. Cameron paid to have the scene included out of his own pocket. Something tells me he recovered.
  • When he went off to write the screenplay for Aliens, Cameron was told Sigourney Weaver was totally committed to returning as Ripley. Cameron wrote the screenplay accordingly, not knowing that no such deal had been struck with the actress. “So that’s why she got her first, big payday of her acting career,” Cameron jokes. He also notes she may be the first actress to get $1m for a role in movie history, but Elizabeth Taylor might have something to say about that.
  • When Cameron was presented with the challenge of cutting Aliens down to 130 minutes, the length the studio required the film to be, he couldn’t figure out what he could cut to keep the film still intact. It was Hurd’s idea to cut the entire third reel out, and the story still works. This is the sequence where Newt’s father is attacked by a Facehugger.
  • The model of the derelict ship on LV-426 was the same model used in Alien. It had been in historian Bob Burns’ driveway for years after it had been given to him by 20th Century Fox. Imagine the size of that guy’s driveway.
  • “To be perfectly honest, at the time I made the movie, I knew diddly dick about how big corporations worked anyway, so, to me, they were just this big, shadowy entity,” says Cameron before noting he does think he nailed it pretty well not having any first-hand experience with them.
  • Weaver and Cameron had a long debate about whether or not Ripley hated the alien. Cameron believed she did, but the actress has apprehensions. He felt Aliens was a straight-forward, revenge story, and sold Weaver on the idea by telling her Ripley would do anything in her power to keep what happened to her from happening to anyone else.
  • According to Henriksen, Paxton had no idea he was going to be part of the “knife trick” scene until it came time to shoot it. Henriksen felt the scene needed something extra, so he and Cameron decided on set Bishop would hold Hudson’s hand down and perform the trick on him. Henriksen also remembers a long night of drinking after shooting this scene followed by a reshoot of the scene, as it looked too fake when they sped the footage up. He accidentally caught Paxton’s pinky with the knife on this reshoot.
  • Cameron, whose brother joined the Marines while he was making Aliens, recognizes how rebellious and unbelievable to the real Marine Corps the soldiers in the film are. He notes the soldiers in Aliens were informed by Viet Nam era troops and even apologizes to members of the Marine Corps for getting it “wrong.”
  • While shooting on the shuttle set carrying all the soldiers to LV-426, the roof collapsed when the grips began shaking it, mimicking the shuttle dropping to the planet’s surface. A large piece of the set hit Cameron in the head, causing the director to bleed. “You think they did that on purpose over there?” asks Henriksen. He sounds like he’s joking, but he’s also an android. They don’t joke.
  • Cameron notes he doesn’t particularly like the anamorphic widescreen format and mentions problems he had working on visual effects on Escape From New York as the catalyst for this dislike. His only regret on Aliens is that he didn’t shoot it in widescreen to be more consistent with Ridley Scott’s look in Alien. He mentions he still thinks Scott’s film looks better.
  • Cameron also says later he thinks the Facehuggers in Alien look better than the ones found in his film. For instructions on how to make your own, see here.
  • The members of the cast remember how hectic the production and how hands-on Cameron was. Henriksen brings up a threat at one point to have production move to shoot somewhere else, since the union they were working with wasn’t used to working in Cameron’s fast-paced style. Paxton remembers Cameron moving lights and punching holes in walls when they were required, not exactly an okay thing to do yourself when working on a unionized set.
  • “Part of what attracted me to doing this film was the opportunity to do cool design stuff,” James Cameron sounding an awful lot like Michael Bay.
  • Hurd ran into resistance from the studio when she signed on to be the producer on Aliens. She was asked who was really producing it, since she was Cameron’s wife at the time. The studio didn’t feel she would be diplomatic enough on set with her husband directing. Winston remembers her being perfect for the job, as she was the only one on set who would stand up to Cameron.
  • According to Cameron, Henriksen likes to have a physical trademark to add to each of the characters he plays. His idea for Bishop was for the android to have two pupils in each eye. Henriksen himself created the lenses he would wear, but Cameron felt it was too much for the character.
  • When 20th Century Fox got back their first batch of dailies, they complained that none of the money they had spent was being used. They couldn’t understand why they weren’t seeing any effects shots. Hurd explained to them that they had seen a dozen effects shots, they were just all miniatures and force perspective shots they didn’t notice were loaded with visual effects. This also explains why people thought Pandora was a real place.
  • James Horner’s classic Aliens “sting” was originally only used when the woman the soldiers finds opens her eyes. Cameron thought it was too much at the time but ended up adding it throughout the film.
  • The art department had covered the set when the aliens first attack with a substance to help age it. Cameron remembers when they began using fire on the set, the heat melted the substance sending vapors in the air. This caused some extreme reactions with the actors, particularly Jenette Goldstein. “I don’t remember what we did about that, probably just kept shooting,” says Cameron.
  • “He’s one of those characters where I felt, my God, the audience is gonna be so ready for this guy to die,” says Paxton referring to Hudson. How wrong he is. Carrie Henn also remembers Paxton apologizing between each take due to how much swearing he was doing.
  • Henn has been unjustifiably traumatized for years with people talking to her and offering their own take on the “They mostly come out at night. Mostly” line. To this, we say we mostly apologize to Henn for her anguish. Mostly.
  • “I wasn’t a very experienced film maker at the time. This was only my second film,” Cameron, once again making us fully aware of his thoughts on Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.
  • At the time, The Terminator hadn’t been released in England where they were filming Aliens. Hurd and Winston remember a pseudo-rebellion on set with many crew members not thinking Cameron had the talent or experience to completely the film. It didn’t help that Pinewood Studios, where the film was shot, at the time provided its own crew members depending on which set you were using. Hurd remembers these “timecard punchers” getting aggravated with 12 or 14-hour days. She and Winston point out the leader of this “rebellion” was the first assistant director who felt he was more suited to direct the film than Cameron. He would go so far as call Cameron “governor” and roll his eyes to the director’s face. The first AD was fired, and the rebellion was subsequently squashed, just like all good, sci-fi movies.
  • Cameron points out a moment in the film where Lance Henriksen, as Bishop, realized he made a joke. So go ahead and disregard what was stated earlier about androids not being able to.
  • The editing on Aliens was done way before digital editing was introduced. Cameron and Hurd remember the difficulties Ray Lovejoy ran into as editor on the film, Cameron noting that, with cut-and-splice editing like this, it was easier to cut out minutes of footage rather than take out seconds here and there.
  • The staunchly anti-gun Weaver tried to convince Cameron to let her character go through the film without picking up a weapon. Cameron took her to a shooting range, where she fired a machine gun for the first time. The director remember her smiling when she was done and saying how fun it was. “Another liberal bites the dust,” he jokes.
  • Cameron also remembers Weaver saying three things she wanted out of Aliens. She didn’t want to carry a gun, which is covered above. She also wanted to die, and she wanted to make love to the alien. “Between the third and fourth films, she got to do all those things,” Cameron notes.
  • While Cameron recognizes how wonderfully shot Alien 3 is, he sees it as a slap in the face to fans who fell in love with and wanted to see more of the relationship between Ripley and Newt. “I understand the instinct, which is you have to make it your own,” says Cameron. “I just don’t think you should make it your own at the expense of what people like.” Cameron is also conscious of issues Ridley Scott might have with Aliens.
  • To add to the action scenes in Aliens, particularly the big shoot-out between the surviving Marines and the invading aliens, Cameron had strobe lights flashing on set in the actor’s directions whenever they fired their guns. Hurd also mentions he would add a single, white frame in the film after someone fires their rifle to add to the energetic nature of the cuts. The negative cutter told Cameron there were more cuts in reel 12 of Aliens than any other, total film he had done before.
  • Jenette Goldstein, who plays Vasquez, had never fired a handgun before Aliens. She wasn’t handling the gun correctly for the closeups, so Gale Anne Hurd is actually filling in for those shots. Closeup of the alien getting its head blown off? Gale Anne Hurd.
  • According to Paxton, he was lined up to be in Police Academy 3: Back in Training when he auditioned for and got the Hudson role in Aliens. He mentions it was the part that went to Bobcat Goldthwait, but the film nerd in us tells us Goldthwait already had the role from Police Academy 2: The First Assignment. Police Academy subtitles come courtesy of IMDB. Also, Bill Paxton is a liar.
  • Carrie Henn mentions a deleted scene that wasn’t even included in the Director’s Cut. Originally, when Ripley is searching for Newt, she comes across a cocooned Burke who has an alien gestating inside of him. She gives him a grenade, tells him he knows what he has to do, and leaves. Moments later, a huge blast is heard indicating Burke does the honorable thing.
  • The huge nuke going off near the end of the movie is actually a lightbulb shining through molded cotton. Movie magic, James Cameron style.
  • Hurd notes the most gratifying moment of her producing career was seeing Aliens on opening night in Hollywood and the uproar the audience went into when Ripley says the line, “Get away from her, you bitch.”
  • The alien queen was originally intended to be done using stop motion, but time constraints forced them to go a different route. Winston notes the queen as seen in the final battle, or, as he refers to it, the “biggest marionette in motion picture history”, was brought to life using rod puppets, hydraulics, radio controls, and wires. Also miniatures of the queen and Ripley in the Power Loader were used for this final battle.

Best in Commentary

“I gave up early on trying to have a physique like you guys. That would have cut into my drinking time.” – Bill Paxton

“And everyone, of course, said it couldn’t be done, which is, at least at the beginning of Jim’s career, typical of Jim’s ideas, and then it worked beautifully,” – Gale Anne Hurd. She’s referring to Cameron’s idea to mount futuristic weapons on Steadicam harnesses, but it fits in with everything about the man’s career.

“I think, in terms of actual technique, it’s crude compared to films that are made now, but, I think, in terms of storytelling, it’s as good as I’ll probably ever be, which is what film making is all about. It’s about the people. It’s about the relationships. Of course, then they made the third film and killed everybody.” – James Cameron

Final Thoughts

Aliens is a super-sized kind of movie, and this commentary is pretty super-sized itself. Not only is it just an inordinate amount of people contributing to this commentary – 12 in all – but it’s nonstop with cutting between the different groups. There’s hardly any dead air on this commentary, and much of what is offered is entertaining at the very least. There are enough fun anecdotes from the cast members to make it enjoyable, even if these moments don’t add much to what we already know. Carrie Henn adds little, and it’s a mystery why her brother is on here at all. Must have been a package deal.

But it’s when Cameron, Hurd, or Winston are speaking that you get the real golden nuggets on this commentary. All three are so gifted in what they do and have so much experience in the industry that every sentence is loaded with insight. Hearing Cameron speak about his own film is every bit as interesting as the film itself, and this Aliens commentary proves that he’s a director we should be covering more of on Commentary Commentary.