“The Unenthusiastic Critic” is an occasional series in which my highly reluctant girlfriend “N.” joins me to watch classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. (For a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide, read the introduction to the series here.)
As always, these posts are completely spoiler-filled, so if you’re the other person on the planet who hasn’t seen Aliens, proceed with caution.
Last week, we began our creature double-feature with Ridley Scott’s original, franchise-launching classic Alien, which my reluctant viewing partner declared her favorite among all the films we’ve watched so far for The Unenthusiastic Critic. This week, I test her patience—and push my luck—by taking us back to Planet LV-426 for James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens.
What We Watched: Aliens (1986). Directed by James Cameron. Written by Cameron, David Giler, and Walter Hill. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, Al Matthews, Jenette Goldstein, and William Hope.
Why I Picked It: When I first heard about Aliens—I would have been in high school when it came out—I thought the scariest thing about it was the title. Just one of those scary-ass bug monsters was bad enough: the idea of a talking about them in plurals was absolutely terrifying.
As it turned out, Aliens wasn’t scary in quite the same way as Alien, and wasn’t meant to be. Handed the keys to this franchise after the massive success of his low-budget sci-fi film The Terminator, writer-director James Cameron very wisely decided not to even attempt to compete with Ridley Scott’s quiet suspense masterpiece. Instead, he used the same character (Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley), and the same universe, to make a louder, lower-brow, kick-ass action movie. To me, Cameron has never had anything approaching Scott’s artistry with a camera, and Aliens lacks the realism, atmosphere, and psychological depth of the original. But, judged on its own terms, it’s every bit as impressive an achievement as Alien, and of course was a much bigger commercial success. There are plenty of people who feel Aliens is the rare sequel that surpasses the original: I’m not one of them, but I do think it’s one of the best sci-fi action movies ever made.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In: As always, a certain amount of information has trickled down into my girlfriend’s brain from the collective cultural unconscious. She’s seen bits and pieces from the Aliens quadrilogy over the years, so she knew some of the things we didn’t see last week—like giant yellow robot suits—were probably going to be in this one. Other than that, she didn’t know anything about the plot, though she did have a question:
She: Are there any more non-vaginal births in this one? Are there more stomach-births that I need to be prepared for?
Me: No, absolutely not. Have no fear.
She: Are you lying to me?
Me: Very probably.
How It Went: A different experience, but we’re two-for-two on Alien movies.
When last we saw Lt. Ellen Ripley, she had escaped the Nostromo on a shuttle, and she and Jonesy (the cat) were settling down for a long cryogenic nap on the journey home. “I should reach the frontier in about six weeks,” she said, in her final ship’s log. “With a little luck, the network will pick me up.”
Now, as Aliens begins, we discover that Ripley had no such luck. The shuttle is discovered and boarded by a deep-space salvage crew, and Ripley awakens in a hospital on Earth to the news she has not been asleep and drifting through space for six weeks, but for 57 years. (It’s in these early scenes that Aliens bears the most resemblance to the original film: the scene of the salvage crew finding Ripley is quiet and atmospheric in a fair approximation of Scott’s style—albeit with Cameron’s trademark fetishisation of gadgets—and the revelation of Ripley’s lost decades segues directly into a fairly scary dream sequence in which she begins to suffer the same fate as Kane [John Hurt] in the original.)
Ripley learns about her Rip Van Winkelism from Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a smarmy corporate liaison. “I work for the company, but don’t let that fool you,” he tells her. “I’m really an okay guy.” What my girlfriend learns from Burke is that nothing good can come from some costume designer in 1986 imagining how men’s fashions will change by 2179:
She: His pop collar is bothering me.
Me: It’s the suit of the future! Styles have changed.
She: I understand that. It’s still bothering me.
Ripley tells her story to the corporate powers that be—trying to get them to understand the potential danger—but they decide to sweep it all under the rug. Besides, they tell her, humans have been living on LV-426 for twenty years, and they’ve had no complaints. Sometime later—it’s not clear how much time has passed, but presumably months—Burke shows up at Ripley’s low-rent living pod with a Marine, Lt. Gorman (William Hope), to inform her that they have—surprise, surprise—lost contact with LV-426. They want her to accompany a Marine force heading there to check out the situation, and—after demanding guarantees that they are going there to kill the creatures, not to study them or gather samples—she agrees.
“And you, you little shit,” Ripley says to the cat. “You’re staying here.”
She: Good! The cat is evil.
Me: I’ll never understand what you have against the cat.
We then jump to Ripley and the Marines waking up from hypersleep, just as the crew did in the original. It’s here that, for me, Aliens starts to pale a little in comparison with Alien: the supporting characters in Alien were real people, and the Marines are not. They are almost all standard issue types from central casting, and they speak in constant soldier clichés like “They’re not paying me enough for this,” and “How do I get out of this chicken-shit outfit?”
She: Apparently you don’t have to be too bright to be a space-marine.
Me: Remember when the Bush administration started lowering the recruiting standards for the military? This is the result.
In terms of personality-types, the Marines are the usual crew: we have Gorman, the inexperienced lieutenant; Hicks (Michael Biehn), the stoic leader-type; Hudson (Bill Pullman), the loudmouthed joker; and Apone (Al Matthews), the cigar-chomping, gruff-talking sergeant.
She: You think “chew cigar” was written into his job description?
Me: It’s a job requirement for all drill sergeants. And they all have to talk like Louis Gossett, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman.
She: And is it cool to smoke in space? It’s kind of an enclosed atmosphere. Do they not know about second-hand smoke in the future?
Me: You could still smoke almost everywhere in 1986 [I say, wistfully, as a former smoker].
Rounding out the team of Marines are Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), a butch Latina; Drake (Mark Rolston), a pale blonde bad-ass; and assorted others. (Private Fodder, Private Red-Shirt, Private Alien-Bait, Private Acid-Bath, and the aptly named “Private Not Likely To Survive This Picture.”)
She [referring to Drake]: Isn’t it supposed to be bad luck to have an albino on board?
Me: I believe you’re thinking of an albatross.
She: Whatever. Albino, albatross, same thing.
Me: And I don’t think he’s an albino; he’s just sunlight-deprived. Why is everything about skin color with you anyway?
She: In a movie where everyone is going to die, it’s all about skin color. Do the black guys die first? I bet the black guys die first.
As the Marines gather for a meal, we also meet Bishop (Lance Henriksen), who performs a super-speed knife trick on request, and starts bleeding a familiar white goo when he nicks his finger. After her experience with Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien, Ripley understandably freaks out at the discovery that there’s another synthetic person on board. “On Ripley’s last trip out,” Burke explains, “the artificial person malfunctioned, and there were a few deaths involved.” Bishop explains that Ash’s model was always “a bit twitchy,” and nothing like that could happen again, but Ripley is not inclined to trust him.
Arriving on LV-426, the Marines discover a seemingly abandoned colony, and signs of a battle. My girlfriend once again demonstrates that space marine would not be an ideal job for her.
She: See, that’s all I would need to see. Shit looks fucked up: time to go home.
Me: That comment presupposes that you would have agreed to be there in the first place—which, I have to say, I have trouble imagining.
She: That’s a fair point. I think once I heard the words “possible alien infestation,” I would have bowed out.
But the cocksure Marines go into the installation, look around for about five minutes, and decide that whatever happened there is long over. “OK, the area is secured,” Gorman says, to which both Ripley and my girlfriend reply The hell it is!
Exploring the med lab, they discover that there are three or four facehuggers entombed in glass tanks, and we get our first real scare of the movie when one of them startles Burke. N. jumps as well, and instantly returns to what we all, by now, recognize as her favorite horror-movie theme:
She: FEAR OF THE VAGINA!
A couple of the Marines are carrying motion detectors (now considerably smaller than the leafblowers from Alien), and one of them picks up movement that turns out to be a near-feral little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). It’s this character—and her relationship with Ripley–that provide the picture with its heart. Henn had no previous acting experience, and never made another movie, but she’s wonderful as the tiny survivor with more street-smarts than all the Marines combined. (Her peculiar accent—she was born in Florida but spent much of her childhood in England—and precise annunciation contributes to the character’s charming aloofness: she’s adorable but somehow never cute in that annoying, cloying Hollywood way.)
The Marines go in search of other survivors, and discover a strange, cavernous—one might even say “womblike”—area, with alien resin on the walls. Gorman (monitoring from a location of safety) orders Apone and his men to “proceed inside.”
She: No, don’t proceed inside! Are you crazy?
She: It’s hot, it’s wet, it’s dark, it’s steamy. This whole movie is a conspiracy against lady-parts.
Fortunately, the Marines have the gigantic weapons for the job.
She: Those guns are ridiculous.
Me: But appropriate.
She: Yes, if you’re going to war against the vagina, you need a really big gun.
The first time I saw Aliens, I remember worrying that there was no way the film could achieve even a little of the intimate, claustrophobic terror of the first movie with 20 heavily armed Marines around to semper-fry the monsters. I mean, sure, the aliens have extendable jaws, but Drake has a gun so large it actually has to be mounted onto a hydraulic belt for support. It didn’t seem like a fair fight.
Fortunately, Cameron sets up this scenario just to make the Marines (and us) feel a little too safe, and then quickly destroys their (and our) illusions. First, Ripley figures out that the marines all happen to be standing next to a giant Nuclear Coolant Plot Device which, if ruptured, will make the entire installation blow up. So they can’t use their giant guns.
Then, in what is probably my favorite sequence of the film, Cameron cuts our numbers down considerably in the space of about two minutes. When the troops discover a cocooned woman, and witness her death-by-chest-burster, they kill the hatchling with a flame thrower. That gets someone’s attention: suddenly the motion detectors start going crazy, even though the Marines can’t see anything. (Cameron cuts back and forth, very effectively, between our view of the Marines and their staticky POV feeds that Gorman and Ripley are watching back in the vehicle.) They keep scanning the weirdly textured walls, and seeing nothing, but Hudson insists they’re not alone. “I’m telling you, there’s something moving and it ain’t us.” Then the walls come alive, and things happen very, very quickly.
She: Aaaah! Just torch it and get the fuck out!
She [seeing multiple creatures]: THOSE! THEM! Torch them and get the fuck out!
James Cameron is one of those directors (like George Lucas) whose movies (and personality) have become less and less likable even as he has made more and more money. But there’s no denying that, once upon a time, he could direct the hell out of an action sequence. The first Marine to meet an alien just happens to be Corporal Dietrich (Cynthia Dale Scott), who just happens to be holding a flamethrower: as she gets eaten, she fires the weapon and immolates Private Frost (Ricco Ross), who falls over a railing to his fiery death.
Me: If you’re keeping score, the black guy was the second one killed. Shows what you know.
Frost, unfortunately, happens to be the guy who was carrying all the ammo, which promptly explodes, killing three or four more men: back in the vehicle, Gorman watches a display on which their vital signs all flatline simultaneously. (This entire comedy of fatal errors—from “everything’s fine” to “half our guys are dead”—takes about 24 seconds, and I wouldn’t trade it for all seven hours of Titanic and Avatar.) Then Vasquez decides to fire her gigantic weapon anyway, and all hell breaks loose.
As Gorman begins sputtering textbook (and ineffective) orders over the intercom, the aliens are making mincemeat of the panicking Marines. (Sgt. Apone—the last surviving black man, if you’re counting—dies because he’s too busy trying to understand Gorman’s useless orders to look above him.) “Do something!” Ripley screams at Gorman, and finally takes over herself, driving the armored vehicle through the compound to rescue the surviving soldiers. Five minutes after the first alien appeared, the surviving Marines are reduced to Hicks, Hudson, Vasquez, and a conveniently unconscious Lt. Gorman.
Over Burke’s protests, Ripley points out that Cpl. Hicks is now in command, and she and Hicks agree that the best thing to do is take off and nuke the planet from orbit. “This installation has a substantial dollar value,” Burke complains, but he’s overruled.
She: Burke needs to die.
Me: Why do you say that?
She: Because he’s an asshole. In a vest.
Me: It’s mainly the vest, isn’t it?
She: It’s mainly the vest. This isn’t Outward Bound: why’s he wearing a fucking vest?
Unfortunately, the plan to take off runs into a small hitch. Back at shuttle, the unfortunately named Pvt. Spunkmeyer (Daniel Kash) notices some slime on the landing ramp, but decides to ignore it.
Me: It’s slime.
She: Chekhov’s slime!
Spunkmeyer and the pilot, Cpl. Ferro (Colette Hiller) are dispatched mid-flight, and the shuttle crashes in a massive fireball that nearly kills the other survivors. Now they’re all trapped on the planet, and it’s more than two weeks before rescue will arrive. As everyone—particularly Hudson—panics, it’s Newt who takes it all in stride. “We better get back, because it’ll be dark soon,” she says. “and they mostly come at night…mostly.” (“This little girl lasted longer than that with no training and weapons,” Ripley reminds Hudson. “Great! Why don’t we put her in charge?” he replies.)
Only it turns out that they don’t have two weeks, since the coolant problem foreshadowed earlier is going to blow up the installation in a matter of hours. Bishop goes crawling through a tunnel so he can remote-pilot the other shuttle down, and the other survivors hunker down to wait. Ripley has a chat with Bishop, who informs her that Burke has ordered him not to destroy the facehugger specimens. Ripley confronts him, and reveals that she’s had a look at the records, and it was Burke who ordered the colonists to investigate the derelict ship that started this whole mess. (Apparently, after Ripley told her story back on Earth, Burke and the company decided this was a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the lucrative face-rape industry.) “I’m gonna nail you to the wall for this, Burke,” Ripley threatens. “Right to the wall!”
She: “You AND your vest!”
Burke, being a reasonable guy, decides that the best way to deal with this situation is to set the face-huggers free in the room while Ripley and Newt are sleeping.
She: Never trust a man in a vest.
Me: Maybe let the vest thing go, babe.
Ripley and Newt fight the spidery facehuggers in a tense sequence—one that once again calls back to the original movie—and are finally rescued by Hicks and Hudson. Now the question becomes, “What do we do with Burke?” By this point, I don’t think it will surprise anyone to hear that my girlfriend has a strong opinion on this subject.
She: SHOOT HIM IN THE FACE!
Me: That’s your solution to everything.
She: It IS the solution to everything! People need to be more ready to kill people in these movies. We don’t have time to fuck around.
Me: What I’ve learned from watching all these movies with you is that you are completely ruthless.
She: I’m just saying, you eliminate a lot of problems that way. Plus, he’s wearing a vest.
Me: Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
The other survivors, surprisingly, come to the same conclusion, but before they can execute Burke the aliens launch their full-fledged assault. (There’s a fantastic bit with the motion detector here, as they watch the blips come closer and closer—and then inside the room—without seeing anything. It takes them a moment to realize that there’s a dropped-ceiling full of scurrying bugmen.) Burke slips his cowardly ass out of the room, and locks the others in.
She: See, if you’d killed him earlier, that wouldn’t have happened.
But Burke fairly quickly runs into an alien of his own, and my girlfriend treats his death with all the dignity and respect it deserves:
She: YEAH, BITCH! Suck on THAT vagina!
Hudson also dies, in a glorious blaze of profanity, and as they make their escape through the air vents (led by Newt), Vasquez and Gorman fall behind and end up blowing themselves up to avoid being eaten. The shock wave from this blast, however, sends Newt falling down an air shaft to another part of the ship.
Me: OK, I want to get this on the record. So sweet, adorable, innocent little Newt has fallen down the air shaft…
She: Too bad. Very sad. We’re leaving.
Me: You wouldn’t go back for her?
She: Hell, no. It’s the damn cat all over again.
Me: They still have like 20 minutes before the place blows up.
She: Yeah, whatever, we’re leaving.
Me: That’s cold, dude.
Fortunately, Ripley—unlike my girlfriend—actually has a heart, so she straps a couple of guns together and heads back into the belly of the beast to search for Newt (who, conveniently, is wearing a tracking device). She finds her cocooned, just in time to save her from a hatching facehugger, and the two of them make their way into a room filled with eggs.
“So what’s laying the eggs?” Ripley asked earlier, and now she finds out: let us call her Big Mama.
Having well established—even hammered home—the maternal relationship between Ripley and Newt, we now have a standoff of mothers, as Ripley has a silent conversation with the Queen Bitch. Ripley aims her flamethrower at the eggs, and Big Mama signals her soldiers to withdraw. Ripley moves to the doorway, and then gives the Queen a nasty look, and flames all the eggs anyway.
(This always bothered me a little. I’m sure it’s wonderfully cathartic for Ripley, but the fact of the matter is that the entire place is going to blow up anyway. Ripley wastes a lot of time, and a lot of ammo, torching a nursery that is going to be a giant pile of scrambled eggs no matter what she does.)
After wasting all this time, and unnecessarily angering Big Mama, Ripley and Newt make their way to the rendezvous point with moments to spare, but Bishop and the shuttle are nowhere to be seen. With the place blowing up around them, and a furious Mama on her way up in the elevator, it looks like they’re finished—until the shuttle (of course) appears and rescues them at the last moment.
Last time, my girlfriend fell for the surprise ending. This time, not so much.
She: What, is Mama on the wing or something?
Alas, yes: as the shuttle returns to the orbiting ship, and Ripley is thanking Bishop for being the Best Android Ever, a pointy tail emerges from the landing gear and punches its way through Bishop’s chest, tearing him in two milky, disgusting pieces. Mama is pissed.
While Mama stalks Newt in the floorboards, Ripley—in a nice parallel to her scene at the end of Alien—locks herself in another closet. Last time she had a space suit to put on, but this time she has something better: a giant yellow robot suit. If I thought Aliens had as much on its mind, thematically, as Alien did, this moment when Ripley becomes part-woman, part-machine would tie nicely back into the ambiguous view of technology, and the fear of losing one’s humanity, that was present in the earlier film. But I don’t think that’s intended; rather, I think Cameron just thought it would be really cool to have Ripley fight the Alien Mother in a giant yellow robot suit. And it is cool.
“Get away from her, you bitch!” Ripley shouts, in her now-iconic battle-cry.
They fight, mano-a-mano, mama-a-mama, until Ripley can knock the Queen into the cargo bay and open the airlock; she hangs on for dear life, and the top-half of Bishop manages to snag Newt before she’s sucked out into space, and it’s all over.
“Mommy,” Newt says as she hugs Ripley, and—since we’re not going to watch Aliens3— the survivors live happily ever after.
She: I liked it. It was a good action movie. It’s always nice to see Sigourney Weaver kick ass.
Me: She does kick pretty serious ass.
She: While not wearing a bra, which is impressive.
Me: I guess I didn’t notice that. Why do you always notice that? You said that about Princess Leia, too.
She: Well, yeah, because Leia’s little things were swinging around in that ugly shirt. I don’t think anyone wore a bra in this movie, though: Vasquez didn’t either, and she had some serious knocks.
Me: You spend more time thinking about women’s tits than I do. But you liked the movie?
She: I thought it was good. I think I liked the first one better, since it was more of a slow-burn. This was more of a standard action-alien movie. And the acting and the dialogue weren’t as good in this one. It was all stock characters and clichés.
Me: Is this a better feminist movie, or a worse one? She kicked more ass, but there was also a lot more testosterone in this one.
She: I guess they’re pretty much on the same level. This one added some elements the first one didn’t have, like the traditional maternal storyline, which sort of softened her, and I don’t think that was necessary. And there was also the halfway-romance between her and the guy (Hicks), and it felt like they didn’t really need that either. The last movie didn’t need that. But I thought it was interesting that they made the main monster a female as well. You don’t see that very often.
Me: Female protagonist, female antagonist. Doesn’t that fuck up your whole fear-of-the-vagina theory?
[N. ponders this for a moment.]
She: Ah, but see, the aliens are black. So this is about fear of the black vagina.
Me: Oh, lordy.
She: Don’t you see it? They’re killing all the black babies. And all these black men are menacing the white women, and the little blonde white girl. It’s that primal racist fear you all have.
Me: Hmmm…you may be onto something. Big black mama, a single mother…
She: Right? Single mother, with lots of baby-daddies. And they have way too many babies. The black men are forcing their seed on white people. Rape, miscegenation: this is all about white people’s fear of black people.
Me: So shouldn’t you have been rooting for the aliens?
She: Well, yes, in retrospect, now that I think about it, I was. Oh! And there’s the whole immigration storyline.
Me: I’m sorry?
She: You know, illegal “aliens,” sneaking into the country with a baby in your womb. Anchor babies! And this imperialist American military force trying to keep them out. It’s a Republican propaganda film.
Me: I feel like you’re mixing your metaphors here, sweetie. Fear of the vagina, fear of black people, fear of immigrants…
She: But it’s all there! It’s layered.
Me: Uh huh. I see it. I see it so clearly now.
Me: I see…that you are totally insane.
She: I see the truth. It’s sub-conscious shit. You gotta ask the tough questions. You have to ask what is Aliens really about.
[I pause for a moment to contemplate the whole idea of the aliens as representing white fear of black people.]
Me: You know, I probably shouldn’t even mention this, but the third movie does take place in a prison. And, if I recall correctly, Charles S. Dutton is this kind of militant black leader who organizes the prisoners.
She: See? Does he wear glasses? Does he wear the Malcolm X glasses?
Me: Umm…they’re not unlike Malcolm X glasses.
Me: But wait, they’re the ones getting killed in the third movie. They’re fighting the aliens.
She: Black-on-black crime.
Me: And now we’re done.
Next Up for The Unenthusiastic Critic: We break from tradition, and N. tackles her first movie without me: the 2012 Steven Soderbergh male-stripper flick Magic Mike.