Stuff We Love: Aliens' Marine uniforms are gloriously nonuniform

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Apr 12, 2017

There’s so much to love about the horror sci-fi film Aliens that 30 years and an untold number of viewings later, I’m still in awe of it. But when I went to the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, I spotted something new.

It was clear early on that the uniforms the Colonial Marines wore weren’t actually uniform, that is, “without variations in detail.” The Marines traveling aboard the USS Sulaco personalized their clothing. This is against Marine regulations in the here and now, but I assume that rules will relax in the 22nd century.

In the film, the toughest Marine, Vasquez, scrawled a skull on her t-shirt, then wrote “El Riesgo Vive Siempre” (“The risk always lives,” or more colloquially, “There is always risk”) on her chestplate. Hudson has an array of graffiti on his uniform, including a skull and crossbones. Frost has an arrow-pierced heart over his chest. On her helmet, pilot Ferro wrote, “Fly the friendly skies.” And one Marine, whose face I couldn't see, has two cartoon eyes painted on his backplate.

It’s not just the uniforms, either. Gunners Vasquez and Drake also personalized their guns by giving them the names “Adios” and “Bitch.” These are tough people, and they want the world to know it.

Hicks modified his chestplate differently: he welded a padlock over a painted heart, complete with dangling key.

I never noticed Hicks’ modification on screen. Going over the film now, it was there the entire time, but I was too riveted by Michael Biehn’s face to see this small yet intriguing detail.

One of the reasons Aliens is so memorable is that these 12 characters instantly become real to us -- in part because of their uniforms. That heart and lock, that simple sentence in Spanish, tell us that these minor characters are alive and real, and have stories of their own, even if they don’t get a chance to actually tell them.

I can only imagine what happened to Hicks to make him padlock his heart away. And now I have another reason to crush on him.

Of course, it turns out that director James Cameron encouraged the actors to decorate their uniforms, to help them get into character. It worked -- without the extra hassle of sending the actors to boot camp. Isn't it wonderful what a little creativity can do?