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.