When cinema-goers queued up to see Aliens in 1986, seven years had already passed since its predecessor, Alien. While a follow-up to the 79 hit had been discussed at Fox for years, it took James Cameron to finally bring it to fruition—and it’s fair to say that he created something far more than a typical sequel of the era.
Where franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street largely followed the template established by the first film, Cameron attempted something vastly more ambitious: a continuation and expansion of Ridley Scott’s classic, a second chapter in its resourceful heroine Ripley’s story—one where she’s transformed from traumatized survivor to avenging warrior.
Much has been written about the brilliance of Aliens, both on this site and elsewhere—and with the film celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer, there are likely to be lots more appreciations and dissections to come from other writers. But among all the things that are great about Aliens, I’d like to single out just one element: Bishop, the artificial human played by Lance Henriksen.
Henriksen and Cameron’s working relationship stretched back several years before Aliens. Henriksen had a role in the infamous Piranha II: The Spawning, a movie on which James Cameron served as director for about two weeks before he was dropped by Ovidio Assonitis. The actor also auditioned for the title role in The Terminator, back when Cameron still imagined the murderous cyborg as the kind of face who could slip unnoticed into a crowd. Ultimately, of course, Cameron plumped for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and cast Henriksen in a small yet pivotal role as Sergeant Vukovich, a cop distinguished by his off-color stories about his experiences on the force.
Henriksen’s role as Bishop in Aliens gave him something more meaty to bite into, and I’d argue it’s one of the highlights in his long career. When Bishop first appears on the screen, movie-goers probably shared the same distrust as Ripley. The last time we encountered a synthetic in the Alien universe, it was Ash (a magnificent Ian Holm)—the passive-aggressive, duplicitous android who essentially sold the crew of the Nostromo out so that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation could get its hands on the alien.
Like Ash, Bishop is softly-spoken and unassuming, and an employee of Weyland Yutani: Bishop’s an executive officer on the Sulaco, a Company ship bound for the alien-infested planet LV-426. After Bishop lightly cuts a finger during a knife trick with colonial marine Hudson (Bill Paxton), he studies the milk-white blood running down his hand—and we see Ripley visibly recoil from the realization that he’s an android. As Bishop’s big, brown eyes dart around a mess hall as Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) relates the story of a malfunctioning Ash, we can’t help wondering: is Bishop another quiet soul we can’t quite trust?
For the entirety of Aliens’ first act, Cameron plays on our suspicions. There’s a scene on Hadley’s Hope where Bishop is dissecting a facehugger, much as Ash did in Alien. He’s so fixated on his work that he doesn’t even hear Spunkmeyer (Daniel Kash) speaking to him at first; when he finally looks up, there’s a spooky blank look in Bishop’s eyes.
It’s a wonderfully subtle little nugget of acting: little more than a glance from Henriksen, but eerily lacking in humanity. It’s the same “uncanny valley” effect we get from looking at a lifelike CGI character; almost human, but not quite.
It’s when the aliens close in and the Marines start expiring that Bishop’s warmth becomes more apparent. One of the film’s best incidental scenes involves Bishop crawling through a duct and activating a transmitter. Bishop volunteers to go on this potentially suicidal mission because everybody else refuses to do it; the other characters have made the assumption that, because Bishop’s a synthetic, he probably doesn’t experience fear the way the rest of them do. The way Bishop gently corrects them on this point is a sublime piece of writing and acting. “Believe me, I’d prefer not to,” he says. “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid.”
The brilliance of Henriksen’s performance didn’t come about by accident. In 1987, the actor explained to Starlog writer Jane Rafferty that he’d spent two months preparing for the role, reading books and imagining what it might be like to be an android surrounded by real humans. He’d seen Ian Holm play Ash and Rutger Hauer shine so brightly in Blade Runner, a synthetic human in another Ridley Scott classic. Henriksen imagined something different; a gentle, childlike soul who nevertheless has to live with the day-to-day reality that he could be scrapped or terminated by his human masters at any moment.
“I felt that he was only 10 years old, mechanically, so I gave him the emotional life of a 14-year-old,” Henriksen said. “I was basically playing myself at that age. There’s the knowledge that you have your whole life ahead of you to learn, yet there’s always that vulnerability to the powers that be.”
Armed with this knowledge, it becomes easier to understand Bishop’s strange interest with the facehugger he’s examining in Aliens. He’s a youthful-minded scientist, fascinated by life in all its forms. Henriksen even discussed these ideas with James Cameron in long phone conversations before filming began:
“I told Jim, ‘Anything that’s really organically alive is fascinating to Bishop. There’s no good or evil—just this ultimate respect for anything living.'”
Even Bishop’s first scene—that knife game he plays with an ususpecting Hudson—arose from Henriksen’s conversations with Cameron. They’d initially imagined showing Bishop wandering the Sulaco while the rest of the crew was in hypersleep—a sequence which later showed up in Prometheus—before they settled on Bishop playing around with a knife instead. It was on set that Henriksen had the idea of roping in Bill Paxton’s character, too—thus providing a great introduction for a marine who spends much of the movie in the state of blind panic.
In a film full of memorable characters, Bishop stands out because of his calm air. There’s something enticing about the questions his temperament raises: on a ship full of testosterone-fuelled soldiers, he may be the gentlest soul of them all. Indeed, he’s the only one who refuses to handle a gun. Bishop forms part of the humane thread that James Cameron sews into his Alien sequel. It may have horror elements, as the original did, but the sense of desolation and helplessness is gone.
Carter Burke represents some of the worst human instincts: the selfishness, the greed, the lust for power. But Aliens’ other surviving characters exemplify what’s good about humanity: resilience, the desire to protect and nurture one another. One of the major arcs in Aliens is that Ripley learns to overcome her fear (a kind of android-phobia) and learn to trust Bishop.
By the same token, Bishop suggests that, as well as making dangerous weapons and sociopathic androids, humans may one day possess the ability to create a being that reflects the best of themselves. It’s this idea that Henriksen captures so beautifully in his performance. He’s nothing less than science fiction’s ultimate gentle android. Not bad for a human.