Serious About Series: “Aliens”

Prometheus is coming. It sounds so dramatic when I say it like that, a mixture of myth and anticipation that turns what is essentially just another summer movie into something magical. I might as well whisper about unicorns lurking in the woods or monsters under the bed. Sadly, Prometheus is probably not that special, but it is a surprising possible entry into a series that deserves some attention: the Alien movies.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the entire Alien quadrilogy, despite the merits of each individual film (or the films compared against each other). It is a rare franchise that had four entries by young directors, all of whom went on to do frankly amazing later work. All four are visually and tonally distinct, taking the core concept in wild, interesting directions with each new installment. Not only that, they’re all fairly worthy of examination. Love or hate the twists and turns of the series, it would be a very short-sighted person who didn’t recognize that the Alien movies make up a singularly unique franchise: one that until now has never gone back to the well.

With Prometheus just a few months out and my resolution to stay almost entirely ignorant of what it’s about holding up okay, I figured now was a good time to instead take a look at the movies it maybe-sorta-probably is a prequel to, as much for the sake of getting up to speed as I really just want to revisit them and talk about them. Last week I tried to gather my admittedly paltry thoughts on Alien, undoubtedly one of the great classics of cinema. This week? Well, sequels, and all the trouble that brings.

Aliens (1986)

Ellen Ripley’s been adrift, locked in the cryogenic freeze she put herself in at the end of Alien. Adrift, her ship is picked up by salvage, and Ripley finds herself unthawing in a future she doesn’t recognize. She sailed through the stars for decades, found by accident, now living fifty seven years into her own future. Without any sort of relatives or support system, she’s turned over to the Weyland-Yutani company she worked for, investigating her claims of what might or might not have happened a half century ago on the Nostromo.

And it’s hard to blame them, really. Sure, we know Ripley fought an alien and all, but the records were mostly destroyed or censored by Ash and the captain. There’s nobody left to ask. And the mysterious distress call from planet LV-426 that started this mess? The planet is partially terraformed now, with people living there for years. No ill effects, no encounter with anything extraterrestrial. Except suddenly that’s not the case, and contact is lost with the colony, and Weyland-Yutani recruits Ripley to advise a team of marines to go, find any threat, and wipe it off the face of the planet.

Again, I feel a little silly summarizing Aliens for people. It is just as beloved as Alien, and in some ways even more significant to cinema, so trying to sum it up in anything resembling the scope of this article would be foolish. Instead let’s talk about my impressions of the movie coming back to it fresh off of Alien. It was there that the unthinkable happened: I realized I have some fundamental problems with Aliens, the kinds of problems that make you like a movie a whole lot less. And all these problems start from the moment you replace Ridley Scott with James Cameron.

I don’t want to rag on Cameron too much, because these days he’s something of an easy target. And I’ll admit, the Terminator movies are the movies of my childhood, things I’d watch again and again on tired old VHS copies. But most of the problems stem from the choices he not only made, but then went and reused again years down the line, so I don’t know who else I would blame for it all. And it all starts with turning Aliens into an action movie. Much of why Alien worked so well is that it quickly established an array of people you marginally give a shit about. Look at any horror movie worth anything, and you’ll almost always have a core built around a situation where you care about the normal human folk. It’s the not-surprising-but-rarely-realized truth of cinema: making people you care about matters.

And this is the fundamental flaw of Aliens, why it doesn’t work and why it in some ways is the weakest of the four movies. (Yep, spilling the beans on what I think of the other two, you’ll just have to wait to hear about why.) From the beginning, Ripley is tossed into a whole mess of marines, most of whom exist as little more than cannon fodder. There’s the green commander with a lot of education but not a lot of experience (who is so not a character I’m too lazy to look up his name), there’s Hicks (Michael Biehn) who mostly plays the handsome romantic interest and straight man against Hudson (Bill Paxton) the hotheaded, cowardly blowhard most famous for cinema’s most notorious use of the words “Game over (man).” And then there’s Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), who deserves some special mention.

Overcompensating much?

Vasquez is in many ways the anti-Ripley. She’s an idea of tough female that comes straight out of the pubescent fantasies of a thousand bad Hollywood action films. She’s tough and no-nonsense, but at the total sacrifice of any sort of gender identity or greater character depth. She’s all muscle, a butch haircut and a gun as big as she is making her a bright neon signpost for the kinds of stupid stereotypes a ‘tough woman’ supposedly needs to be. She’s truly ridiculous, to the point where the minute she comes out of hypersleep she starts doing pullups because that’s how much of a man she is. It’s really awful macho crap, and she became the template for a lazy tough woman trope that still runs roughshod over genre movies (and is 98% of Michelle Rodriguez’ career) today. It’s embarrassing, and baffling that a character so terrible and shallow comes from a man who went on to give us Sarah Conner, probably the only real cinematic successor to Ripley until The Bride.

That leaves three characters, the only ones worth a damn. There’s Newt, the young girl that they come across, the only survivor of the xenomorph attack on the colony on LV-426. She mostly exists to serve as a foil to Ripley, who we’ll get to in a moment. The other is Bishop (Lance Henrikson), the android who serves along with the marines. In many ways he’s criminally underused in the movie, the tension between his sense of identity and Ripley’s innate unease around androids forming the potential for a lot of exploration of humanity and interspecies relations that the movie never bothers to really consider (though eventually they get revisited in some form in Alien Resurrection). Bishop is generally cool, though, with his crazy knife trick and his always-helpful, level headed attitude in a situation where everyone else seems to be losing their minds.

One of the better xenomorph moments is also one of the tensest moments in the film. Go figure!

That leaves us with Ripley. Sigourney Weaver again invests the character with all the personality and baggage in the world, picking up where she left off as a woman who has just survived a whole lot of awful trauma only to learn that she no longer has a home to return to. Her hostility, her defensiveness, when dealing with this bright bureaucratic future is honest and surprisingly nuanced, Ripley torn between a vague sense of no longer feeling useful and resentment at the people who are offering her something to do. But the agency in the film is almost all hers. She chooses to put herself back into the fray by accompanying the marines, and in doing so cements herself as willfully a part of whatever comes of these adventures. It’s actually the one great change from the first movie, taking her out of the role of horror victim and shifting her slowly over to monster hunter/survivor.

And that tonal shift comes with a change in the representation of the xenomorph threat themselves. Instead of that single infestation, what they discover on the colony is a whole nest’s worth of the xenomorphs, who have set up shop in the bowls of the labyrinthine station and started using the colonists to incubate more of the adult aliens. Because of that, and because of the action, there’s a lot more alien action this time around, with a ton more suits and a redesign of sorts of how the aliens move. This is when the duct-crawling, tail-whipping aliens really become a thing, and for all my troubles with tone there’s a ton of iconic alien shots in this movie. Many more, in fact, than its predecessor. The problem with that is that they come with a cost: there’s so many aliens that much of the movie is just a firefight between the woefully cocky marines and the xenomorphs, who make short work of the humans. It’s a lot of action set pieces, but they’re all rather dull set pieces, since as I said, there isn’t much room to care about any of these paper dolls.

Bishop is having a very bad day.

And it’s a real shame, too, because I feel there’s a lot of material here that could have been better with a tighter script. You have the really brilliant motion trackers, developed beyond those in the first movie to build all sorts of tension. You have Ripley’s sudden surprise vulnerability in the form of Newt, who reminds her of the daughter she had and lost to the long sleep she took between movies. You have this increasing sense that Ripley’s fate is to confront the aliens head on, which she eventually does at the very end. But all of its is surrounded by a movie with too many characters and too much spectacle to really be tightly wound. It’s a lot of cool ideas, to be sure, but cool ideas don’t work if they can’t be additive parts of a greater whole. In Aliens, there is no greater whole.

This is a lot of dumping on a movie that’s considered a classic, I’ll admit, but it struck me more and more watching it (this is probably my fifth or sixth time) just how much Aliens has impacted the landscape of tentpole action movie-making. Terminator undoubtedly owes its existence to Aliens, as does I feel Jurassic Park, but so do many cultural establishments like Halo or Gears of WarAliens crafted the concept of space marines as we know them today. And even Cameron couldn’t resist dipping back into the well, as his own Avatar rather shamelessly rips off the entire framework of Aliens, minus the gore, before bootstrapping a bunch of white man’s burden bullshit onto it. It even ends with a mech fight!

I couldn't write this article without including this image. It's the law!

I’m not going to claim that I hate Aliens. That would be untrue, because I feel there’s some great material in there, including a bunch of really iconic Ripley stuff. But the movie inherits most of its best stuff: the easy claustrophobic tension, the amazing xenomorph designs, and Ripley’s unique character most of all. What it slaps on top of it is a lot of swaggering crowd-pleasing violence, which is fun in a mindless sort of way but which instantly falls apart the moment you try to analyze it. The problem with this is that I think it’s endemic to sequel-making, especially when you’re trying to move a horror franchise into the direction of action. Lots of lights and explosions, turning the monsters into less of a nightmare and more of an antagonist, but that robs the movie of impact as much as it adds the kinds of spectacle moments that get people talking.

This has come across far more negative than I expected, and that wasn’t really the intention. I enjoy Aliens well enough, and I appreciate what it represents for film history, but as part of the franchise? It ends up feeling really slick and shallow, a speed bump of a movie where at the end things are simply reset back to the way they were last time, leaving us with two hours of little more than a fancy light show. In some ways that’s the problem with all franchise movie-making, but that doesn’t mean I’m liable to excuse it when I see it. Aliens is such a conflict of highs and lows I don’t know how I’ll ever sort out my feelings on it. Maybe next time, kicking back and trying to watch it uncritically, I’ll like it more. Or maybe I’ll remain troubled by it. But it is, at least, worth the discussion. That’s more than I can say for most sequels.

Theatrical Edition vs. Director’s Cut:

If anyone’s ever seen the deleted scenes/extended version of Terminator 2, or the hilarious alternate ending of Titanic, you’ll know that what gets cut out of a Cameron film is usually cut for an incredibly good reason. That remains triple true for Aliens, which manages to add a whopping 16 minutes of footage back into the film for its director’s cut. The problem? Those 16 minutes basically kill all of the fun of the movie. In fact, most of my complaints I offer here are things I realized while watching that version, which is a numbing two and a half hours long.

The problems start early on, with a scene that goes on at length about Ripley’s daughter, foreshadowing the relationship that develops with Newt to such an exhausting degree that I can’t help but wonder how it didn’t get cut out of the script before it got shot. It feels like the kind of thing someone would write in the first draft as they’re trying to find a theme, and robs the later scenes with Newt of much of their impact. Newt manages to come out of this far worse, however, as there are scenes set on the colony pre-attack that involve Newt and her family driving out to the crashed ship from Alienand discovering the eggs, starting the infestation. It is absolutely the worst possible scene for the movie’s pacing, slowing things down to a crawl and spoiling much of the unfamiliar claustrophobia of the colony by showing it in its pre-xenomorph, not hostile configuration.

It takes the movie an awfully long time to get to the reveal, but the Alien Queen is kind of awesome for being such an unwieldy piece of practical effects.

The other big set of scenes revolve around some sentry guns, placed in the hallways to shoot anything that moves. It’s a weird addition, because it’s multiple scenes over the course of the movie about the defenses they erect to keep the aliens out that simply don’t add a whole lot. There’s some giant guns, and a lot of gunfire, and they watch as the aliens exhaust all the bullets and then keep coming. Which is, again, a problem that this movie keeps having. Events happen but nothing results from them–they exist to be cool. It’s awful stuff. Needless to say, I cannot recommend the director’s cut at all, aside from being a curiosity. Enjoy the theatrical version. It is categorically a better movie.

The Tao of Ripley:

This is the movie where Ripley goes full badass. Not that she didn’t have those moments before, but in this movie she’s the only one who knows what’s going on, the expert brought in to educate the marines on the threat the xenomorphs possess. Along the way, she picks up skills like shooting guns and driving giant mech robots, which comes in handy where by the end of the movie she’s the only one capable of descending into the alien next to rescue Newt and confront the queen. This is Ripley as action hero, duct taping guns and grenade launchers and flame throwers together, armed with flares and explosives, fighting against the ticking clock of an exploding facility and the threat of the alien queen.

This is also the Ripley that squares off against said queen in the giant mover mech, a battle that manages to be nearly equal parts ridiculous and cheer-worthy, with Ripley coming out in an iconic shot and her iconic line before she throws down with the giant queen. It’s a cartoonish development of the character, but it’s the kind of final touch the movie really needs to make its finale work. There’s a reason it’s become an iconic moment in cinema, despite its cheese.

Give her the gun. Give her ALL the guns.

At the same time, the movie is content on casting Ripley in a sort of mother role that none of the other movies really bother with. She’s divested of her family, cast adrift, and ends up finding a potential new one with Newt and Michael Biehn. There’s a weird chaste romance that develops between Ripley and Hicks, as they both spend most of the movie trying to out-resourcefulness each other before coming to an understanding that they’re the only two competent people in the movie. And tagging along with them is Newt, sudden orphan and survivor in her own right, who manages to turn Ripley into the protecting parent.

I think there was great potential (mostly unexplored, admittedly) in the dichotomy of Ripley and the Alien Queen, who in many ways have similar yet adversarial goals, each looking to protect their small family unit. Indeed, by the end of the movie, they’re almost cast as adversaries, the Queen maiming herself to come after Ripley for killing her children, threatening to murder Newt almost in retaliation. There’s little in the way of effort made to understand xenomorph intelligence in this series, but this is the closest the movies ever come to making the aliens a ‘bad guy’ instead of an animal threat. And in many ways it works really well, but it’s a strange emotional counterpoint to the gun-toting robot-driving superwoman Ripley we see in the exact same scenes.

The only worthwhile emotional beat in the entire film is Ripley and Newt, which is probably why people were SO PISSED (and unfairly, I feel) at Alien 3. But that's for next time!

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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