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.
Aliens 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.