Summer of '86: 'Aliens' and the Adrenaline Jolt of a Lifetime

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·Editor-in-Chief, Yahoo Entertainment
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All this week, we’re celebrating the great movies that hit screens 30 years ago in 1986. Go here to read more.

In space, no one can hear you scream. Inside the Cinema Plaza in Flemington, N.J., was a whole other story in July of 1986.

Summers turned the small multiplex off Route 202 into the social hub of our rural corner of the Garden State. Better yet, lax security allowed my pubescent crew to spend days hopping between the five shoebox-sized theaters, gleefully getting into R-rated movies with our PG tickets. And no movie was more anticipated that season than Aliens. None of us had seen Ridley Scott’s haunted-house spaceship movie when it played in 1979 (I was, however, lucky enough to own the iconic action figure), and only a few managed to catch James Cameron’s The Terminator during its theatrical run. But the glory of VHS rentals had put both movies in heavy rotation on our VCRs. You could keep your pretty-boy Tom Cruise in Top Gun. We were holding out for the return of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and even more Xenomorphs courtesy of Cameron’s sequel.

And that brought me to the Cinema Plaza on Saturday, July 19 — the day after Aliens opened nationwide. I don’t remember who I was with. I don’t remember whether I got popcorn or Snowcaps. I don’t remember whether it was a matinee or evening show. I just remember white-knuckling it for the better part of two hours as a relentless horde of space bugs terrorized Ripley and company.

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The cast of ‘Aliens’ (20th Century Fox)

The plot merely serves as a device to deliver maximum adrenaline. More than 50 years after she grappled with a Xenomorph, Ripley is rescued from space and roused from her deep slumber. Her employers at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation reveal that the exomoon LV-426, where she first met the monster with her salvage ship Nostromo, has been colonized in the years she’s been drifting through the galaxy — but the company has lost contact with the inhabitants, and Ripley is volunteered to accompany a contingent of Marines (memorably played by Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, and Al Matthews), the requisite milk-blooded android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), the corporate tool who hopes to weaponize the creatures. Their plans go to crap as they discover all those eggs from Alien have hatched, making ’morph chow of the colony with the exception of one unlikely survivor, a young girl who calls herself Newt (Carrie Henn). The Marines are mowed down, Newt is abducted by the mother alien, and Ripley must face her fears in an epic showdown. Get away from her, you bitch!

Ripley’s signature line:

This is Cameron at his best. All thriller and no filler. He can direct action like no one else, with nary a wasted shot. His script spawned a dozen immortal lines, most of them spouted by Paxton’s hysterical Pvt. Hudson.

Quick aside — insta-ranking of Hudson’s five best lines: (5) “I’m the ultimate badass! State of the badass art! … Ripley, don’t worry. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you… We got tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs; we got sonic electronic ball breakers. We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks!” (4) “Whoopdee-f***kin’-do!” (3) “Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!” (2) “We’re on an express elevator to hell. Going down!” (1) “Game over, man. Game over!”

A vintage Pvt. Hudson freak-out:

The supporting team was perfect, from stand-up comic Reiser cast against type as the slimeball exec to Henriksen’s empathic android to every one of the Marines. The combination of Cameron’s screenwriting and Weaver’s muscular acting gave us the ultimate female action hero of the 1980s, a role that justly earned Weaver a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Stan Winston’s uncanny creature work took over where the legendary H.R. Giger left off. The film won over critics and became a top 10 hit at the year’s box office, with more than $85 million earned domestically.

Aliens was the most visceral movie experience of my life. The thing is — and I’m coming clean after all this time — Aliens took so much out of my adolescent self that it was years before I could bear to watch it again. And when I did, I had a new appreciation for a certain character that I had initially seen as merely a plot device: young Newt. Although the 9-year-old moppet was closer in age to me than anyone else on screen — and probably screamed as much as I did on my initial viewing — I didn’t fully comprehend what she went through.

So I was psyched to hear Henn’s experience when she came to Los Angeles to participate in an Aliens Day event in April, addressing fans after a screening of the film, ready to hear how she was scarred by Cameron’s spacey horror, a simpatico spirit. This was, after all, the one who uttered, “My mommy always said there were no monsters — no real ones — but there are.”

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They mostly come at nightLook out, Newt! (20th Century Fox)

“You would think that I would have nightmares about it, but people don’t understand why I don’t,” said Henn, now a fourth-grade teacher whose charges are about the same age she was when she shot Aliens. “But they made it into such a fun experience for me. It was just amazing… They may have even spoiled me.”

Henn recounted how she kept purposely messing up a scene where she falls through some air ducts just because she had so much fun playing on a set that was essentially a giant slide. Cameron caught on to her pretty quickly. “He said, ‘If you do this right, it’s all yours.’” Henn nailed the scene.

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Newt about to go down the chute (20th Century Fox)

She also said that her mother and brother were always with her on set. Her brother was even cast in a deleted scene that featured Newt’s fellow colonists before they were wiped out. “I got to hit him with my doll, and I was getting paid to do it. And my mom was sitting [off-camera] and couldn’t do anything about it.”

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Newt and her battle-damaged doll (20th Century Fox)

Toward the end of filming, when virtually all the other characters had been killed off, Weaver and Henn were the only actors left at the London studio. “We used to always joke that we were the orphans that no one wanted,” Henn recounted on a DVD commentary track. “Our dressing rooms were right next door to each other. And her husband would come and visit every once in a while. I knew she would be sad when he left, so I would bring her flowers.”

So the experience of Aliens wasn’t nearly as terrifying for a 9-year-old girl as it was for a teenage boy. But I’m good with that. The Cinema Plaza was razed in 2011, and I have no doubt a certain seat still had my finger marks clawed in the armrest until the very end (game over, man!). It was a badge of courage for surviving that summer of ’86 screening — and a testament to the enduring power of Aliens.

Read more:

—Summer of ’86: ‘Stand by Me’ Takes on Life, Death, and One Epic Barf-o-Rama
—Summer of ’86: The Terrifying Madness of ‘Manhunter’ — and Our First Introduction to an Infamous Serial Killer
—Summer of ’86: ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ Let John Hughes Graduate from Teen Movies With Honors
—Summer of ’86: The Wild, Wacko Genre Mashup of ‘Big Trouble in Little China’
—Summer of 86: The ‘Top Gun’ Music Editor Remembers How He Took Audiences Right Into the Danger Zone
—Summer of ’86: Celebrating David Cronenberg’s Freaky ‘Fly’ — and the Freakier Monsters That Didn’t Make the Final Cut
—Summer of ’86: The Triumph of ‘About Last Night…’ and the Sounds of David Mamet
—From ‘American Anthem’ to ‘Shanghai Surprise,’ the Best Bad Movies of 1986