Study Guide for Aliens

This study guide was created by the following students, so credit is given where credit is due:

Steve von Sothen
Eli Boyd
Angela Gentilia
Christopher Klein
Heather Morris
Karen L. Wightman

1. Citation

Aliens. James Cameron, dir., screenplay. USA: Brandywine / Twentieth Century Fox,1986. produced by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, written by James Cameron and Walter Hill, music by James Horner.

2. Plot Summary

Fifty-seven years after the Nostromo (of Alien) encountered the Alien on LV426, Ellen Ripley's shuttle is discovered by a deep space salvage team. Ripley's story is not initially believed as while she and Jones the cat slept the faceless 'Company' established a colony on LV426. There have been no signs of any alien ship or species. Demoted from flight officer status and suffering from nightmares, Ripley is later approached by Carter Burke, a Company representative, and Colonial Marine Lt. Gorman. All contact with the colony on LV426 has been lost and Burke offers Ripley the reinstatement of her flight status-if she will go in with Gorman's marine unit as a consultant and observer. Ripley reluctantly agrees to go in with the condition that they will destroy the aliens, should any be encountered, and not try to study them. Burke says "That's the plan." When they arrive on LV426 the colony is deserted and the complex shows signs of gun battle and attempted barricades. The discovery of med-lab reveals that the colonists had collected face-hugger specimens and conducted experiments on the aliens. Eventually the bodies of all the colonists are found-cocooned and used as alien gestation hosts. One colonist survivor is discovered hiding in the small crawl spaces of the complex where the aliens can't go. The little girl, Newt, is immediately adopted by Ripley. In their first encounter with the aliens half the marine unit is killed. After the pilots of the dropship are killed by a lone alien and it crashes, the survivors are forced to return to the complex. The android, Bishop, tries to get to the communications array to remote control pilot the second dropship down. Meanwhile, Ripley, Newt, Hicks, Hudson, Gorman and Vasquez weld all accesses to the complex shut and barricade themselves in to wait for the ship and hope the aliens don't get in.

3. Awards

Academy Awards 1986

Nominated for:

  • Best Actress (Sigourney Weaver)

  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Sound
  • Best Original Score
  • Best Film Editing

Awards won:

  1. Best Visual Effects (Stan Winston)
  2. Best Sound Effects Editing

Science Fiction Achievement Award (the "Hugos") 1987 (for '86 films):

  • Best Dramatic Presentation

4. Major Cast

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver): "They can bill me!" Ripley begins the film as a victim, of her own memories, and almost as an object of ridicule because no one really believes her story. Yet when her fictional aliens become only too real it is Ripley who becomes the leader and the protector: she goes in to save the Marines when Gorman falters and will sacrifice herself to save Newt. The evolution of the character could be analogous to the evolution of Sarah Connor in the Terminator films. Both evolve from victim, to mother-figure and, finally, to aggressor. Whendoes this transformation begin? Is the introduction of Newt into Ripley's life significant? Why? Why is Ripley in more control than the Marines? They are trained for this ("Is this just another bug hunt?") and she was just a pilot?

Rebecca Jordan "Newt" (Carrie Henn): "They come mostly at night. Mostly." An 11 year old girl is the only colonist to survive the alien infestation and is one of only 4 to get off the planet alive. Notice that she is found and, later hides again, underneath the floors in crawlspaces- the lost areas of any building. It is the discovery of Newt that seems to snap Ripley out of her scared victim role and turns her into a fighter again. Why? Also, what is the significance of having a child survive what the adult colonists and even the Marines cannot?

Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn): "It's the only way to be sure." Biehn is a favorite of director Cameron. Hicks is the only Marine to get off the planet alive. After the Sarge is killed in the first encounter, and the Lt. is wounded, Hicks, a seemingly simple Marine grunt, is the one to take command and as a result manages to save the lives of at least some of his team. Also Hudson's best friend, he unwillingly accepts responsibility and is the only one to really listen to Ripley (even on the Sulaco he seems to actually pay attention to her). He's smart and the only human male survivor, why? Also watch the foreplay scene when he teaches Ripley to use the pulse rifle, why don't they kiss?

Carter Burke (Paul Reiser): "I work for the Company but don't let it fool you. I'm actually a good guy!" Carter goes along on the expedition as the official representative of the Company and it seems to keep an eye on Ripley. His interests are in terms of sales and money, notice how he tries to pitch the atmosphere processor to Ripley when they arrive on LV426. He does the same when he tries to convince everyone that blowing up the installation is a bad move. Burke also tries to cause the impregnation of Ripley and Newt so he can smuggle a specimen back through customs. How is Burke similar to Mother and Ash from the first film? Also, could he be lumped under the condemnation "it's men like you. . ." of T2 ?

Executive Officer Bishop (Lance Henriksen): "I may be synthetic, but I'm not stupid." A synthetic or, as Bishop prefers "artificial person". Synthetics are SOP on every transport but Ripley is still bothered by his presence, especially considering what happened with the last synthetic she ran up against (Ash in Alien was a Hyperdine systems model A/2). Bishop is rather personable and definitely saves the day in more ways than one. As for worries about malfunctions his reply is "That could never happen now, not with the new implanted behavioral inhibitors. Impossible for me to harm or, by omission of action, allow to be harmed a human being." In the end Ripley trusts him with the most important thing to her, Newt. How is Bishop different or similar to Ash? Is it significant that Ripley grows to trust him in terms of her character?

Lt. Gorman (William Hope): "Two combat drops, including this one." The officer in charge of the "grunts", he fails to live up to the marine axiom that a good officer is one that lets the Sarge make decisions because he's the one with the experience. Gorman's inexperience and inability to make decisions in the heat of the moment cause the first wave of marines to die. He panicked at the last moment, and it was only Ripley who acted in time to save the remaining few. Gorman's command fell to Hicks when he was knocked into a comatose state by a falling crate. Why would the military put someone with so little experience in charge? Better yet, assume the Company had a say in who goes in (you get the feeling the Company has a hand in every pie) why would they choose him? Watch for Gorman to evolve from a putz to a sympathetic victim; he actually tries to live up to what they expect of him.

Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton): "We're on an express elevator to hell-going down!" Actor Paxton is another Cameron favorite. The comic relief of the film, Hudson has all the lines and seems to be the most realistic portrayal of a young soldier in a bad situation. Hudson is a bit hotheaded and overconfident but after watching his comrades die he digs in and tries to keep himself from being a liability to the rest. How does the character change in the film and why do we need him specifically? Hudson was due to complete his tour in a matter of weeks, and was planning on getting as far away from the Corps as possible.

Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein): "I only need to know one thing. Where are they?" One of two Marines who carried the SmartGun, a very large weapon at odds with Vasquez's height. She's a soldier and good at it. One of the three females that last the longest how does she measure up to Ripley? Why does she seem to not like Ripley at the beginning of the film?

Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews): second-in-command behind Gorman. The real leader of the unit.

Pvt. Drake (Mark Rolston): male on smartgun team with Vasquez; pointman on LV426.

Cpl. Ferro (Colette Hiller): female pilot of the dropship.

Pvt. Spunkmeyer (Daniel Kash): dropship copilot.

Cpl. Dietrich (Cinthia Scott): the teams medic and the first to be attacked by Aliens. She was grabbed from above and started firing her flamethrower wildly.

Pvt. Frost (Ricco Ross): In the Alien hive, he was the one given the "honor" to hold the bag of ammunition Apone collected on Gorman's orders. Torched by Dietrich when she got grabbed.

Pvt. Wierzbowski (Trevor Steedman): Part of the initial team entering the hive, he was stunned by the blast from the ammunition bag and then killed by an Alien from behind.

5. Review

Time, 28 July, 1986: pg. 522.

The first film had merely mobilized Ripley's basic fight-or-flight instincts. The presence of Newt allows her to discover stronger, higher impulses, giver her positive rather than negative emotions to act upon. The audience too has a much stronger rooting interest in Ripley, that gives the picture resonances unusual in a popcorn epic.

At that last, simple level, the movie gives not just good weight but astounding value. The space outpost is not merely a more capacious haunted house than the first film's spaceship; it is the spookiest such structure in the history of movies, big enough to contain not only the large pool of potential victims but squads of monsters who keep coming from all directions.

Better still, it gives the movie's creators room to move around. Much of Aliens' originality results from the fact that the filmmakers have not confined themselves to the conventions of the horror genre. Without strain, and with a kind of manic good cheer, they meld into the film elements from many another pop tradition: action, adventure, even military comedy, anti-Establishment preachment and a well-taken satire on the yuppie mentality [Burke].

All of this is splendidly orchestrated in quickstep tempo. Aliens never forgets that its basic business is escapist, provided, of course, that your idea of escape is to give yourself over to a 2-hr. 17-min. movie that takes you up the ladder from apprehension to anxiety to fear to flat-out horror. Those big bugs are smart in their yucky way, and they are everywhere. Each time one of their human opponents opens a door or rounds a corner, you know terrible trouble is about to ensue. Anytime someone confidently announces what looks to be a foolproof plan to exterminate the aliens, you can be equallysure that this is another example of pride going before a slimy fall. Add to this plenty of snappy dialogue, gloriously staged combat sequences, imaginative hardware and special effects, the assured direction of James Cameron, and you have the elements that should add up to this summer's inescapable movie.

Yet all of this splendid craftsmanship, popular moviemaking at its best, is in the service of building rooting interest in the story of a woman who keeps finding ways to transcend the limits that unexamined custom often imposes on her sex. In action pictures, women are supposed to swoon or retreat to a safe corner (or, at best, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition) while the male lead protects them and defends Western civilization as we know it. In Aliens, it is the guys who are all out of action at the climax and Ripley who is in a death duel with evil. As Director Cameron says, the endless "remulching" of the masculine hero by the "male-dominated industry", is, if nothing else, commercially shortsighted. "They choose to ignore that 50% of the audience is female. And I've been told that it has been proven demographically that 80% of the time, it's women who decide which film to see."

6. Novelization

Foster, Alan Dean. Aliens. New York: Warner Books, 1986.

While the film and novelization versions of Aliens do not stray from each other in a manner such that the storyline is different, there are significant moments in the novel where we are able to get more "up close and personal" with the characters. The most obvious example of this is demonstrated through the revelation of Ripley's daughter. The motherhood theme becomes central to the novel, in an even greater capacity than it is in the film. Other differences include the novel revealing the name of the planet as Acheron, as compared to the more generic LV426 of the film. Other issues that are dealt with more in the novelization include more discussion of the aliens'' intelligence, as well as a slightly deeper look into Bishop's "personality" and inescapable references to the various bowels and chambers of the colony as "hell-like".

It is revealed early on in the novel that Ripley left an almost 11-year-old daughter behind when she went on the first mission aboard the Nostromo. Once rescued, she inquires about her daughter's whereabouts, and learns that while she has been drifting in space for the last 57 years, her daughter had grown-up, married and unfortunately died at the age of 66. This was a scene left on the cutting room floor in the original release of the film and was later restored for the laserdisc release. Ripley is granted somewhat of a second chance at motherhood when she meets Newt, and goes to extreme lengths in order to make sure nothing comes between her and her new surrogate daughter. Though a minor detail, Newt refers to Ripley as "mommy" a few more times in the novelization than in the film. Nevertheless, an even stronger bond between "mother and child" is formed as the novel progresses, as Ripley and Newt (as well as the remaining crew) grow increasingly interdependent on one another.

Another significant theme that is addressed somewhat in the film but is explored more in-depth in the novel is that of the aliens' intelligence. Bishop supposes that the aliens are organized into a form of insect colony, where workers protect the queen, whose sole purpose is to lay eggs. It is the fact that the aliens have "set up shop" near the heat exchangers (where, according to Bishop, "we couldn't destroy her without destroying ourselves.") that causes the group to wonder if the aliens act on blind instinct or through rational thinking. The aliens prove to be at least somewhat intelligent once they cut off the power and attack en masse through the tunnels and vents above them.

Though hard to imagine, Burke and the Company come off as even more cold and heartless than in the film. The Company, on numerous occasions, is shown as having little to no regard for human life, and concerned only with profits. On a more personal level, Burke demonstrates this when he locks Ripley and Newt in the medical lab with the "facehuggers," hoping to get one or both of them "impregnated." Interestingly, there is a moment in the novel that is not included in the film that shows Ripley being merciful towards Burke-on her quest to find Newt, Ripley encounters a coccooned Burke, begging her to put him out of his misery. Ripley hands him grenade and walks off, probably more out of sheer hatred for the aliens than Burke himself.

Many times in the novel, the depths of the colony's heat exchangers, processors, etc.. are constantly referred to as something out of the works of Dante, as well as with straightforward references to Hell. The coccooned bodies of the colonists are called a fate "worse than death." The imagery in the novel is tremendous, and though the film does a marvelous job of portraying this, there's something about the written word that can't be transferred to film. As well as the continual references to hell, the tunnels themselves are described as part of a "maze," "labyrinth," and so on.

One final difference between the film and the novel is a scene at the beginning (specifically Chapter 2). Foster describes in this chapter a scene of Newt's family heading out towards an unknown alien craft to explore (and claim as their own). We are introduced to the young Newt at this point, and in a way it helps the reader to understand how Newt has developed into a completely self-sufficient little girl who is able to survive while everyone else has died. Interestingly enough, this is another scene that was left on the cutting room floor and then later restored in the laserdisc release of Aliens.

7. Miscellaneous Items to Consider

While the marines were waging war with shouting and explosions, the aliens maintained some of the horror and mystique of the first film. By limiting verbal activity to hissing and scurrying, the somewhat intelligent creatures were still "animals" with deadly bites that liked to surprise. How might a large-scale battle in an open field change the feel of the move? Was their intelligence worthy of what we might typically associate with creatures from another planet? Does the idea that they are intelligent make them scarier?

The big slaughter when the crew has its first brush with the aliens is reminiscent of fights between Americans and the VC-the aliens, like the VC, know the area w ell, can camouflage themselves and ambush the crew. The crew is unprepared, "intelligence" wise, and dependent upon their technology to help them when they don't know what is going on. Also, the aliens use tunnels in their second attack that the survivors didn't know about. This is like the maze of underground tunnels that the VC had to travel around and attack from. The aliens don't have any other weapons but themselves and familiarity with the area, it is like the VC who did not have high tech weapons, but were very familiar with the area and were able to make booby traps out of sticks, pits, etc. that were quite effective.

"For Cameron, however, the Marines have another unstated use: 'Their training and technology are inappropriate for the specifics, and that can be seen as analogous to the inability of superior American firepower to conquer the unseen enemy in Viet Nam: a lot of firepower and very little wisdom, and it didn't work' " (Time, 28 July, 1986).

The 14 foot Queen of the aliens was called Horribilis Regina by her creators and the crew of the film. Special effects whiz Stan Winston created her from rough sketches drawn by James Cameron. The sculpture was recreated in rubber and polyurethane (est. cost $1 million); hydraulic power was used to activate the head, neck and torso, while Winston's 14 assistants used cables to operate her facial expressions and sets of hands. The arms were operated by two men, legs by cables and the tail was controlled hydraulically and with wires. ( People, 8 Sept. 1986).

Knowing that the Alien of the first film had a human inside and in the second film the Queen and her minions were all controlled/operated externally---take a look at the movement of the aliens and try to remember how the one in the first film moved. Differences?

Things to Ponder

  • The change in the music from sci-fi to adventure.

  • The change in Ripley's character from victim to aggressor.
  • Screens within screens.
  • Alien Movement
  • Are the aliens primitive or advanced?
  • The Company/government's role or responsibility in the deaths of the colonists and Marines.
  • Is this a feminist movie? Why or why not????

The Company

The Company in Aliens is personified theough the character of Carter Burke, and unquestionably becomes a secondary enemy (next to the aliens themselves, of course) to Ripley and the rest og the crew on LV-426. Right from the start, the Company demonstrates skepticism towards Ripley's story, and in fact is more concerned about the loss of a forty-two million credit ship (not including cargo) than they are about the loss of the other six members of the Nostromo's crew. When we finally see a representative of the Company in the person of Carter Burke, he tries to convince Ripley that he's "really an OK guy." Ripley is eventually convinced by Burke to return to LV-426 in order to, what she believes, kill the aliens.

Once on LV-426, of course, Burke's sinister motives are discovered. He continues the Company's philosophy that human life is essentially expendable, at one point he tries to impregnate Newt and Ripley as alien hosts for the return voyage. Burke and the company are also clearly driven by the almighty dollar. He constantly tells Ripley that the alien species would be worth a whole lot to the "bioweapons" division, and even offers Ripley a percentage of the profits.

The Company comes off as money and power hungry, showing total disregard for human life. Incidentally, Burke is the only representative of the Company we see in any great capacity in the film, and therefore all the viewer's hatred is concentrated on one person. Burke is also portrayed as a wimp in the film-we never see him on the front lines with the smart guns and grenades takin on the aliens. Near the end of the film, Burke is concerned only with his own survival, not to mention locking the doors behind him in order to trap the rest of the crew in with the aliens. Burke knows he's screwed one way or another-if he doesn't get obliterated by aliens, he will br reported to the Company/authorities back on Earth-that is unless he can escape alone. Burke's cowardice makes him (and therefore, the Company) even more loathsome.

The Company is not a particularly likable aspect of Aliens. Its complete disregard for anything except profit and weapons research makes it almost worse than the aliens-as Ripley says, "you don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." Burke personifies the Company, and gives the viewer someone specific to hate rather than the anonymous Company.

Fun Questions for Thought and Discussion

  1. How does Burke (and the Company) compare to Ash and Mother from Alien? Is Burke worse than Ash, seeing that he is a human being rather than a programmed "synthetic?"
  2. How might our feelings towards Burke change if he were strong and courageous (and aiding in the battle against the aliens) rather than being cowardly? Would his and the Company's corruption not matter as much?
  3. In what respects can we compare the Company in Aliens to the Cyberdine Corp. in Terminator 2? Can the "it's people like you" argument be used here to strike down technicological advancement or weapons research?

Theme of Motherhood and the Role of Women

  1. Review: From an article entitled Fembo, Aliens' Intentions, Journal of Popular Film and Television, winter 1986, v15,pg. 165-171.

    Aliens infers that to become a competent woman one must learn to manipulate the tangible or verbal instruments of aggression, which patriarchal society formerly reserved for men alone. One must never "take shit" from anyone, of any stripe. One must practice eternal vigilance against the threat of the alien "other," whether to one's prestige, possessions, or progeny. One, must be ready to "get it on," anywhere, anytime, against any despicable enemy. One must, in sum, be transformed into a well-armored paranoid, and patriot to boot.

    ...the cool professionalism Ripley displays, while the men around her literally and figuratively fall to pieces, was applauded. the fact that her courage and competence can co-exist with the gentling of her nature--as evidence in her "maternal" relationship with Newt--could also be taken as proof that she "has it all."

  2. Comments and Questions
  • The alien society is a matriarchal one unlike the patriarchal human society where the female hero is unusual. How does this comparison portray our culture's evolution?
  • The men with official authority over the mission (Burke, company representative and Lt. Gorden) are shown as weak under pressure and eventually surrender their authority to Ripley. Could they have given in to a male instinct of submission when the powerful mother figure takes control?
  • The queen alien's appearance distinguishes her from the other "worker" aliens:

      Twice the size
      Has a type of crown -- a long, flat, arrow shaped head
      four extra arms
      Long egg-laying abdomen, detachable
  • There seems to be no question in the alien structure as to who sits atop the hierarchy. How might human societies be formed if the female were also the physically dominant?
  • In Alien, Ripley's maternal side is demonstrated with her concern for the cat, Jonesy. Now it is her felt obligation toward Newt that becomes a much larger aspect of the movie and lead us toward the battle of the mothers.
  • Private Vasquez is depicted as perhaps the epitome of male strength while occupying a female body. However, Ripley is eventually superior by surpassing the simplistc "male power" characteristic. She displays the female strength of compassion with intelligence and plenty of human aggression to come out victorious. Was Private Vasquez really a female character?
  • During the final battle, both mothers are defending their children against a foe that wishes to destroy them. Could we feel sympathy toward the Queen alien in this situation? Would our opinions be different if the queen was a fluffy pink giraffe with cute little brown eyes and her eggs presented as wonderful bundles of joy?

Images of Exoskeletons

  • The aliens create a type of exoskeleton environment by secreting a resin and camouflaging themselves in the metal of the walls.

  • The metal structure of the inside of the buildings have no coverings, like skeletons without skin.

  • When the marines first enter the complex they are structural damages from a gun fight, so it looks like the guts of the building are hanging out of the walls.

  • The marines' armor is a type of external protective skeleton- this comparison has become more obvious when we see them take the armor off (Drake and Hicks).

Superimposition of Technology on Humans

  • Ripley suits up in a loading dock robot to fight the queen.
  • Hyper sleeping pods: as a type of mechanical womb.
  • The implanted personal data transmitters. The technology is implanted in the colonists and a computer always knows where you are (even if you're dead.)

The Alien

Giger's alien is not an evil, scary creature. There is no evil in Giger, There is no evil in the poppy-magnified cell-growths within our bodies. The worst thing you say about Giger's alien is this: She eats to live. Is she ugly? No more ugly than any member of the food chain that we reguarly and thoughtlessly pop in our red, gulping, adenoidal mouths three times a day. Giger's art has consistently wrestled with the paradox of the beauty and the Beast. thus he adds another chapter to the wonderous encyclopedia of mutants who represent those aspects of ourselves that we are not ready to wine and dine with.

-- Timothy Leary (pg.4 Aliens)

Giger's powerful alien design, inorganic sleekness blended with curved, phallic, organic forms, renders the horror sequences extremely vivid, but for all their force, they are plotted along deeply conventional lines.

-- (pgs.14-15 Encyclopedia of SF)

The following are extracts from a letter from Dan O'Bannon (author of Alien) to Giger (Alien, pg.10)

List Of Elements To Be Designed

Exterior, Ancient Temple. Approximately 20 meters tall. Should suggest an ancient, primitive culture.

Interior Temple. This is where the Spore Pods are stored. This room is entered through a vertical tunnel in the roof (the normal enterance has long since collapsed) The Spore Pods can be seen ranked around the altar in the center room.

Spore Pods. These are leathery, egg shaped objects about a meter tall, which contain the larva of the Alien. They have a small lid on top which pops off when the victim approaches.
The Alien, First Phase. This is a small, possibly octopodial creature which waits inside the Spore Pod until a victim approaches. Then someone touches the Spore Pod, the lid flies off, and the small alien (I) leaps out and attaches itself to the face of the victim.

The Alien, Second Phase. Once the alien (I) has attached itself to the face it lays eggs in the victim's stomach, and the eggs grow inside into the Alien (II). This is a small creature which bites its way out of the victim's body.

The Alien, Third Phase. Having left its victim, the alien promptly grows to man-size, where-upon it is terrifically dangerous. It is very mobile, strong, and capable of tearing a man to pieces. It feeds on hunman flesh. This creature should be a profane abomination. Our producers have suggested that someone resembling an over-sized, deformed baby might be suffieciently loathsome. In any event, we wish you feel free to create your own design.

-- Giger's Alien, H.R. Giger, Morpheus International, Beverly Hills, CA., 1989

The aliens are insect like which is organic, but they are also grey metallic looking like a robot. which is mechanical. In Aliens, all the aliens were puppets which made their movements more mechanical and not quite as graceful and agile as the original alien in Alien, which was a man in a costume.

More Questions

  • Is the alien in this movie more terrifying than an alien in any other movie? Why or why not?
  • Is it scarier to have one alien loose killing everyone, or a herd?
  • Are the aliens primitive or advanced?