Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Aliens


(part of an ongoing series at The Film Experience. Head over for more Aliens love).

I'm a failure as a movie fan. Why? I hadn't seen a single film in the Aliens quadrilogy until earlier this year, despite an abiding love and respect for science-fiction, action and female badasses. I wish that I can offer an explanation, but I have only one: I'm a failure as a movie fan.

And what a movie I'd been missing! The original Alien has a whole bunch of qualities to recommend it, but at its base, it's a horror movie set in space, a slasher flick gone futuristic, a superlative example of the genre, but still a genre exercise nonetheless.

Sigourney Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Ellen Ripley in Aliens, which came out 7 years after the original amidst a ton of backstage infighting and production difficulties. If you're interested in the behind-the-scenes, Tom Shone provides a detailed rundown of what was going on. I recommend reading it, the stuff about Cameron v. the British Crew is hilarious (Union-mandated raffle hour!).

Aliens taught the world a lesson in how to make sequels, a lesson that Hollywood has sadly failed to learn. Cameron fought for his vision, even though that vision was completely different from Ridley Scott's, leading to a more cerebral and thoughtful film than its predecessor.

What surprised me about Aliens is what a human story it is: underneath the action, the outer-space/far-future trappings and the terrifying monster, it's the essentially the story about a woman who rediscovers her inner strength and her humanity after losing everything, including 57 years of time.

1980's film culture was so dominated by films celebrating machismo it's impossible to believe that this movie was made, a movie that, at its core, is about motherhood. Yes it has all the James Cameron trappings --innovative special effects, disdain for big business, big action sequences -- but it all centers around one theme: the extraordinary lengths a mother will go to to protect her children. And I'm not just talking about Ripley here.

This is a war between two mothers, and both mothers in question know it. This is partly what makes Ripley such a remarkable character: she feels empathy. She learns to recognize the humanity even in creatures that are 100%  inhuman, whether it's Good Queen Xenomorph or the Android Bishop. I would argue that her journey to accepting Bishop is as moving as anything else in the story.

But in spite of that empathy and that understanding, something more primal kicks in within Ripley when she faces off with the Xenomorph queen. She recognizes that they are mirror images, she knows it, but that doesn't stop her from doing what she needs to do as a woman, as a caregiver and as an saviour of Earth. Even though she already knows that it's not the alien's fault, that it's the humans' fault for having the hubris to invade other worlds and raid their resources. It's the humans that are arrogant enough to think they can control entire other species through corporate/military power.

Now, I've just given you a lot of words. And you know what they say about pictures? This shot says it all:

Aliens Earth Shot

I know it's not the shot others would select as their favorite from the film, but just look at it for a few seconds. It's all right there: the embryonic Earth, the serene Ripley, the passage of time. Ripley is shown here as Gaia, as mother Earth, which is only fitting as she's the one who saves planet Earth from alien destruction.

Now I wanna hear from you. Did you prefer Alien or Aliens? Should I watch the third and fourth movie, or skip them?

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10 Responses to “ Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Aliens ”

  1. If you can, check out the deleted scenes - in one of them, Ripley discovers that during the course of her 57 year sleep, the young daughter she left behind on Earth had grown old and died. Adds an extra layer to her relationship with Newt.

  2. What a great post! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I've only ever seen the special edition actually! I understand why some of the other scenes were cut, but the ones about her daughter seem essential to the movie (and they look like they were filmed in Avatar-land, oddly)

    @TheLeague, thanks so much for stopping by! Do come again :)

  4. Very interesting, and even though I've seen Aliens several times I never thought about how Ripley and the Queen were two sides of the same motherhood coin. Way cool! As for Alien3, yeah, you should definitely see it. It's not a great Alien film, and it's only average science fiction, but it's David Fincher's first big movie and you really see a lot of his style at work.

  5. Aliens comment

    The extras in the Alien 'quadrilogy' box set are well worth watching if you're into that sort of thing.

    I'd take issue with the suggestion that Ripley rediscovers her strength and humanity in the course of of the film. Was there a time when she was weak, or at all inhuman?
    The mother angle is a tricky one too. In the sequence where the marines go off to collect the colonists she’s in the rear with Newt, Burke and Gorman. When the operation turns into a cluster fuck Ripley doesn't even blink before taking all of them - including the child - back into harm's way. You could certainly argue that it's the right thing to do in the circumstances, but her maternal aspect is secondary to her bravery.

    Similarly, the alien queen is a great monster but she’s not the principal antagonist . She doesn't show up until the final minutes, and while the film is unquestionably better with her in it there's no reason Ripley can't rescue Newt from ordinary aliens instead of one huge one.

    So who is the real enemy in the end? Not the military. Quite apart from Cameron's hard-on for high-tech weaponry, the soldiers (even Hudson) are all shown to be professional and sympathetic people. I think the real antagonist in Aliens is The Man. When things go to hell it’s because of the bureaucrats, the authorities who run things from a distance. The ones in suits who treat Ripley so badly on her return, the one in uniform who learned how to command a mission from books and simulators. The aliens are scary because they have acid for blood, but what does Carter Burke run on? As Ripley says, You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.

    I really like Aliens as a sequel - kudos to James Cameron for doing something different with the idea and creating a film that, in its own way, is equally iconic. But for my money, Alien remains the superior work. Cameron made a very competent and surprisingly human action film, but there's nothing very new in the final product. Alien built a universe. Think about those tiny figures stumbling out into the dust storm, like ants on the surface of a titan. They encounter a ship - a ship so inconceivably strange that it’s not immediately obvious what it is. In the hold Kane lights upon a room full of eggs, an immense warehouse of life in potentia, and what emerges from them is a thing so terrifying and pitiless that all our ideas about xenomorphic lifeforms look like the drawings of children. The reproductive cycle of the alien fundamentally changes our relationship with the universe. We are not pioneers, or strangers meetings as equals: we are prey. When you hit on an idea like that the obvious thing to do is stage a small war between the species. That’s what Cameron did. What Ridley Scott created was something smaller, slower, and quieter, and it’s a hundred times more powerful for it.

  6. PS: I haven't seen Alien3 in a long time. It's not bad, but it's definitely in a class below the first two. Don't bother with Resurrection.

  7. It's true that her maternal aspects are secondary to the larger goal of getting them the hell out of there, but there are 3 separate occasions where she goes back for Newt. And yes, she wouldn't have done that in the first 3rd of the movie, but I think there's a subtext where she feels she was a bad mother, letting down her real daughter and rediscovers that aspect of herself through the film.

    The alien queen is not the principal antagonist in the story as a whole, but she is in Ripley's journey. I would agree that the real villain is the giant corporation, as in most of James Cameron's films. One of the strengths of the film is how all the marines have individual personalities and aren't necessarily military cliches.

    I personally prefer Aliens, but I think it's difficult to say one is an objectively better film than the other because they're so different! Aliens, when I rewatched it, builds tension much more slowly. It's well past the halfway point by the time we encounter the xenomorphs! Alien is great, but it's so unrelentingly terrifying that it doesn't allow for much under-the-surface reading, which I think Aliens does. But as I said, it's apples to oranges.

  8. Isn't Resurrection the Joss Whedon one?

    Separately, the more I think about it, the more of an outlier Titanic is. It doesn't have any of the typical James Cameron trappings, and I think it's a much less likeable film than any of his others. (I know you hate Avatar, but you can't really argue against its thematic, populist appeal.)

    Thinking about this too much would mean watching Titanic again. Which I certainly won't.

  9. I wouldn't want to say that the motherhood angle is illusory - I absolutely agree that it's present as a theme in Aliens, and as an important component of Ripley's personality. One of the great strengths of her character, perhaps in this film even more than the first, is that she's a convincing and balanced female character rather than a bloke with tits.

    The difference for me is that Ripley doesn't seem like someone on a journey. She remains the same person through both films; her behaviour is shaped by her circumstances rather than a character arc.

    I wish I still had the link to a blogpost about storytelling in Aliens. Someone made a great point about the locator - initially it's used to show Hicks bonding with Ripley, then between Ripley and Newt, and ultimately to enable the final act of retrieving Newt from the alien queen. Beautiful, economic writing.

    Rob Ager has a great apologia for the sequel up on his film analysis website. Do check out both videos if you have time.

  10. Thanks I will! Great point about the locator.


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