(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:
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?