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Blast off on a bug hunt inside Aliens' USS Sulaco

Contributed by
Jan 12, 2018

Welcome to another installment of SYFY WIRE's Flight Deck, a salute to the fantastic fleet of shimmering spaceships that populate our geeky galaxies.

This week we're taking a guided tour of the USS Sulaco!

Need a beefy warship to transport some mighty tough hombres? Look no further than the ominous USS Sulaco from James Cameron's Aliens, which cuts a commanding figure across the star-speckled depths of Zeta II Reticuli as it embarks on a routine bug hunt for Hadley's Hope on the planetoid LV-426.

This 1,200-foot-long, Conestoga-class light assault carrier is one of the badass, behemoth workhorses of the United States Colonial Marines' fleet and is intended for use as a heavily armed cargo vessel.  Watch its intimidating flyby in the video below:

 

Hiding inside its wicked, gun-shaped hull are eight UD-4L "Cheyenne" utility dropships and four assault shuttles for close encounters of the extraterrestrial kind. In Aliens, the mission to rescue the colonists utilizes only a pair of the dragonfly-like dropships, the Bug Stomper and the Smart Ass, armed with a small detachment of testosterone-jacked, gung-ho commandos and corporate advisors. Lift off and fly the friendly skies with no mercy!

As prepared for close-quarter combat as the Sulaco is, it's a shame Aliens fans never got to see it in full battle mode, all guns blazing. 

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Credit: Alexander Richardson

Tipping the scales at a hefty 78,000 metric tons, the Sulaco can be configured to haul 20,000 tons of cargo and house up to 90 crew members and passengers, as well as 2,000 additional passengers placed in short-term cryosleep pods. All that weight is propelled through the galaxy with a powerful Westingland A-59 Lithium-Hydride Fusion Reactor.

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Syd Mead of Blade Runner fame first conceived a spherical design for the Sulaco in Aliens, requiring Cameron to retool the shape. What resulted was the more imposing (and easier to film) elongated wedge you see in the final product, bristling with lethal port defense lasers, particle beam cannon, kinetic energy railguns, and sharp clusters of communication spikes.

Cameron's instructions to Mead, quickly and crudely sketched out, were that the Sulaco should make its appearance as "a forest of antennae enter[ing] the frame, followed by the enormous bulk of the SULACO."

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Credit: Bagera3005

Here's how it's described in Cameron's screenplay:

EXT. DEEP SPACE -THREE WEEKS LATER

An empty starfield. Metal spires slice ACROSS FRAME. A mountain of steel following. A massive military transport ship, the SULACO. Ugly, battered ... functional.

The Sulaco's opening shots had it slicing through deep space like a murderous mako shark, setting the perfect tone for the 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien and immediately sending a blunt message: It's gonna be all business and no bull.

Interiors for the six-deck starship and its complement of dropships were created by the legendary Ron Cobb, a concept artist who also worked on Alien, created the DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future, and fabricated the drill platform, subs, dive suits, and helmets for Cameron's The Abyss. The Sulaco's sterile, spartan decor and utilitarian military chambers, docking bays, and crew quarters were in stark contrast to the more stylized, futuristic look of the Nostromo and its sleek shuttle, the Narcissus, from the original Alien film.

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Credit: Ron Cobb

The name Sulaco actually comes from a fictional silver mining town in the 1904 Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo, for which the USCSS space tug was christened in the original Alien. So it only made sense for the two to be related, even if they were used in contrast to each other. The screen-used hero model of the Sulaco was fabricated by chief model maker Peter Aston and detailed on the camera side by special effects technicians Pat McClung, John Lee, and Robert Skotak.

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While this super-fortified flying battlecruiser is in autopilot orbit around LV-426 for most of Aliens, it does play a vital role in the film's climax as the vengeful Alien Queen secretly stows aboard. Luckily, Ripley comes along with the power loader and dispatches Her Majesty after a vicious, teeth-gnashing battle in the hangar bay.

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In the aftermath, the Sulaco does make a brief final appearance in 1992's Alien 3 during the intro sequence, when an electrical fire forces Ripley, Newt, Hicks, and the disemboweled Bishop to be jettisoned in an escape pod.

What's your favorite aspect of the USS Sulaco, and is she one of your most cherished starships in the whole Alien Anthology?