Three decades before strong, competent and powerful female action heroes like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Black Widow in The Avengers and Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens finally became fixtures in film, there was Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Aliens.
The actress debuted Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley in director Ridley Scott’s moody 1979 sci-fi/horror masterwork Alien, deftly eluding a monstrous, murderous and nearly indestructible extraterrestrial life form.
But it wasn’t until that film’s long-gestating sequel Aliens arrived in 1986, written and directed by future action auteur James Cameron, that Ripley truly emerged as an ass-kicking action heroine for the ages as she took on an entire hoard of the seemingly unstoppable invaders and their gargantuan queen.
During its original theatrical release, Aliens was an enormous box office blockbuster – ensuring the future of the franchise – and earned top critical honors, including a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Weaver, a nearly unheard of honor for a genre performance.
In the 30 years since, the film has endured as a classic of its kind, both for its intense, epic action sequences, its attention to character and its groundbreaking use of a top-tier dramatic actress as a capable action star – a feat Cameron and his then-wife and producer partner Gale Ann Hurd (The Walking Dead) also equaled with Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in their Terminator films.
To mark the film’s anniversary – which is being honored by a new Aliens: 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray and digital release on Tuesday – PEOPLE joined Weaver, Cameron, Hurd and costar Paul Reiser for a remembrance of their time making the film:
James Cameron: It was a writing gig. That’s how it started out. We were on pause making Terminator. We knew we were going to make it but I had a few months to write, so the Terminator script went out as a sample, and I got called by Walter Hill and David Giler, who had made Alien – but it wasn’t about Alien. They had a couple of ideas: one of them was a Spartacus in space story, so I went off and wrote kind of an outline for that. They didn’t like my pitch.
And as I was literally walking out of their office, David Giler says, “Wait, wait, wait.” So I came back in and he said, ‘We’ve got this other thing: Alien 2. They had been sitting on this thing for six years, hadn’t cracked it – had no idea. I mean, I don’t think I betrayed too much, but my brain lit up like a pinball machine. Because Alien was one of my favorite films – I just thought it was a masterpiece.
I took it on as a writing sample with the proviso that they let me direct it … And this was a sequel to somebody else’s masterpiece, which is really a dumb idea as a career move.
Gale Ann Hurd: Unless you completely reinvent it and don’t try to do a remake. That was the thing: Jim’s approach was, ‘We’re making a combat film.’ The tagline of the film is, “This time it’s war.” It wasn’t, “This time it’s even scarier.” And that was intentional.
Sigourney Weaver: I hadn’t heard of Jim. I was working with Gérard Depardieu in France and I suddenly got this script in the mail for an Aliens sequel. And of course, we didn’t do them in those days – that was not considered something to do, and I’m like, ‘I’m too busy.’ But I start to read this script, and honestly, it just knocked me out. The structure of this script, the structure of Alien is sort of Ten Little Indians. It’s quite straightforward. This script had so many wonderful things in it right from the start.
Hurd: It’s a brilliant script because it’s about the characters. It’s not just a sequence of action sequences or visual effects extravaganza – you’re invested in the characters. You’re invested in her journey. You as the audience and her character are the only ones who know what she’s going to be facing. The other ones don’t, and they don’t believe her, don’t trust her, and think that she’s uniquely unqualified.
At the end of the day, it’s also maternal: it’s the story of someone who forms a surrogate daughter relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn), up against the alien queen who’s protecting her own brood. It’s ultimately this clash of two women mother titans.
Cameron: I think the inspiration for wanting to make the film was to continue the idea of a strong female character who’s in charge, but is questioned by the ones around her, but ascends and becomes heroic. And not necessarily just kind of like a swordswoman who’s physically strong, but mentally strong, emotionally strong. That’s what people really respect about her.
Weaver: I don’t know that I really knew, “Oh, I’m a woman action hero,” because I was thinking of myself as the character. But I did feel that it was such an important point to make … To me, women are so incredibly strong. We don’t sit around. We’re practical, first of all. That’s why we need a woman president. We will get things done and not alienate the entire world. That’s what people are still realizing about women – even women themselves. We are so capable.
Cameron: I always think of it as a perfect synchronicity between the cast and the characters. We spent a lot of time casting the film. We saw thousands and thousands of actors, and we got the right people. Of course, we had Sigourney already. She was the sun at the center of that solar system. That’s how I always thought of it. We inherited that piece of casting, but it was genius.
Paul Reiser: I had done one or two movies that were comedies, but I had really not been particularly established. My recollection was he was looking for somebody … who puts people at ease, have lightness so that they wouldn’t suspect that he’s going to be who he is. But my recollection is that when we saw the film, everybody in the theater goes, ‘That guy’s up to no good! That guy’s bad, right there! That young guy in the suit, I don’t trust him for s—.”
Sigourney was the center of the universe in the best sense, in that she was this action hero on screen, and she was the heavyweight on the set. And it was a very busy, intense set. There’s a lot of movie to get made, and there’s never enough time. She was a combination of this wonderful authority and this wonderful calm, nurturing heart. She was sort of the Earth mother of the production, as well as the fearless leader.
Weaver: I had no idea the movie would play like that. Every character registered big-time. Every joke. And by the end when I finally come out with that line, the whole audience yelled it. It was just like, it just was like a machine. It was just so well-calibrated, and knew exactly where it was going to go emotionally, and had so much maternal stuff going on. It’s a complex script, and honestly I knew then that he was a great filmmaker.
Really, when a movie comes out and you read some of the reviews … then you understand that you were on a path, and I’m very grateful that I got to play it a second time because I found it’s so much more about her than I ever would have if we hadn’t done the sequel.
In other words, as Cameron explained, “it worked out.”