Aliens: Diversity Done Right

The original Alien was made outside of the long tradition of monsters named for their actions, the creeping terrors and crawling eyes. It was named not for what the monster does, but for what it means to us. Aliens is a sequel to that tradition that also defaults back on it, by evolving from mysterious, singular horror back into crawling and creeping, what the marines call un-affectionately but accurately a “bug hunt.” Its monsters are jittery pests rather than pseudo-mythical rapists. This is because the monsters aren't really its concern: Aliens is about its characters, the things that make them brutally flawed, and the balance of values that allow them to overcome their insecurities. In the tradition of mutation freaks like Them! and The Green Slime, director James Cameron, hot off The Terminator, warps past Ridley Scott’s harrowing tale of psycho-sexual terror into two and a half hours of sadistic fun, a haunted house in space, a boo movie elevated to mythic status. But if he trivializes the monsters with lavish action, he codifies the people with their scared faces, their dismemberment, and their rebellion. No one will blame you for being exhausted, experiencing all of it at once. This is the Citizen Kane of bug hunts.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been in space for 57 years after the events of the first film. She’s rescued by her bosses, the cold stooges at Weyland Corps., and asked to consult on an expedition to the planet on which the alien nest resides. Sensibly curt as ever, she tells sleazy manager Burke (Paul Reiser) where he can shove his ledger, as far as she's concerned. Only her teeth-gnashing nightmares force her to give the action hero’s seal of approval (“I’m in”). Ripley hopes that the company has no ulterior motive, that maybe a few decades is enough time for them to de-monetize their perspective on human life. She forgets she’s in a Cameron film.

To her relief, the expedition is military this time around. The manic cast of ethnically diverse snacks is the perennial Marine Corps. of the movies (and subsequently, of video games). Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews) wakes from cryo-sleep already chomping a cigar. Loud-mouthed lamenter Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton) is the film’s tonal anti-gravity; he’s the element people remember about the film that de-sexualizes and uplifts it into its manic torment ("Game over man! Game over!"). Without him, it would be a whole lot more like Alien. The ensemble is a raucous sports team of archetypes.  They make Aliens succeed where similar films fail because of the sense that losing any of them is a cost, in humor if in nothing else. The film doesn’t have to do anything to become audibly grimmer as it clips along. It just leaves little silences where our sarcastic jokesters used to be.

Even after losing contact with the now colonized planet, the marines jokingly ignore Ripley’s cautionary tale, as men in pubs used to do when warned of a coming vampire. But the captain laughs as Ripley competently straps into an industrial exo-suit he expected was too big for her to handle. From its opening moments, Alien was an oppressive pictorial and oral horror chamber. Cameron sways the audience to board the ride again with a little ingenuity and a lot of smug grinning: he avoids what makes sequels so tedious by re-adapting the premise around the characters. “We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks,” Hudson buzzes as they descend towards the planet (the line is only in the extended edition but growing up it was my favorite). Our introduction to Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn) is him riding that nightmarish descent through the atmosphere fast asleep. His cool assessments measure out the frequent outbursts of their dwindling band, stranded in an infested maze of skeletal hallways and two-mouthed demons. Cameron manages to think that's a funny place to be. He's excited about these people, and giddy over the way he arranges them to play off each other.

Just by being there, Ripley intrudes on a genre in Aliens, a film that would normally play out like a clubhouse for sweaty boys. If she was the only girl on-board she might even be as bad as an omen, as the old sailors used to believe. This is why Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is so important. She's the character that defines this intrusion by being Ripley's alternative, breaking the genre not with Ripley's balanced motivation but with the exact kind of masculinity that fuels it to begin with (“Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” Hudson chides her. “No. Have you?”). Vasquez is a meathead broken down into her tears and her sweat just like all the other meatheads. She just happens to be a woman, which makes Ripley's rationale all the more meaningful: you cannot mistake Aliens for a film that empowers a girl to clean up after a bunch of men by virtue of girl-ness alone. That's the secret to its diversity, and its chummy morality. It's the energy that powers the grinning.

Aliens doesn't pit genders against each other. It uses them in new ways to promote insight. Against beefy machismo, no matter what gender is performing it, Ripley emerges as a rational mother hero and badass saint. Vasquez is the part that makes this work: she's an action hero exactly as they are, decoding it for us across a gender barrier that usually keeps people safe and separate. She's doomed to pay for her butch brutality just like all the other smartmouths. The new Star Wars films are missing this even as they promote female heroes. Notice that there's no storm of videos about "How Feminism Ruined Aliens," as there is with other franchises. Aliens has so much depth in the definition of its roles, and so much intuition in distributing them based on character and not on external organs, that you couldn't watch it without feeling the empowerment that only comes from character. No amount of tie-in Barbies can ever be its substitute.

The traumatized little Newt (Carrie Henn) whispers matter-of-factly like the spectral adolescents of other haunted house films: “You’re all going to die.” In this case, she isn’t malevolent—as the sole surviving colonist (even just as a kid in a horror film) she’s legitimately experienced in death. The rest of the colonists have become hosts for a new batch of bugs, this time with ridged honeycomb scalps in place of the original beast’s filmy skin. Stan Winston, creator of the Terminator robot and eventually the animatronic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, here replaces Carlo Rambaldi with the task of rendering a whole army of slender heads and thrashing tails. They perch gargoyle-like within Giger's scenic architecture porn. When they skulk at the shifty protagonists they come through the floors and walls and ceilings, shrieking, dripping. They are a horrendous flurry of serrated backs and sharpened pelvises and rasping teeth. They are convincingly cruel, for men in tights.

Yet there's a reason why the Alien you think of is the one from the first film: to make the film fun, Cameron had to make it less invasive. Aliens is not a scary film, though it still focuses on tension: Cameron clips through sequence after sequence with a cut brake-line and a pounding heart.

And after all the soldiers’ weapons and grand escape plans have been expended, after they’ve done the long hallways, the car chase, the dark-ride, the sinking ceiling (the extended edition also has an unnecessary turret section), you must think that Cameron’s surely exhausted. But he has something left. He ends with one of the greatest monster encounters of all the movies (among King Kong and Jurassic Park for its visceral splendor): the final fight against the Alien Queen choreographed like a sensible version of a Kung fu Godzilla battle. It makes the Alien simpler and also more epic. It's how you can simultaneously ruin a monster's mythology and elevate it to extravagance.

What do I mean? Alien simmered with Freudian nightmare imagery. They called it "the perfect organism." Now, Giger's genitalia monsters are ruled by a queen that lays eggs, which makes the Alien life cycle less perfect than any normal animal that lays eggs, since it has one extra step. Cameron wanted a boss monster for his action movie, and another woman for his leading lady to fight, and he makes it worth it on a pure spectacle level. But notice that Scott's prequel movies don't acknowledge the Queen: he prefers his monster much freakier than that (in the workprint of Alien, it's revealed that the monster kept all of the crew alive to boil their genetic material down into more eggs: that deleted scene makes Cameron's movie impossible, and it completes the lifecycle of this series in the most emotionally dismembering way possible. I think Scott has been trying to reincorporate that scene ever since).

Only those who haven’t seen Aliens would ask if it’s “better than the original.” They are as incomparable as different species. One is a clawing pressure chamber inhabited by an omnipresent force of death, and the other is an exhausting juggernaut of tension and ballistic drama. There’s a scene where Ripley and Newt are trapped in a medical lab with one of the hand-spiders that dart unseen at your screaming mouth with their moist, tubular bodies. Slats of clear light cut the scene in sheer fragments as Ripley’s nails scrape under beds and tables while the toothless vaginal horror slinks in and out of frame. It’s almost too much to bear. With the addition of its creepy symbolism, Alien often was.

That one scene enunciates the greatest difference between the two films in terms of horror. If it was in Alien it would have been surreal and Freudian, Ripley choking on her own sexual insecurities as the men are emasculated into breeding stock. Scott’s original played with the things we fear about ourselves, and it didn't require excitement every second to do it. Sometimes that bumping sound was just a cat, and sometimes nothing. The characters were sometimes nothing too, sometimes just extras dying in the dark. Cameron, never much known for subtlety, pristinely choreographs his natural excess. In Aliens, suspicious sounds usually predict action. Every suspect spectacle is a spectacle. Yes, and every character is a person. The instances of horror in Aliens are all subservient to Ripley's emergence from the clutter as a warrior with an allergy to smartmouths and a desire to protect her family, no matter if the monster in her way is a cosmic rapist or a pig-headed jock. It’s not the most scared I’ve been in a bug-hunt movie, but it is perhaps the most attentive. This is wide-eyed, character-driven grunge torture, hilarious tragedy as iconic as the mythic hero tales and as dark, as Roger Ebert might have said, as the bruise you left on your date’s forearm.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

James Cameron

James Cameron (screenplay and story)

David Giler (story)

Walter Hill (story)


Ellen Ripley Sigourney Weaver
Pvt. Vasquez Jenette Goldstein
Cpl. Dwayne Hicks Michael Biehn
Pvt. Hudson Bill Paxton
Bishop Lance Henriksen
Newt Carrie Henn
Carter Burke Carl Reiser

Official Trailer

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