Aliens (1986) in 2020

The Risk Always Lives: Words to Live by On the Set of James ...

“Get away from her you bitch!”

I was squealing with laughter and praise for a movie I had either never seen or had not seen in a while. Of course, Aliens is to me a masterpiece, worthy of a watch for its set design, horror elements, lighting and cinematography, and certainly for the way that it casts doubt retroactively for what movies are now and what they lack.

I already sound like an old curmudgeon for writing these things. But movies in the 1970s and 1980s were simply incredible.

Since I was born in 1989, I have a bit of jealousy that I did not get to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the theaters. That I missed Blade Runner on the big screen. Yes, there are theaters that show reruns of the film (if you’re also willing to brave coronavirus), but there is the prevailing idea of newness that was there too. The idea that few had seen something quite as postmodern and kitchen-sink like in the sheer amount of shit in front of the camera. Watching Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is one such mind fuck.

I am tempted to make this response to seeing Aliens a feminist response. It’s not out of the question: for the longest time the prevailing theme of the Alien franchise was its focus on rape. The aliens use face huggers to enter into the body. What comes out of you is a punctured C-section where the Alien exits violently out of the stomach and grows after birth to the amphibious and sharp and acidic creature that seems tailor-made to kill. Ripley is just a blue collar worker who gets caught with the things out in space. Yet with her wits, with her careful attention and wariness, she is able to avoid certain peril.

I noticed in Aliens much of this difference between bravado and self-awareness. As soon as she begins her travels with the marine dispatch sent with Ripley as consult to investigate the colony, they behave in a laughably macho manner. Some lines do not hold up. “Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?” a male quips. “Have you?” she responds, unnerved. Vasquez then proceeds to do 15 pull ups. I was giggling out of embarrassment. Meanwhile Bill Pullman, the joker of the crew, complains like a child that “the floor is cold.”

Clearly in 1986 there is something going on. Some score might be trying to be settled. Post-second-wave feminism was in the air and it was women in the business world, power suits and big hair. The novelty of women not just going to work, but going to work alongside men in meetings, working in open workspaces and conducting business trips together…there was a whole range of discussion to be sure. How exactly do men and women work together performing similar jobs? It’s not like this was new: for thousands of years before, the division of labor between men and women, as well as childcare, had been firmly established. It would be difficult, and it still is difficult, to evaluate the rules and standards for men and women together in the workplace.

So here’s Ripley with a bunch of cocksure marines, ready to take on whatever is thrown at them. Again and again, Ripley tries to quell the confidence: they simply have no idea what is ahead of them. Maybe there are no aliens there, but Ripley being sent along with them just to be sure is no vote of confidence. And of course, like any good monster movie, when they get in there, the video feeds from each marine sends Ripley into a tailspin.

I think I should mention here that Sigourney Weaver had a difficult river to kayak down. She had to be stalwart yet terrified, appear crazy to the marines yet confident to us. And when it came time to suit up, she had to be mean and primordial. It is astounding she manages to pull each of these off. At the beginning of the movie, her face just exudes PTSD, as she sees the detritus of the colony fight, and can see the acid that had eaten away the metal platforms, and she knows then what they’re in for. By the end of the movie, she is menacing and aggressive, and altogether wonderful.

If you know a little of math, the movie follows a structure of what feel to be tangent graphs. These have movements that peak up moving from left to right, and then after the asymptotic vertical line, it resets.

Graphs of Sine, Cosine and Tangent

After the exposition, the movie has moments of set up and suspense, where you’re waiting for release, and when you do it is horrific, dark, often violent. The characters either die or run, and the whole process starts over. Unlike in the first Alien or in perhaps Jurassic Park there are hardly any slow moments that have quite the same meaning. There is no Laura Dern moment lamenting how she was “overwhelmed by the power of this place!” Instead there is simply bonding over a young girl and how to shoot a gun. While most of the movie does an excellent job of foreshadowing, such as the famous construction walker that Ripley must climb into in order to kill the alien queen, most of these are action foreshadows, rather than some character development. It’s not to say that these are bad, it’s simply that they serve a purpose that doesn’t bode well for rewatching.

Science fiction foreshadowing aside, the movie is propped up yet again by traditional motifs, which brings us back to the feminist reading. The lives of girls and women are everywhere in this. A young girl is found hiding in the facility, the only survivor of the colony. Hicks, the battle-hardened (and hottest) marine calls for Ripley as soon as he sees. Why not call someone else? Surely Vasquez is technically a woman too? Is Ripley called upon to convince the girl to get out of the ventilator ducts because she has the kindest face? Because she is, despite all attempts to characterize her otherwise, still a woman? What follows is Ripley almost reacquainting herself with motherhood, a tract lost in all the blue collar work and future sci-fi world building. It is tough concluding here that even in space you still cannot resist the urge of children.

Which I am sure many people would find offputting. Does child bearing have to be a biological urge among all women?

Perhaps the issue has little to do with mothers and daughters, and is really a bonding of survivors. Both Ripley and “Newt” (instead of Rebecca), have seen things that many men and women in the galaxy cannot even imagine, and that draws them closer together.

When Newt becomes separated, Ripley makes good on her promise that she will always come back for her, and what follows is the most incredible and harrowing set piece in science fiction. It is the belly of the beast. The ship must leave in 27 minutes before the facility explodes. She suits up and has to move so quickly that she loads the 40mm grenades into the launcher as the elevator goes down. It is really the female version of Dante’s Inferno. I found myself uttering that there is nothing quite like “a mother’s love” just before Ripley and Newt stumble into the mother of all dens.

In a sense, maybe the movie is not feminist at all but simply a tale of biology. Neither woman, Ripley nor the alien queen, will stand for someone to come in and take what is rightfully theirs. Ripley wins in the end, but the reasoning behind why she should be the one winning is not so clear. Nature’s hold over the colony is one of the first observations made by the marines when they enter. A giant resin takes over the space, as the alien “colony” takes over. Terraforming the planet takes decades, but promises to make the planet inhabitable for humans. At all times the relationship between nature and the cold and mechanical makes itself known. The fight between Ripley and Burke is not about motherhood or feminism, but for humanity. Burke, the businessman envoy who originally employs Ripley, wants to use the alien as an opportunity to make money, a cold and withdrawn calculation that actually has him sabotaging the med bay in the hopes of having Ripley and Newt “impregnated” so that they may carry the alien unawares onto Earth. After all is said and done, Ripley could have easily left Newt to die on that facility, and few would be the wiser. And few would have blamed her for it.

But she would have known.

That is why I feel that the feminist reading of Aliens is the easy path to take for its historical context. The more difficult path to take is the recognition that Ripley is questioning the concept of value. Clearly what got her the job before has little bearing on what she wants now, which is to get Newt out safe. And when she loses Newt, and Hicks tells her that they have to go, Hicks almost has to drag her out. Ripley seems to have lost the will to live. For that, Hicks pays for it in acid to the chest and face. Incapacitated, Ripley realizes that this learned helplessness is no way to live at all, and rather than choose to “not die,” Ripley decides for herself how to live.

The movie is a masterclass in pacing and tone. It is stellar in its set design. Yes it contains awkward acting, but it also contains Weaver’s subtle yet glorious nonverbal cues that are hard to match. It is a movie that I wish could be matched today, and I hope it will.

The world outside may be science fiction enough for us right now, but I still long for an Aliens in 2020.

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