It’s an iconic moment in action film history – Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), previously hidden behind a huge locked door and thinking fast, stomps out in a previously viewed innocuous – looking “future fork-lift” to smackdown the Alien Queen chasing a scuttling Newt (Carrie Henn) around the Sulaco hold.
Just how did writer / director James Cameron come up with the idea? A new featurette on the Aliens 30th Anniversary Edition Blu Ray elaborates to a degree. He wanted a human operator to be invisible behind Weaver, physically operating the thing. “The practical effects guys in England, they just thought I was nuts,” he says in the featurette.
The idea actually originated in a short uncompleted film Cameron did when he was younger, called Xenogenesis. According to Alien Series:
the two protagonists, a man and woman, are hounded by a gigantic robot. The woman manages to flee, but the other is forced over a precipice and hangs perilously over a chasm. The robot leans in to finish him, but a far-off wall panel is forced open, revealing the woman – now encased in a robotic vehicle and ready to do battle for her partner’s life.
That vehicle was known as “The Spider”, an exo-suit used for outer hull space repairs. “It was a four-legged walking machine that used a tele-presence-type amplification: you put your feet in things, you grabbed onto these controls, and however you moved and walked, it duplicated your actions,” Cameron recalled. He later refashioned and refined the idea for Aliens, changing it to a two-legged suit after seeing the Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back.
Cameron did not want Ripley to become a gung-ho warrior like the Colonial Marines – the climactic fight was to be a primal duel between two mothers, fighting , on the one hand in blind fury about its brood being incinerated, and the human opponent, protecting her own adopted child.
At one point he had considered the Marines having powered “battle suits” but felt this would be a tip of the wink too soon as to what’s to come. “Anyway, how would Ripley know how to operate a battle suit? They wouldn’t be teaching her. It was really critical to the story that she appear under pressure as the person who really takes control. They discredit her at the beginning; the last thing they’d do is hand her a gun and teach her how to use a battle suit.”
She had to be shown to at least know how to operate this thing, so the script made reference to her job post – Nostromo enquiry, and shows her loading missiles in the Sulaco’s hold to help out.
Special Effects Supervisor John Richardson was tasked with building the thing, under Cameron’s exacting gaze and hands-on approach.
The full-scale powerloader (there was a miniature as well, along with a miniature Alien Queen) was built out of aluminium, fibreglass and PVC plastic. The wrists were radio controlled, the pincers operated by cables. A countweight and rig alternately supported the weight. Stuntman John Lees operated the 600 lb exo-suit from behind the “operator’s seat”. Cameron: “I remember the English visual effects guys thinking we were crazy, the way we wanted to do it. And I said, ‘No, it’s the gag where the dad lets the daughter walk on his feet.’”