Alien Day: James Cameron on how he expanded the universe in 'Aliens' and where the franchise went wrong

Alien Day is once again upon us, and our chests are practically bursting with excitement. April 26 is the designated date for Xenomorph fans to celebrate the blockbuster franchise, which began 40 years ago with the release of Ridley Scott’s 1979’s science-fiction favourite Alien. Although Scott — along with key collaborators Walter Hill, Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger and star Sigourney Weaver — introduced audiences to the Alien universe, it’s James Cameron who pointed the way for how the series would evolve over the next four decades.

In the early 1980s, the Roger Corman-schooled filmmaker was approached about directing the sequel while he was in the midst of launching his own soon-to-be sci-fi franchise, The Terminator. As an enormous admirer of the original Alien, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make the film that became Aliens. “I loved the Sigourney character, Ripley, I loved the setting, the tone [and] I loved the alien,” Cameron tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I was just a fanboy trying to make a movie kind of like that one.” (Watch the video interview above.)

Read more: How they made the Alien queen

While Cameron honoured the characters and world that he inherited from Scott, it’s also no accident that Aliens and Alien are substantively different movies. Where the original is an elegantly dread-inducing creature feature, Cameron made a rough-and-tumble deep space combat film that incorporates elements of classic Westerns and war movies.

“I had my own interests and my own themes that I wanted to explore,” the director admits now. “I wasn’t trying to play against Ridley at all; I was trying to lean into and channel and the Ridley-ness of it. I didn’t succeed, because I’m not as good as him … [and so] I kind of inadvertently put my own spin on it. I think it has hybrid vigour as a result of that.”

American actress Sygourney Weaver with director and screenwriter James Cameron on set of his movie Aliens. (Photo by Bob Penn/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
American actress Sygourney Weaver with director and screenwriter James Cameron on set of his movie Aliens. (Photo by Bob Penn/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

The sequels that followed Aliens also followed Cameron’s example by embracing their director’s specific thematic and artistic sensibilities. David Fincher’s Alien 3 is a grim psychodrama set on a prison planet that contains some of the themes that the director would later explore in Se7en and The Game, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection has the some of the same visual and tonal playfulness on display in The City of Lost Children and Amélie. And when Scott returned to the franchise for the prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, he brought along with him fresh ideas and moods he wanted to explore.

The result is a series that stands apart from more rigidly managed universes like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars galaxy, where there’s often less room for authorial flourishes to peek through. Not that Cameron takes credit for launching Alien in that direction: “You can’t know what precedent you’re going to set — you just do what makes sense at the time.”

Read more: Game over, man! A mini oral history of Bill Paxton’s classic ‘Aliens’ freakout

Interestingly, the director now seems to feel that the franchise as a whole may have benefitted from more continuity between films. Discussing Alien 3, Cameron says the movie’s “fatal mistake” is the choice to kill off two characters he introduced in Aliens: Ripley’s surrogate daughter, Newt (Carrie Henn), and her android comrade, Bishop (Lance Henriksen).

“You fight so hard for these people to survive, and you go to the next movie and … they’re all dead,” he explains. He also wasn’t a fan of the movie’s big twist — Ripley is carrying in Alien queen inside her—but stresses he doesn’t blame Fincher for either of those missteps, calling the movie a brilliant failure.”

“He got handed a big mess on a plate, and he tried to do something with it.” Here’s one thing Fincher did accomplish with Alien 3he launched the franchise’s most enduring meme.

Alien Day is April 26.