Aliens’ colonial marines: a missed opportunity?

Feature Ryan Lambie 24 Jul 2012 - 07:53

Aliens was a hit, so why didn’t Hicks and his fellow colonial marines get their own spin-off movie? It is, Ryan argues, one of sci-fi cinema’s missed opportunities…

James Cameron didn’t invent the concept of the space marine, but he was undoubtedly the first filmmaker to imagine what a platoon of future soldiers might look like. Because, although Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers provided the template, it’s Aliens’ colonial marines which have proved so profoundly influential on a generation of filmmakers and videogame designers.

Cameron even provided what may be a possible nod to Heinlein’s 50s sci-fi novel in one of Aliens’ numerous memorable lines; when Hudson (Bill Paxton) puts up his hand and asks, “Will this be a stand-up fight, or another bug hunt”, this could well be a subtle allusion to the Klendathu insect war depicted in Starship Troopers – the creatures in the novel were even referred to as ‘the bugs’ by its characters.

If Starship Troopers provided the inspiration for the soldiers in Aliens, Cameron took the concept somewhere rather different. Far from the power armoured, jet-pack jumping super soldiers of Heinlein’s novel, the colonial marines in Aliens are relatively low-tech; their guns are powerful, but their armour is light. (Those armoured exoskeletons from Starship Troopers, meanwhile, may have provided the basis for Aliens’ power loader.) 

In writing and directing Aliens, Cameron created a group of human, memorable characters. Although they’re surely doomed – just as anyone who shares the same off-world colony or spaceship as Ellen Ripley inevitably is – each character gets their own moment, an individual scene in which to shine. There’s Bill Paxton’s jumpy Hudson, who shouts and wastes ammo. There’s Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez, a female soldier who’s arguably tougher than her male colleagues. And then there’s Dwayne Hicks, a quiet, thoughtful soldier who’s wise enough to listen to Ripley’s warnings about the Alien menace.

was, of course, a hit, and still hailed as one of the greatest sequels yet made. Its success at the box-office ensured that more Alien movies would be greenlit over the next decade – each following the exploits of Ripley and her increasingly outlandish encounters with acid-dripping xenomorphs.

What’s strange, though, is that 20th Century Fox didn’t see the storytelling potential in one of the most memorable elements in Aliens: those wise-cracking colonial marines. Hicks, the only soldier to survive the events of LV-426, was unceremoniously killed off before Alien 3 began – his presence, it seems, wasn’t required in that film’s doom-laden plot.

Cameron’s initial concept for a sequel to Aliens would have been a more faithful extension to his previous film, further exploring the familial bond between Ripley, Hicks and Newt. One Alien 3 script even had Hicks as the lead character, fighting a new Alien threat while Ripley dreamed away in hypersleep. 

Although Michael Biehn was interested in reprising his role as Hicks, Alien 3’s story gradually drifted away from Cameron’s original ideas, and as more and more writers became involved, Hicks’ role gradually dwindled to little more than a photograph on a screen in the movie David Fincher eventually brought to cinemas in 1992 – Biehn once, quite reasonably, described his ejection from the franchise as ‘heartbreaking’.

The nightmarish development of Alien 3 is well documented. But one of the major tragedies of its production – and one seldom discussed – is that Hicks, and with him the whole colonial marines concept, died somewhere in the scriptwriting process.

With attitudes towards sequels and franchise building very different in the 80s and 90s, it seems that no one at Fox thought about the possibility of a spin-off movie based entirely on the colonial marines. At the time, it would have been perfectly feasible to make a prequel, which perhaps detailed the pre-Aliens exploits of Hicks and his fellow grunts – maybe even delving into the story implied by Hudson’s ‘bug hunt’ reference.

In the wake of Aliens, the pop culture impact of the colonial marines – and the look of film in general – was immediate. It’s worth noting that Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers, with its military units wearing light armour rather than powerful exoskeletons, was actually closer to Aliens than Heinlein’s book.

Aliens’ impact on videogame design, meanwhile, can be seen everywhere – from the retro alien blasting future soldiers in Contra (1987) to the frat-boy space marines in Gears Of War and a thousand identikit sci-fi shooters. In the absence of more colonial marines adventures on the big screen, videogame designers filled the void.

Interestingly, the colonial marines are alive and well in the forthcoming videogame, Aliens: Colonial Marines, which sees another group of soldiers heading to LV-426 immediately after the events of the 1986 movie.

With the characters Cameron came up with more than a quarter of a century ago proving so enduring, there’s still at least the faint possibility that someone will come up with a colonial marines film concept. After all, one of the triggers for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was what the director described as an ‘unanswered question’ from 1979’s Alien; namely, what was the story behind the mysterious space jockey – another enduring creation from the Alien universe.

Perhaps someone at Fox will one day get round to asking a similar question of Aliens – just what did the colonial marines get up to when they weren’t battling those xenomorphs? Until then, Cameron’s future soldiers will remain one of sci-fi cinema’s great missed opportunities.

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Didn't Cameron make all the marine cast read Starship Troopers in preperation for their roles?

First: This comment field didn't show up properly in Opera 12 once I clicked the input field, as the field suddenly repositioned to the left side almost out of view.
Second: I want to see a movie adaption of the comic book "Aliens: Hive" by Dark Horse, aka as "Aliens: Harvest" as reprint.

I for one, would like to see a "Colonial Marines vs Predators" movie.

Surely a spin off wouldn't have worked because a) they're all dead for a sequel, and b) we know by watching Aliens who'd survive a prequel.

I don't think it was a missed opportunity, I think it was a lucky escape. The words "spin-off" fill one with dread; even worse if it ended up as a TV series. "Wise-cracking" doesn't fill me with much confidence either. Many films have tried to replicate (or just plain copy) Cameron's marines in one form or another (Event Horizon being possibly the most appalling example). If there's a lesson to be learned from the Star Wars prequels, it's that characters are often cooler BECAUSE you don't find out too much about them (The Fetts). With a spin-off you either end up with a few throwaways dying whilst the Aliens characters survive in a prequel (as another commentator said), a sequel is impossible, and if it's about a different squad altogether... well I can just imagine a carbon copy team using the same banter, maybe with some tenuous link like it's Apone's brother in charge. Some of the marine dialogue is pretty cringeworthy anyway, with Hicks more of a Kyle Reese kncok-off (stoic, brave), and I've heard much criticism of Aliens from people who wanted more 'realisitic' characters a' la the jaded space truckers from Alien.
I can just imagine the full horrors of a TV series... the episode where Drake gets stranded on a moon with an alien child, and learns the value of acceptance; the episode where Bishop wants to be more human, but learns to accept who he is.
PS Joss Whedon is pants and Prometheus is excellent.

I never really considered it but now thinking about it, I would have loved to see those characters in some kind of prequel. Despite references in the film to "just another bug hunt" (implying they had encountered them in a mission before) its unlikely it could involve aliens as they all seemed quite surprised at the appearance and abilities of the xenomorphs in the Aliens movie which wouldn't be consistent if they had fought them before.

Shame that era was so preoccupied with sequels and never really considered prequels.

Seems limiting to follow one squad when there's such a big universe to play with.

Assuming there were more than just that handful you could open it out to feature different squads on different world. Gives you the opportunity to tell the stories any way you like.

I yearn now for a time when the word franchise wasn't used so often in conjunction with films, when not every single last avenue was exploited to make more and more films of ever decreasing quality and when sometimes a film could just be a film on its own and onto the next new & creative thing.

Admittedly none of that is true for Aliens.

If Cameron isn't involved, forget it...then again, did anyone watch Avatar? Perhaps someone new could do a good job with this...say Christopher Nolan.

I enjoyed this article, and I loved James Cameron's colonial marines in Aliens. I was the perfect age to get maximum enjoyment out of this movie, so i grew up thinking they were just the coolest. But i think i disagree with the article. I think part of what makes a great story point or any particular aspect of worldbuilding is in what you _don't_ tell. By giving us a glimpse at the depth and history of the colonial space marines, we imagine more than what is shown. If movies had been made showing more of them, the details of that world we've built in our own minds would be robbed from us. Sure, I really want more of Apone's gruff sergeant, and yes I'd watch a whole movie about Hicks. But the history and stories I imagine for them are so much better than what a spin-off could have shown, particularly outside of the context in which they were originally delivered - on LV-426, doomed to die one by one to an underestimated alien menace.

Great article....I for one would not be suprised at all if the colonial marines pop up in Cameron's Avatar sequals. After all, since Fox is nt useing them in any Alien films, and Fox is also involved with Avatar (and god knows they would give Cameron whatever he wants)....I t seems unlikely that Cameron will ever make another alien why not just use them in the Avatar sequals?..they would be called a different name im sure...

and before anyone says "but there were space marines in Avatar" It was made very very clear that those guys were mercenaries simply working for the giant corporation (the RDA?)...kind of like the privare security compnay blackwater in Iraq.....

And in imho....the colonial marines would be able to fit into the Avatar universe equally as well....

I had the idea years ago for a movie titled "Apone: The Early Years" Yes, a shitty title but I would've loved to have seen these characters go on other missions...

Shhh! Not so loudly. Fox will hear you...

Nah, actually I'd be up for that. I'm surprised we haven't heard much on the Predator front lately actually...

Well, after the "Predators" flop, I'm not surprised.

Yeah, it certainly flopped in the US, anyway. Not so bad everywhere else. It was definitely a step up from Predator 2 anyway, that's for sure...

I for one am glad that 'Alien 3' didn't go the Hicks/Newt/Ripley route, it was better that Ripley was alone to finish her arc, and having Hicks and newt die senseless deaths added to the somber and funereal atmosphere of that under-appreciated threequel... and the reason the Power Armor wasn't in 'Starship Troopers' was a budgetary one, they were fully designed, but the movie was already costing over $100m, and it was felt they would be better left for a potential sequel, alas not...

Oh come on. P2 was great.

Didnt they all die?? plus wasn't there and explosion???????

I'm thinking of something along the lines of Apocalypse Now / Full Metal Jacket, directed by Guy Ritchie (maybe Zack Snyder), and starring Adam Baldwin as lead: "I love the smell of xenomorph in the morning."

Stop your grinnin and drop your linen!

Despite regularly crying over the AVP films, I still believe that it is possible to make a good one (I know I'll probably be hunted down and burned alive for saying that). Anderson and the Strauss chaps just don't have the film-making skills to do something like that, nor did they really have the budget. I don't consider those films to be proof that an AVP film HAS to be bad, but it really needs an exceptionally high level of care and attention to be good. I think if you imagine AVP 1 & 2 are Batman Forever and Bartman & Robin, then a skilled director like Nolan could make the 'Batman Begins' of AVP films... dark, story and character-driven, trying to tie the fantasy to the real world wherever possible, with minimal CGI. And enough of a budget to get actors that actually possess talent. Aliens vs Predators vs Marines might be just the ticket, but nasty, cerebral and not just a monster mash-up.

I agree, it was like a cinematic metaphor for the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s and the grunge era. The brave soldier, cute kid and friendly robot (the usual James Cameron family motif) are brutually swept aside, as Ripley wakes up in the most rotten environment imaginable. And she dies. Pretty brave really, for a major Hollywood sequel, despite all the problems.

I agree it was one of the biggest missed opportunities of all time. The new game comming out is attempting what the sequal should have. Fox dropped the ball. The other Alien films after "Aliens" were terrible. I always wondered why they only sent a section of Marines down to a danger zone that Weyland Yutani was already aware was infested. I am sure the Weyland Yutani corp and shareholders in the USCM had their reasons. They could have expanded on that concept alone.

'Cause most of them died?

The universe is full of "aliens". Remember when eating they talked about that arcturian poon ;) So I bet they met a lot of aliens in the universe, but none like Ripley's

Strange how people have different interpretations of dialogue and storylines. Throughout the whole series of "Alien" movies I got the impression that aliens weren't part of the universe (or weren't largely discovered yet other than a Company coverup) and any talk of aliens was considered ridiculous (hence the bug "hunt" not the bug "fight" comment). And the "Arcturian Poontang" comment I interpreted as the marines' liaisons with human teraformers on a planet called Arcturus :) I guess that's the definition of a good movie, left open to different interpretations by different people!

I would love to see Cameron do an Alien movie with today's technology!.

I found this article because I was inspired by the game into thinking that a sequel to Aliens would still be possible if it had all new characters.

I had the idea that a sequel to Aliens like the game could tell the story of the marines who arrived in orbit at LV-426 after Ripley left. However, it would have to be a different story line to the game to work as a movie. When the marines arrive they find some kind of private civilian/research vessel in orbit who have already interacted with the surface. As a result there are Aliens loose on the civilian vessel as well as below on the surface. The marines split up to investigate and the two threads join in a finale involving the derelict craft. Throw in some scientists with cool tech, escaped prisoners and various people from the civvy ship plus some aggressive mercenaries who show up to do their own investigation and blah blah = cool action movie.
I'm gonna stop pretending to be a screenwriter now...And oh yeah Jim Cameron I want to play the lead role, I've started doing 20 press-ups a day in preparation. Thanks :-D

id like to see a gory fight between alien and marine the game shows alot of blood stained walls and floors but the lack of alien aggression unlike the films sucked but overall the games story was excellent now why cant they take the game and make it into one hell of a movie? If you look at it right the game ties aliens to the crappy alien 3 with weyland personal for instance if a ship was dispatched to investigate and all marines got wasted as they do and the sulaco does go down in a ball of flame leaving no evadence then weyland personal that was on sulaco take sephora to where ripley is because in alien 3 that ship looks identical in theroy it makes sense but in saying so nothing in the game hints as to how weyland personal got on sulaco so more mystery????

Aliens was action and gore pitting worst nightmare with humanities best why not take it one step further

Or even make a decent movie of alien,predator and marines they did there best with predators but why 2 different predators why not alien? avp movies are pretty much dead the first was good the second lacked the punch the first one had especially with the crappy national guard getting hammered and two brothers doing better with a mummy solder and child wtf?? there are many possibilities with these films but who is willing to create such movies these days

just an opinion i could be terribly wrong with this post just throwing it out there

I know this is an old article but I just have to add my thought that Alien 3 is ghastly. I hated that movie with the fiery passion of 666 thousand suns. What a waste of time and money! Until Prometheus came along, there had not been a good Xenomorph-related movie since Aliens.

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