Aliens: The Set Photography (Book Review)

New coffee table book explores the making of James Cameron’s horror classic Aliens

The Alien franchise is perhaps the most consistently interesting (if not always entirely successful) dark fantasy/horror series in cinema history in that it always tries to build on its established mythology. Even the gimmicky Alien Vs. Predator movies expand the presence of the xenomorphic threat and offer strange side-world stories that never cancel out the gravitas of the “official” sequential sequels. And love it or hate it, Prometheus (and presumably its sequel, the upcoming Alien: Covenant) finds novel ways to create new tales as opposed to duplicating the formula for a cheap commercial cash-in.

But as far as quality is concerned, really, the first two films are the ones that really matter.

Ridley Scott’s historically important 1979 original film was a haunted house movie set in space and introduced us to one of the screen’s most influential heroines, that of Sigourney Weaver’s resourceful, tough and yet still decidedly feminine Ripley. Alien was and remains a horror masterpiece, terrifying and stylish and wonderfully simple in its structure.

James Cameron’s deluxe 1986 sequel Aliens is just as relevant a film, perhaps more so in that it in many ways set the standard for the sort of high-octane, violent and muscular sci-fi/action blockbuster films we absorb ad nauseum today. I’d say Aliens had and continues to have a healthy influence on gaming culture as well…

But Cameron’s follow-up to his 1984 breakthrough The Terminator, was no lunk-headed magnification of the austere original. It deftly expanded the first film in every way. Not only in the way – as its title promised – it introduced more xenomorphs, but in the clever manner it developed the Ripley character, hardened her for battle and yet wove in some very touching human beats, mostly in the form of her surrogate motherhood to lone survivor Newt (Carrie Henn). Aliens is the movie that forever fused Weaver to Ripley, for life.

And it’s that latter element that serves as the soul of editor Simon Ward’s new coffee table book Aliens: The Set Photography (out now from Titan Books).

The lush tome delivers exactly what it promises, collecting a wealth of fascinating high resolution images that reveal the wizard behind Cameron’s curtain, effectively dividing the shots between “on set” and “behind the scenes” so one walks away with an even deeper appreciation of the magnitude and ambition of the project.

But the real point of entry into the narrative Ward creates comes in the form of a lengthy intro by Henn in which the now nearly middle-aged former child star recalls in haunting, vivid detail her adventures leading up to getting the role, her incredible, life-changing time shooting the film, her real life connection to Weaver and other actors, especially Bill Paxton, and of course, her observations of Cameron’s artistry. Here was a young filmmaker taking on a massive movie with many moving parts and managing to not only keep it on track and command every inch of it (did you know Cameron even designed the Queen and her birthing canal?) and consistently exhibiting kindness and support to his cast and crew.

The photos in the book often come captioned with quotes from Henn as well, leading one to wonder why she doesn’t actually get a co-author credit.

If you’re a fan of Aliens – and really, who isn’t – then Alien: The Set Photography will be a most valuable addition to your library.

Purchase Aliens: The Set Photography direct from Titan Books here.