Aliens (dir. James Cameron): overstretched plot meets redeemed heroine in Vietnam War fable

James Cameron, “Aliens” (1986)

Sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, this is a very different movie: “Alien” is basically a haunted-house horror story with ordinary civilian worker types set on a spaceship; “Aliens” is a combat movie about a mission gone wrong set on a distant planet. The only things the two have in common are the character Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the monsters who become a regular part of her life when she’s awake or at least not in deep sleep. Comparisons between the two films are beside the point: Cameron didn’t set out to remake “Alien”, he made a movie in a genre he was familiar with at the time (late 1980s), which is the action adventure genre. “Aliens” can be read as Cameron’s ham-fisted criticism of US military conduct in the Vietnam War, in which nearly two million US soldiers were thrown into a conflict a lot of them didn’t understand and many thousands died needlessly, being picked off by the enemy Viet Cong who knew the territory well (it was their home after all). In like manner, a group of marines armed with sophisticated weaponry sally forth into colonial territory established on an alien planet to protect the colonists and hunt down and destroy an enemy, only to be hit back hard by a determined and intelligent though technologically primitive monster species that has made the planet its home.

Fifty-seven years after the events of “Alien”, Ripley’s escape craft, having drifted in space, is picked up by a larger ship and taken back to Earth. After half a century away, one’d think Ripley had been given up for dead and all her details wiped off any databases and the cargo transporter she blew up written off as a lost asset but no, as soon as she’s back, she gets grilled by the Company for wilfully destroying its property, losing its cargo and her pilot licence (it’s still current?) is withdrawn. Worse than that, she discovers she has no family, her only daughter having died childless.

Resigned to manual labour as a non-entity in a society that doesn’t need or want her, Ripley is later contacted by Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and an army man Gorman (William Hope) who advise that the Company has lost contact with its colony on planet LV-426 (formerly Thedus where the Nostromo landed in “Alien”) and they are sending a military mission there to find out why. Would she be willing to go as a “consultant”? After first refusing and then suffering a bad dream and a panic attack, Ripley finally agrees to go.

The mission, made up of young marines under the impression of going on a “bug hunt”, travels to the planet where it finds one surviving colonist, a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), and discovers the colony got wiped out by a hive of aliens. After being nearly wiped out themselves, the surviving marines retreat back to their drop-ship and decide to bomb the colony buildings and go home. Unfortunately the evacuation ship itself is attacked by an alien and explodes, leaving the survivors stranded. From then on, it’s a struggle for Ripley, Newt, Burke, the robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and the remaining marines to bring another evacuation ship down to the planet and get off before the colony explodes or the aliens get them, whichever is first. Along the way, Ripley must thwart Burke’s devious attempt to get two aliens on board the ship home and save Newt after the child disappears down a vent into the clutches of the aliens who want her as baby food. The remaining marines get picked off one by one down to Hicks (Michael Biehn) who barely survives the mission.

The film divides into two halves, the first half being exposition, tying up and elaborating on any loose plot strands from “Alien” and setting up the scene for the conflict with the aliens on LV-426; the second half all breathless go-go action with no let up and piling on one implausible plot twist after another. What holds these halves together is Ripley’s transformation from mere company worker with no future into a leader with a purpose: in finding and retrieving Newt, and confronting the alien queen twice, Ripley at last finds reason to continue living and achieves a kind of redemption. This makeover makes Ripley a fully realised character in comparison with rest of the cast who play character stereotypes. The former stickler for regulations throws them all out the window to risk her life to rescue Newt and her black-and-white view of the world changes too: Bishop shows her not all robots are as bad or creepy as they look and she even achieves a short-lived understanding with the alien queen in the breeding pit.

The aliens’ life-cycle and physiology reveal them as overgrown insects: they bleed lots of acid blood which they can use as a weapon, they have a parasitic larval stage, they moult as they grow and they have a “queen” whose life is completely given over to laying eggs. There seems no point in making the queen the biggest and most intelligent critter if she’s merely an egg-laying machine – one could argue she’s actually a slave to the other aliens – but the detail hardly matters in a cartoon plot. Having Gorman as combat mission leader despite having no actual experience in the field begs credibility. Ripley surviving one encounter with the aliens can be put down to luck but surviving two with a little girl in tow and nearly all the marines save one totally blown away is perhaps too much even for coin-tossers among us. Anyone who’s bad like Burke and everyone who is disposable or disrespects Ripley gets it in the neck – or the face – and the people Ripley cares about or who have a lesson to teach her come through safely. Come to think of it, a huge powerful and wealthy Company able to send ships into space should be able to afford a robots-only military mission or even just a reconnaissance satellite with Google Earth streetview (and better) technology to investigate the disappearance of a colony but then of course there’d be no movie and Ripley would have no transformative redemption and a reason to go on living. There are many “just-in-time” moments that strain credibility: the aliens cut off electricity just when the survivors decide what to do with Burke after they discover his little scheme, Ripley saves Newt seconds from being custard-pied by an alien larva, Bishop arrives in the nick of time to rescue Ripley and Newt from the alien queen’s wrath and the queen herself is about to haul Newt from beneath a grate just when Ripley in her cargo-loader challenges her to a duel.

A conservative message about the role of women may be present, in that Ripley finds her true destiny being a mother (to Newt) and is challenged by another mother (the alien queen) to prove herself worthy of that destiny. On the other hand, the men in “Aliens” become weak or compromised in some way and as they fall to the aliens it falls to Ripley to lead the expedition and to salvage whatever she can of it. Only Hicks, who respects Ripley and treats her as his equal, stays alive.

In spite of the overstretched plot, the various “in time” incidents and a weak copycat flush-down-the-airlock ending, “Aliens” is a likeable live-action cartoon movie which fleshes out a familiar character and the monsters who become, for better and for worse, twinned with her forever. The one aspect of “Aliens” that lifts it above other similar popcorn action movies is the development of a character who through her encounters with her worst enemy matures into a leader and discovers inner strength and resourcefulness.

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