“Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man? “
“No. Have you?”
Few films are as compulsively quotable as Aliens, that über-action flick that established Ellen Ripley as a science-fiction virago of the ass-kicking kind. But one of its biggest legacies was happening in the background. The movie’s structure—a blend of old-fashioned corporate distrust and even more old-fashioned war-movie shootouts—allowed for the best jargon of both worlds, and James Cameron’s R-rated patter is a sea of one-liners and rapid-fire back-and-forth. With the wrong cast, those characters could have been little more than expository placeholders, and the slow burn before the monsters come out could have been a stilted roll call of those about to die. But Aliens’ supporting cast is one of the most perfectly suited ever assembled, and it crystallized how viewers think of ensemble blockbusters.
Given that the movie doesn’t engage with its first in situ xenomorph until nearly an hour in, the time spent establishing the Marines and their shifting dynamic with Ripley is so significant, it becomes more of a primary focus in the movie than the bugs themselves. (A war movie is a movie about the soldiers, not the fight.) And what soldiers! Unflappable Sergeant Apone, even more unflappable Corporal Hicks, whiny chatterbox Hudson, enigmatic android Bishop, and fearlessly tough Vasquez vault from the shadow of their 1970s-disaster-movie forebears into characters who don’t even need a disaster to be interesting. Cameron’s script lavishes attention on them, including backstories that aren’t relevant, but provided actors with permission to imagine themselves distinctive rather than merely cannon fodder.
In particular, Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston) exchange perhaps two dozen words throughout the movie, but shot after shot frames their wordless communication—rolling their eyes at their CO, prepping their guns, glancing at each other before the firefighting gets heavy. Cameron gives them the visual and narrative space for that relationship, which he noted in the shooting script: “Dobermans playing. Conscripted from juvenile prison, the two of them were trained to operate the formidable ‘SMART-GUNS.’ That is part of their bond.” Vasquez also gets several other small arcs that play out in the background—her blossoming respect for Ripley, her antagonism with Hudson (whom she slaps down decisively with the Tallulah Bankhead classic, “No, have you?”), and her grudging, last-minute acceptance of Lt. Gorman moments before they blow themselves to pieces in a corridor packed with xenomorphs.
The film makes time for her, and for several other supporting characters: Hicks is forced to become a leader under pressure, Gorman goes from panicked by-the-booker to get-it-done Marine, and even Hudson eventually discovers the noive. (Bishop is the movie’s slowest surprise reveal—he stays the same, while Ripley slowly changes her mind about him.) These mini-arcs amid the gunshots have become industry standard for ensemble action, though it’s clear when the arcs are being centralized in the narrative (Pacific Rim, which gave teamwork-is-magic arcs to whoever lived long enough to get lines) and when they’re an afterthought (Edge Of Tomorrow, which was too busy masterfully editing its time loops to devote much time to the hardscrabble Army squad whose third-act sacrifice was meant to be so moving).
In order to let the actors perfect the dynamic that carried the tone of the film beyond the horror of Alien into action history, Cameron sent his Colonial Marines to boot camp for weeks before filming to give them military body language and familiarity with each other. That sort of forced Method prep has become standard operating procedure since. (Sigourney Weaver and Lance Henriksen did not attend, separating them from the camaraderie of the rest of the ensemble; Michael Biehn, who played Hicks, also did not attend, since he replaced James Remar a few days after shooting began, but maybe he was so laid-back that nobody noticed.) Cameron also smartly waited until the end of filming to shoot his lengthy establishing scenes, so the rapport between the Marines would be enhanced by everything they’d been through during production, which by all accounts was troubled. Cameron was a newcomer (Terminator hadn’t yet rocked the box office when Aliens production started), and he often clashed with a crew who didn’t take him seriously.
But it helped that not every actor there was a newcomer to Cameron’s direction. During his rise to king of the box office, Cameron assembled a roster of rotating supporting cast members that had the feeling of a fleeting Hammer Film (the studio maintained an on-call ensemble, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee popped up together at least once a year), or particularly violent summer stock. Part of this is because Cameron was planning Aliens while directing Terminator (in 1986, he told The L.A. Times he thought of several elements of Terminator as “a good dry run”), but part of it is that whatever his shortcomings, Cameron has an eye for how the pieces of a movie fit together. Some of the Aliens supporting cast Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd carried over from their previous joint project, The Terminator (Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton), and others appear in Cameron’s later work (Paxton in Titanic, Jenette Goldstein in Terminator 2 and Titanic) in small, reliable roles. Director Kathryn Bigelow also took notice of the cast chemistry in Aliens, casting Paxton, Henriksen, and Goldstein in her vampire Western Near Dark, and Aliens cast members occasionally worked together for a decade (as with Goldstein and Mark Rolston in 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2, or Paxton and Biehn in 1993’s Tombstone).
This recurring overlap brought a fourth-wall sense of a shared universe to many of these disparate stories—supporting-actor Easter eggs before the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And though few of them rose to headliner heights, familiarity made their collective faces a signature for that particular brand of late-’80s genre. While repeat ensemble casting has become more associated with auteur filmmaking, there are still a few filmmakers who use the technique to evoke that Hammer-stable blend of highbrow and pulp. (Currently, the director attempting this with the most aplomb might be Christopher Nolan, whose casting overlap from project to project is so ambitious, it’s become an unofficial trademark.)
Ripley rightly remains the anchor who carries the movie from its opening moments to its final ones. However, it’s hard to discount the effect of Cameron’s particular blockbuster alchemy in Aliens; the script deftly sketches the cast’s personalities through vicious banter and iconic one-liners, and the actors pick up the subtext and run with it, creating an ensemble interesting enough that many of their deaths still register in pop culture. (Whither Vasquez, dammit?) At heart, this is a demonstration of Cameron’s understanding that even an action flick is a character piece, and how a good actor will be able to create a memorable character in less than a dozen lines. It’s the sort of recognition that means Lance Henriksen recurred as Bishop (in one form or another) in Alien movies for two more decades, and it meant that for a while, “Hey, It’s That Actor!” became a much more fun game.
The action-movie ensemble cast has been around in one form or another since Georges Méliès’ “A Trip To The Moon,” and it’s gone through hundreds of iterations: diverse samurai, fresh-faced infantry, the passengers on an upturned boat, a street gang that has to get back to Coney Island. But though The Warriors is a timeless classic, its characters are as stylized and static as the roles in a medieval play, and disaster movies tend to be more concerned with the disaster than the performances. Aliens provided the modern architecture of the all-action supporting cast: bursting with banter, not so big as to slow down the pace, and fleshed out just enough to matter. These days, we expect those ensembles. We look forward to a handful of characters to root for. The crew of the Sulaco has become the narrative gold standard—and it’s no wonder.
This wraps our Movie Of The Week coverage of James Cameron’s Aliens. Game over, man, game over. Don’t miss our early-week Keynote on the way the film plays with motherhood in the wake of Alien’s twisted take on fatherhood, and today’s Forum on Aliens’ conceptual audacity, its special effects, and that corporate-stooge asshole Burke. Next week, we leave space aliens and delve into a different kind of alienation with Sofia Coppola’s feature debut, The Virgin Suicides.