By Trey Smith
Whenever I discuss James Cameron’s “Aliens” with someone the conversation almost always revolves around how “badass” of a movie it is. Whether it be the highly quotable dialogue, the kick ass space marines, the scary, yet cool creatures, or the intense action, it’s always the same. Such praise is without a doubt true, but I’m always left disappointed that hardly anyone, even people who rate it as one of their all time favorites, ever seems interested in discussing what else the film offers. Hell, I even know a lot of people who don’t care for the movie all that much before the Colonial Marines show up about thirty or so minutes in. It’s a shame, because the film is a lot more meaningful than both its fans and detractors give it credit for. Because yes, while the film is about a group of extremely likable, battle hardened marines and a tough as nails heroine going up against a race of horrifying monsters, it’s also the story of how that heroine comes to grip with all that she has lost, how those cocky, seemingly invincible marines are defeated, and how close those revolting monsters really are to us.
You see, though the portion of the film that takes place before Hicks, Hudson, Drake, and the rest of the Colonial Space Marines climb out of their hypersleep chambers may be “the boring part,” it is absolutely vital to the film as a whole. Though it also serves to bring those who haven’t seen the original film “Alien” in a while up to speed (or serve as a brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen it at all), it also sets up an aspect of Ripley’s character that is crucial to her development as the story progresses. This is why I believe the 1990 special edition is the only version of the film to watch, as it includes a previously deleted scene that has Carter Burke, who works for the profits first, people second Weyland-Yutani Corporation, inform Ripley of her daughter’s death. Ripley was lost in space for fifty seven years after the events of the original film, and though her hypersleep chamber kept her the same age, everyone she had left behind on Earth, including her eleven year old daughter, had passed away. The news devastates Ripley, adding to the still open wound of seeing her fellow crew members butchered by an indescribably terrifying monster.
These traumatic events have rendered Ripley a shell of her former self and as a result she suffers from intense nightmares, giving her little respite even in sleep. When she faces a tribunal charging her for the destruction of the Nostromo in the previous film, she finds that no one believes her story, the corporate stooges of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation have no interest in her suffering, only that she destroyed a priceless space ship. This denies her closure, denies her a chance to move on from what has happened. She’s stripped of her flight license and forced to take a menial, low paying job as punishment. The nightmares continue, her daughter is long dead, and it seems as though she’ll never be able to escape from the horror of the alien.
When Burke and Gorman, a lieutenant of the Colonial Space Marines, offer her a chance to return to LV-426, the planet from which this horror originated, she is at first is too weak, too frightened to face her fears. However, in the end she knows it’s her only choice, as Cameron points out:
"I think some people missed the point. They think she goes because she’ll get her job back, but that’s not the case. There’s no amount of money that could do it. One of my biggest problems writing the film was coming up with a reason why she goes back. It had to be psychological. One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam, who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again. Because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised. That was a good metaphor for her character."
However, not only will the mission to save the missing colonists on LV-426 give Ripley a chance to find an end to the vicious psychological cycle forced upon her mind by her experience aboard the Nostromo, it will also present her with the opportunity to be the mother she was never able to be to her own daughter. When Ripley and marines find Newt, a traumatized little girl and sole survivor of the colonists, Ripley immediately becomes attached to and protective of her, becoming a surrogate mother to the orphaned child. As the film progresses this bond grows stronger and the desire to make sure this little girl escapes alive begins to override her logic and by extension her fear, ultimately leading to her salvation.
Though she rebuffs the marine’s desire to go and save their fellow soldiers from the nightmarish reproduction cycle of the alien, stating matter-of-factly that they are probably already being cocooned and impregnated, when Newt is kidnapped by the creatures, she launches a rescue without hesitation. Mother instinct has kicked in for Ripley, Newt is now her daughter and she will stop at nothing and sacrifice everything, including her life and the lives of the surviving marines, to save her. She orders Bishop and Hicks to wait for her, even though the whole colony is about to be destroyed in a thermal nuclear explosion, and plunges into the depths of the alien hive to find her child.
Once she finds Newt, she is confronted by the center of the alien threat: the Alien Queen. This is the creature responsible for the monsters that have shredded her existence and left her mind fractured. This personification of the evil of the species is surrounded by hundreds of eggs, all containing more parasites ready to infest humans and gestate through their life-force into new xenomorphs. With Newt in hand, Ripley examines the queen and her off spring with the weight of all her trauma weighing her down. This is it, the moment to finally conquer her fear and escape the slimy grasp of the creatures. She starts by burning the eggs, forcing the queen to scream in horror at the destruction of her children, forcing her to experience the helplessness and fear that her kind has put Ripley through. Then, only after she knows the Queen has suffered, does Ripley turn her weapons on her, seemingly ending the beast’s life, and escape.
However, this scene carries more meaning than serving as the catharsis for Ripley’s pain, it also points out the similarities between us and the aliens. When Ripley first arrives, the Queen is more concerned about her eggs than anything else. When she sees that the presence of her drones threatens her children, she forces them to back off, apparently willing to let Ripley escape as long as her eggs are spared. When Ripley sets the eggs on fire, she screams in rage and pain, not because the fire is touching her, but because all of her off spring are being destroyed. She wants to kill Ripley, to get revenge for what she is doing to her beloved babies. In other words, a mother pushed into action because her children are in danger.
The queen rips from her egg spewing abdomen and viciously pursues Ripley and Newt. Even when Ripley and the others have escaped the planet and are safely back aboard the marine’s orbiting space ship the Queen emerges from the darkness, lusting for vengeance. The ensuing battle pits mother against mother, one seeking revenge, the other seeking to protect her child. Cameron states that he didn’t want this battle to be fought with guns or any other weapon; he wanted it to be hand to hand. A brutal, low down dirty brawl with more at stake than merely thrilling the audience, if Ripley loses, the Queen will tear Newt apart, if Ripley wins she will escape justice for committing genocide against the xenomorph species. In the end, Ripley kills the Queen, because ultimately she is the one who has more to lose. She has to win, she has to destroy the alien once and for all, she has to survive, and she has to raise Newt. After she flushes the Queen into the emptiness of space, Newt clings to her and calls her mom. Ripley has finally managed to conquer her demons.
Before I conclude, I want to touch back on the portion of the film that first introduces the Colonial Space Marines, which is where it becomes “less boring” for most people. There is a reason these scenes had to be as memorable as they are, and it isn’t to give nerds and frat boys lines to spout out over a bottle of beer. The marines had to be likable; they had to be cool and seemingly invincible. They are all ridiculously confident and macho, not intimidated in the slightest by Ripley’s tale. In fact, they refer to it as another “bug hunt,” which brings to mind a human squashing a helpless insect that has no chance of fighting back. Though quotable, their dialogue is down to earth, fitting for a company of career grunts, giving their characters realism and weight. We like them and we want them to win, and because of their unlimited bravado we are sure they can win.
Their introduction serves in making their first battle against the aliens carry more of an impact. The hellish encounter with the creatures is as intense as it is because of the endearing way in which they were built up before us. It’s literally hell to seen them torn down so easily. It’s unquestionably one of the most defeating action scenes I’ve ever witnessed, enhanced by the murky, dread laced atmosphere and the chaotic, guerrilla warfare like nature of the attack by the aliens. It is a fantastic pay off that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, we now understand that it’s going to take more than being a battle hardened solider to escape alive. This theme ties back around into Ripley’s story and helps us understand why it is her who is able to survive. They only have a will to survive, which isn’t enough because that’s what the aliens have too and they will fight for it just as ruthlessly. Ripley on the other hand not only has her own life to hold onto, but that of a child’s who she is becoming to see as her own. Because of the marine’s excellent introduction, we understand better what is at stake and makes the film a helluva lot more compelling.
Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of “Aliens.” Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd put an incredible amount of thought into this film, desiring not only to make it a worthy, relevant sequel, but to inject it with ideas and an emotional story, things that are all too often lacking from sci-fi action films of its kind. So while yes, the film is very cool and loaded with enough quotable lines to make a nerd squeal in glee, next time you watch it try looking for more than that. This film is rewarding in so many ways and nearly all of them warrant serious examination and discussion. There is a reason this movie is so revered, because beyond all that cool stuff there is real weight and it makes you wonder how empty all of the bad ass posturing would feel if it wasn’t there.