Sigourney Weaver Went All-In For Her Showdown With The Alien Queen

Ripley vs the Xenomorph Queen in "Aliens:" it's one of cinema's greatest climactic showdowns in one of the best sequels of all time, an epic sci-fi confrontation to rank alongside Luke finding out who his dad is in "The Empire Strikes Back."

When James Cameron got the chance to follow up his surprise smash "The Terminator" with a sequel to Ridley Scott's highly esteemed "Alien," he certainly didn't hold back. With a comparatively modest budget of $18.5 million ("Cobra" with Stallone cost $25 million, "Howard the Duck" $37 million) he developed his own screenplay which had been pitched as "Ripley with soldiers." Rather than just retreading the original, he expanded the world of the fledgling franchise, building on the themes of the original, and developing the life cycle of the deadly xenomorphs. He also homed in on the Ellen Ripley character, making her the heart and soul of the film. While Ripley is part of the ensemble in the original film, coming to the fore as the other crew members are picked off, she is front and center of Cameron's action-packed sequel.

It could have turned out so differently, because Weaver was initially reluctant to play Ripley again. She needed convincing that "Aliens" wasn't going to be just a shoddy cash-in, and she wasn't thrilled about having to brandish high-powered futuristic machine guns (via IGN). Once she eventually signed on, she went all-in on the character. In a career spanning 45 years and over 60 movies, Ellen Ripley remains Weaver's defining role and one of the most iconic female protagonists in science fiction cinema. It's a testament to the power of her work in the first two films that the relative disappointments of "Alien 3" and "Alien Resurrection" have done little to diminish the popularity of the character.

So what happens in Aliens again?

57 years after the events of "Alien," Ellen Ripley (Weaver) is discovered floating in space in an escape shuttle. Awoken from stasis, she is quizzed by her employers at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who aren't too convinced about her story regarding a hostile alien creature killing off her crewmates, and her decision to blow up a very expensive piece of their equipment to get rid of it. After all, those terraformers currently living on the exomoon where she claims they picked up the creature haven't had any problems, have they?

Not long after, she is approached by Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a slimy corporate guy from Weyland with a proposition. Contact has been lost with the colony and they want her to accompany a squad of colonial marines to investigate. She's not keen at first, but then she realizes the only way to exorcise her demons is to confront her fears. When Ripley and the team get to LV-426, something bad has obviously gone down. The colonists are missing and there are signs of a fierce battle. The only person they can find is Newt (Carrie Henn), a traumatized young girl who has somehow survived by hiding in the colony's vents.

They track the rest of the colonists to a location beneath the colony's fusion reactor, but several marines are killed by xenomorphs when they venture into the alien nest located there. Things get worse when their dropship crashes into the reactor, causing it to critically malfunction and overheat. The survivors have to hold on until the second dropship arrives before they can escape. In the meantime, Newt is snatched by one of the creatures. Ripley isn't prepared to abandon her, so she tools up and heads into the nest on her own... 

Ripley vs the Alien Queen

Ripley arrives in the nick of time, rescuing Newt before she is impregnated by a facehugger. On the way out, they stumble into an egg chamber and come face-to-face with the enormous Xenomorph Queen. As Xeno Warriors block the exits, Ripley thinks quickly, threatening an egg with her flamethrower. The Queen gets the message and tells her guys to back off. A truce has been struck, but as Ripley and Newt back out, one of the eggs opens. That's when Ripley goes nuts and cuts loose with the flamethrower, burning the eggs and pumping grenades into the Queen's egg sac. The Queen is not happy.

Ripley and Newt make their escape, picked up at the last moment by Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the team's android crew member. All seems well, but the Queen has stowed away in the dropship's landing gear. With Bishop brutally ripped in half and Newt under threat again, Ripley straps herself into an industrial Power Loader to even the odds a little and engages the Queen in a smackdown of epic proportions.

The scene would be exciting enough as it is, but Cameron made sure both Ripley and the Queen had good motivation, giving the fight even more resonance beyond simply Hero vs Evil Alien. In a deleted scene that was later reinstated in various Special Editions and Extended Cuts, we find out that Ripley had a daughter who grew up, married, and died during her 57-year absence. That Ripley is dealing with the loss of a daughter who was just a young girl when she last saw her explains why she develops such a strong maternal instinct towards Newt. She has only recently come out of stasis, so to her, it must be like Newt has taken the place of the daughter she never got to see again.

For the Xenomorph Queen's part, she is acting on fierce natural instinct to protect her own offspring. Her rage when Ripley torches the eggs is totally understandable. We know that the eggs open on their own when a likely candidate for a face-hugging is within reach, so there is nothing to suggest that the Queen reneged on her silent truce with Ripley by triggering the egg. After what happened on the Nostromo in the first film, we get why Ripley would want to destroy the eggs, but the colony is about to blow sky high anyway. If she hadn't attacked the eggs, maybe the Queen wouldn't have pursued her so furiously to the dropship?

The smackdown...

Let's give Cameron the benefit of the doubt because it sets the scene for an epic battle between Ripley and the Queen. The sequence still looks incredible today, with the Queen looking fearsome because she is all pre-CGI physical effects. The behind-the-scenes documentary reveals that Cameron got together with SFX wizard Stan Winston to design and animate a convincingly terrifying 14-foot-tall Queen puppet. With two people hidden behind the creature's breastplate to move the arms and over a dozen other crew members operating the legs, tail, head, and jaws, it looks genuinely scary. Weaver recalls her first meeting with it (via EW): 

"It was just so exciting to finally have a confrontation with this thing I had suspected was... somewhere. It had an almost operatic feeling because the set was so enormous and there was fire everywhere and there was this enormous creature who was, even as a puppet, was so distinctly and fiercely female. So it was kind of a great showdown and very satisfying."

The Power Loader is another piece of ingenious design. Weaver found herself strapped into the unit in front of a hidden stuntman to help her maneuver the machine's outsized legs and arms. She had to put the work in to get it right:

"I rehearsed every lunch day, walking in the Power Loader around in a sort of ring somewhere in the studio, like a horse going through its motions with John [Lees], the guy behind me who did a lot of the heavy lifting of the arms, so that we could really be in sync."

The extra work paid off and Weaver's commitment to the role really shines through in the finished film. She also received an Oscar nomination for her efforts. As Cameron said:

"I've always said that Sigourney Weaver made the Alien Queen alive because you believed that she believed it was there, you know? A lot of times, she's reacting to nothing. Other times, she was reacting to the full-size puppet, that was actually there."