Times Staff Writer

When Ridley Scott’s masterful outer-space shocker “Alien” was released in 1979, few people in the opening-day audiences had any inkling what they were about to see.

So, imagine their surprise--or remember yours if you were there--when that nasty serpent-like creature exploded from John Hurt’s chest and flashed a set of teeth that looked like a rack of chrome-plated daggers.

“What I remember about that night is not my reaction to the movie but my reaction to the audience,” says Jim Cameron, then a young truck driver attending the opening of “Alien” in an Orange County theater.


“I thought to myself, ‘If I can do that, if I can even come close to doing that . . ..’ ”

Starting next Friday, we’ll be able to judge for ourselves whether Cameron’s dream has come true--whether he, with the third film in a warp-speed career, can pin us to our seats and give us the cinematic ride of the summer of ’86.

Cameron’s “Aliens,” the sequel, is being opened across the country by 20th Century Fox, which had the benefit of the hugely successful original. If the sequel lives up to its advance word, it may become the megahit the summer has so far been missing.

“He always said it (the sequel) ought to be like a ride on a roller coaster,” says Walter Hill, one of three executive producers of “Aliens.” “He said ‘Alien’ was a trip through the fright house and that the second film should be a roller-coaster ride. That’s what it is.”

“Aliens,” written and directed by Cameron, sends Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) back to that dark planet where she and the crew of the space-barge Nostromo picked up the alien in the original film.

Remember all those eggs that the crew found incubating beneath a blue haze? Well, they’ve hatched and, as one of the suggested ad lines for “Aliens” goes, “This time, it’s war.”

“For a long time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to make a sequel of ‘Alien,’ ” says Cameron, who got the directing job on the strength of his sleeper 1983 hit “The Terminator.”

“To me, it was almost the perfect movie. It set out to do one thing, to create an environment, to make you believe you were in that environment, then just scare the hell out of you as long as you were in there.

“It would have been a big trap to try to duplicate that emotion, so we’ve gone another way. What Gale (“Aliens” producer Gale Anne Hurd) and I told Fox was that the picture would be a stylistic hybrid of ‘Alien’ and ‘Terminator.’ There would be an approach to action that is my style, but we’d keep alive the best elements from the original story.”

At first, Fox executives were only interested in having Cameron write the screenplay for “Aliens.” They had read his script for “Terminator,” a stylized time-warp action-adventure then in pre-production, and the script that he had co-written for “Rambo: First Blood, Part II,” which was also in pre-production.

But Cameron’s fledgling reputation was earned as an art director for Roger Corman films. The only movie he had directed, “Piranha II: The Spawning,” was a cheap Italian production that was barely released in the United States. He wasn’t exactly a prime candidate for directing an $18-million movie.

“I wanted to direct (the ‘Alien’ sequel), not just write it,” Cameron says. “But I understand their reluctance. That’s the way Hollywood works. You have to prove yourself, and you have to do it at a level that makes sense for people to trust you with that kind of money.”

Nobody expected “The Terminator” to do the kind of business that thrust its director into the front ranks. The movie was opened by Orion Pictures in the box-office vacuum of the early fall.

But it caught on quickly, boosted by reviews that were written with a sort of surprised awe, and it played right through Christmas into the next year, ultimately grossing $42 million.

Cameron acknowledges that he didn’t expect “Terminator” to be a hit, either, and that his mind was on “Aliens” most of the time he was making it.

“I was thinking of ‘Terminator’ as a movie no one would see, so I could work on some of the things that I would use on ‘Aliens.’ I remember when I was shooting a scene where (the heroine) crawls through all this machinery, I thought, ‘This will make a good dry run . . . I’ll get some of this stuff worked out so I’ll know how to do it.”

The events of the last seven years of Cameron’s life make the kind of story that sends other struggling film makers diving for their therapists’ couches.

Back in 1979, when Cameron joined the “Alien” opening-night crowd in Orange County, he was not on a film-career track. The truck-driving job wasn’t day work for a night-time screenwriter. It was the only job he found after dropping out of Cal State Fullerton, where he had mixed his majors between physics and English.

Cameron says he was a movie buff, and that Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” had prompted him as a teen-ager to buy a Super-8 camera and start experimenting with special-effects shots. But he didn’t see himself making a living at it until a friend called one day with the strangest piece of news.

“He had lucked into a deal where he met some dentists in Tustin who wanted to put money into a movie as a tax shelter,” Cameron says. “They were looking for something real low budget and they didn’t know anyone in the business. We set ourselves up as overnight experts and somehow convinced them that we knew what we were doing.”

The dentists gave Cameron and his friend enough money to shoot one special-effects scene for a science-fiction script they hastily threw together, and soon they were knocking on doors in Hollywood looking for investors.

“The film was too ambitious for a first picture and we couldn’t find any interest. But it (the demo scene) landed me a job as a special-effects technician on Roger Corman’s ‘Battle Beyond the Stars.’ I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Actually, Cameron’s marriage died and he went to Hollywood.

“I don’t think she (his first wife) had any idea that I had these bizarre interests,” he says. “She thought it was a passing hobby. Getting into film professionally is what killed that (the marriage). It was a different world for her; she just couldn’t go with it.”

Cameron moved into an apartment in Hollywood, but just as often slept on a cot he kept in the studio. He was low man on the Corman totem pole, he says, but as Corman watchers know, there is a lot of movement on that pole.

Within a few weeks, Cameron had taken over as art director on “Battle Beyond the Stars,” a $3-million movie with what seemed to Cameron to be an army of people reporting to him.

“I knew nothing about being an art director except what I picked up from the carpenters,” he says. “I was suddenly this little martinet over the crew of 60 or 70 people.”

Cameron, a self-taught artist and illustrator, performed art-direction and special-effects chores for other Corman movies, but directing is what he wanted to do. When an Italian producer came to him with an offer to direct the sequel to “Piranha,” a “Jaws” spoof that Joe Dante (“Gremlins”) had done for New World, he agreed.

“I was warned that it would be a bad experience,” Cameron says. “But it looked like a shot, so I took it.”

Cameron says the experience was not bad; it was horrible. So bad, in fact, that he was driven to his hotel bed in Rome, his body stewing with a temperature of 106. While lying there staring at the ceiling, he says, he had the fever dream that inspired “The Terminator.”

“I was alone in Rome, I didn’t speak the language, I had no money, the producer had just cut off my per diem and I wasn’t feeling very much a part of the flow of humanity,” Cameron says. “It was very easy for me to project this character (the time traveler in ‘Terminator’) who was completely different from me.”

Cameron sold his “Terminator” script to Gale Anne Hurd, who eventually produced both it and “Aliens.” Cameron met Hurd at New World, where she was a production executive on “Battle Beyond the Stars.”

Hurd and Cameron are now married and own a production company, Tech Noir, together.

Cameron says there was immediate interest in “Terminator,” but it needed the clean-and-jerk it got from Arnold Schwarzenegger to lift it onto Orion’s production schedule.

“No one would go forward with it without a cast that made box-office sense,” he says. “Someone suggested Arnold for the lead (as a young man who comes from the future to save a woman from a robot assassin). We didn’t think he was appropriate for the part, but we met with him and discovered that the part he was really interested in was the robot.”

It was while he was waiting for Schwarzenegger to finish another movie that Cameron wrote the outline for the sequel to “Alien” and made a conditional deal to direct it.

“ ‘Alien’ triggered a lot of ideas for me,” he says. “For me, it was a great catharsis to get all this imagery I had floating around in the subconscious soup up on the screen.

“I had always wanted to do something with the idea of ‘Grunts in Space,’ the future war . . . I had those ideas even before ‘Aliens’ came along. Why would she (Ripley) go back to that place again, unless she went back with a lot of friends?

“I wanted to be able to take people past the point of just being scared. I want them to get through that dark tunnel and come out with a sense of ‘Oh, yeah, this is going to be a real victory . . . Let’s go back and kick butt.’ ”