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'Aliens Expanded' documentary seeks to add fresh discourse to a James Cameron classic

Writer-director Ian Nathan sits down with SYFY WIRE to discuss his deep dive into LV-426.

By Josh Weiss
Aliens (1986)

Game over, man? Nah. The game is just beginning for Ian Nathan, former editor-in-chief of Empire Magazine and author of several books dedicated to the filmmaking careers of Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Ridley Scott. After years of writing about and interviewing directors, Mr. Nathan will finally take his rightful place behind the camera for Aliens Expanded, an upcoming documentary aimed at the profound cultural impact of Cameron's seminal follow-up to Alien

Like Ellen Ripley venturing deep into the heart of the Xenomorph nest at Hadley's Hope, Nathan needed to be careful of where he stepped. Trying to deliver a fresh take on an undisputed cinematic masterpiece that's been endlessly discussed and analyzed for close to four decades wouldn't be easy. Hopping on a Zoom call with SYFY WIRE, he immediately presents a novel interpretation that may raise some eyebrows: Aliens is a "Christmas movie" — not in terms of its setting, but in the way it brings people together.

"Christmas films are things we all share and we go back to like traditions," the writer-director explains. "Aliens is a kind of tradition for people. You watch it once a year at least if you’re a fan." This would serve as the backbone for Expanded, which "couldn't be a making-of," Nathan continues. "I needed it to be much more than that. I needed it to be the story of people's love of the film. It needed to be about passion and what is the source of that? My working hypothesis for Aliens Expanded is if we actually sat Cameron fans down and said, 'If you had to choose, what is his greatest film?’ I think 60 percent — maybe even more — would say Aliens if it came [down] to it. Maybe T2, maybe the original Terminator, or other films, but I think if you forced them to pick one, the one they would take was Aliens. And I want you to think, ‘Well, why is that? What is it that Aliens has that so many films from the ‘80s and so many great action sci-fi sequels don't have?'"

Nathan's history with the Xenomorph runs deep. Aside from his biographies of Scott and Cameron, he also penned 2011's Alien Vault, an in-depth exploration of how the groundbreaking 1979 original came to be. His expansive knowledge of the first film would prove invaluable when the opportunity for Aliens Expanded came along.

"I saw Alien again on the big screen a few weeks ago and I was really reminded about how the two films run in tandem," he says. "Although they're different films, they hit the same kind of things all the way along, right through to the end. So Cameron clearly studied Alien thoroughly before he went into Aliens. He didn't do it casually at all. That really interests me. There’s also that sort of thing that goes beyond Alien and Aliens: ‘What is it about this style of sci-fi that people really get into?’ It's kind of a primal thing. Star Wars is very sort of old-fashioned. It's a saga and a fairy tale. Alien and Aliens are grungy and industrial and very psychosexual … That was very much in my head when I went into Alien Vault. That’s a side of it I want to get into because it's kind of a grown-up way of looking at it and I want to talk to the various people about that and bring that side of it out."

Currently in the process of raising a budget via the general public, Aliens Expanded hails from CreatorVC, the Robin Block-founded production company behind David Weiner's colossal deep dives into '80s horror and science fiction: In Search of Darkness (coming up on its third installment) and In Search of Tomorrow. "The fans are backing us," Nathan says of the crowdfunding model. "It's not a big corporation and I think it brings you closer to what the documentary is ... It's about fans exploring their love of something and the whole way that this has been set up, it's exactly that."

While the project is still in the pre-production phase (filming is slated to kick off in late 2022 and run through next year), the film already has commitments from LV-426 veterans like Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez), Mark Rolston (Drake), Carrie Henn (Newt), and Charles de Lauzirika (director of the documentary materials found on the Alien Quadrilogy box set). Naturally, Cameron, Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Michael Biehn (Hicks), and Paul Reiser (Burke) are on the interview wishlist as well.

"There's an art in timing your request," Nathan explains. "Throwing a request at James Cameron when he's about to give birth to Avatar 2…at this stage, it's probably not the ideal time, but we will let him get the film out and then [submit our request]. But obviously, the net has been spread across all the surviving cast and as many principle department heads of production who are still alive." The director also plans to tap into what he calls "the hive mind of Aliens knowledge," with film critics, scientific experts, and general fans of the movie bringing their "nuanced and different approach[es] to the film."

"I think the fandom will bring another dimension to it," he adds. "Fans obsess over certain characters and certain details and we’ll go, ‘Why is that?’ We'll have some fun with that and quirky theories about certain characters and all those kinds of things. You just want to draw upon people's love of film. The one thing I hope [is that you] finish watching [the documentary and] go, ‘I want to watch Aliens again, because it's reminded me why I love it so much.' We use the word ‘companion’ as much as ‘documentary’ and I like that word because it sort of says, ‘It's gonna be alongside you as you watch the film again.' It’s like a friend you have a conversation with."

Right now, the only downside of the whole undertaking would be a general distaste for the original film once the documentary is finished. "I wrote a book about the making of The Lord of the Rings films and I watched them so much [for the project that] I had to take about four years off not watching them again because I could see the seams in everything," Nathan admits. "So that's gonna be a discipline for me, but it's great. It's a really exciting prospect and opportunity. And a challenge [as well]. I think that's really important. It's hard and the fans will be demanding of me and that's what I've got to be conscious of the whole way through."

Looking for more dark sci-fi space adventures? SYFY's acclaimed Battlestar Galactica adaptation is streaming now on Peacock. Looking ahead, SYFY has the new space thriller The Ark coming next season.