Twenty-five years ago, it was time for war. On July 18, 1986 James Cameron‘s film Aliens exploded into theaters and immediately became one of the few examples of a standout sequel in movie history. Picking up where Ridley Scott‘s Alien left off — with Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley drifting asleep in the sci-fi version of a lifeboat — Aliens emulated its forbear with character-centric thrills and expanded upon it by visualizing the xenomorphic killer aliens as a bee-like hive society.
The movie celebrates industrial and military design (check out the marine ship Sulacco, which lances through space like an ingenious fusion of rifle and projectile) but mocks a reliance on business (see Paul Reiser‘s sleazy company man Carter Burke) and military might.
In a popular film culture dominated by buffed-up male action heroes (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, et al) Aliens dared not only to scorn false machismo, but to weave a gory, violently thrilling story about motherhood. Critics and audiences responded with rapture. Sigourney Weaver earned one of the film’s seven Oscar nominations (it won for Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects) and the film owned the box office for four weeks. Aliens is one of the most-emulated films in action and/or science fiction, and arguably James Cameron’s best work. We’ll revisit some key memories of the film after the break.
I normally don’t go in for the big nostalgia trip when looking back on the anniversary of a movie release, but Aliens was a serious experience for me. After Star Wars made me rabid for all movies involving space, I had become fascinated by Alien when it was in release. But I was a seven-year old with protective parents and wasn’t allowed to see the film. (Wandering into a theater still showing Alien while trying to see Superman: The Movie is a story for another time.)
Aliens was released just after my family moved from Napa, CA to Midland, TX. At 13, just as I was feeling like I had a handle on the social basics with high school looming, that move was a traumatic experience. I’d been depressed for quite some time before leaving. When we got to Midland I saw my first TV commercial for Aliens. I hadn’t even known it was being released, thanks to the opaque walls of my self-indulgent little sadness cocoon. It was the first thing I got excited about that summer, and really helped me get through those first few months where I felt lost in a very alien landscape. Fandom isn’t just distraction. It can provide focus, when everything else in the real world seems far too blurry.
My relationship to Aliens fluctuates now, all these years and many viewings later. I’m as stunned as I ever was by the production design, and as forgiving as one can be to the actors in suits who were given only a few dozen frames at a time to perform as the swarming xenomorphs. There are times when I still have a gleeful response to the deliberately over the top dialogue of the Marines. Other times, I see the soldiers as unpleasantly cartoonish and just want to throw Hudson (Bill Paxton) out of the closest airlock. One thing never changes: I can’t stand the screaming of the orphan Newt (Carrie Henn, in her only screen role) and flash to the scream-recording session in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out when I watch it now.
I’m never less than fascinated by the development, especially in this context, of the core ‘motherhood’ theme. The idea emerges right in the title screen, when the ‘I’ in Aliens emits light in a graphic designer’s minimalist representation of celestial birth. Alien was characterized by H.R. Giger‘s gooey vaginal visions,and this title card promises a blinding counter-argument. Then the second shot of Ripley’s sleeping profile fades into a shot of Earth, defining the heroine as Gaia/Earth Mother and establishing the motherhood theme within minutes.
The movie’s anti-macho viewpoint doesn’t take long to kick in, either, as female Marine Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is quickly established as the toughest soldier on the boat. And Ripley, once awakened from hypersleep, mostly looks grubby and tired. She’s dressed down, counter to mid-’80s beauty standards. That is, until she demonstrates her skills with the power loader — doing a man’s job, in the eyes of the nearby marines — and is handed a glamour shot for her efforts. “Where do you want it,” indeed? She might as well ask, “how about I put this future-Reebok right in your ***?”
Aliens is 25 years old, and for almost 20 years there has been an argument between those who love the theatrical cut, and the proponents of the 1992 special edition, which runs an additional 17 minutes. While I really enjoy some sequences in the special edition (SE), particularly the ‘walk and talk’ between a couple colony managers on the planetoid LV-426 (which could almost be an outtake from Avatar), I consider the theatrical version to be superior.
Two reasons I’ll argue for theatrical over SE. One: it is more trim and precise. I always appreciate that, and while many of the extended scenes are fun from a geek point of view, I don’t think they do enough to enhance the suspense or advance the story. (For instance, there is the extended walkthrough of the Sulacco in the SE. As a fan of set design I love that footage, but it does nothing for the story but emulate the similar sequence introducing the Nostromo in Alien. Since most of the action in Alien takes place on the Nostromo, introducing it as a character makes sense. So little of Aliens takes place on the Sulacco — and most of those scenes in the loading bay — that we don’t need the walkthrough.)
More important, though, is the addition of a scene in the SE in which we learn that Ripley had a daughter who grew and died while she was sleeping through the 57-year aftermath of Nostromo’s dire mission. (“I promised I’d be home for her birthday,” Ripley chockes. “Her eleventh birthday.”) That scene represents a crucial branch in the thematic path.
The Ripley of the theatrical release is a woman who, so far as we know, never had anything but her career. Rescuing and protecting Newt is an evolutionary step, and the violence that follows is part of that transformation from woman into mother. In the SE, protecting Newt is penance for sleeping through her real daughter’s life and death. Both versions are powerful, and there is a valid argument for the fact that the SE/penance version, as the originally intended story, is the ‘real’ one. In the end, both arrive at the same place: Ripley has earned and embraced her status as a mother. But I’ll stick with my favoritism of the theatrical version. That transformation, to me, is more powerful.
Regardless, the fact that we can (and should) argue over the interpretation of themes of motherhood in a sci-fi/action movie is (sadly) remarkable. Aliens, at 25, remains a landmark movie, and proof that genre film can be expansive, fertile ground, rather than a confining framework.