(Note: This analysis is based on the 1991 Special Edition of Aliens. Also, stay away if you don’t wish to be spoiled for certain summer superhero flicks.)
I’d like to tell you a story. Once upon a time, there lived a dark-haired hero who fought against an alien threat, risking their life to save the people of Earth. Following the alien attack, the hero was tormented by the experience and found it difficult to sleep. They turned to action as a way to move beyond their psychological trauma, getting assistance from both the military and a resourceful child. Finally, they fought their enemy in a violent showdown while wearing a mechanized suit, and a woman ultimately saved the day. Now, name that story.
If you’re up to date in your Marvel Cinematic Universe travels, you probably answered Iron Man 3. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably deduced that we’re going through this month’s films in chronological order, and therefore answered Aliens. Both are correct.
Aliens takes place fifty-seven years after the events of the first film, beginning when Ripley’s shuttle is found by a salvage crew, with the hypersleeping Ripley still inside. She is taken to Gateway Station, where she is called to answer for the destruction of the Nostromo. The people who conduct the inquest, a group of executives employed by the insidious Company, Weyland-Yutani, don’t believe her story about the Xenomorphs, and they revoke her flight officer license. Demotion proves easier to deal with than the dreams that haunt Ripley’s sleep, dreams in which she sees an alien burst from her chest. When the Company loses contact with the colony that they have established on the aliens’ planetoid, LV-426, they mount a mission to destroy the aliens once and for all. It is this objective that convinces Ripley to join the mission as a consultant, which she hopes will give her some peace of mind. (It’s a good thing she didn’t know about the sequels, or she might have just stayed home.)
Whereas Alien builds up to the reveal of its protagonist, the creators of Aliens know from the get-go that we’re here for Ripley. The first film subverts convention and forces the audience to identify with a female hero, and the second strengthens this identification, even going so far as to align the audience with Ripley’s subjectivity by having us witness one of her nightmares.
Almost the entire first act is devoted to seeing Ripley try to cope with the consequences of her actions in the first film. What was a heroic triumph becomes complicated by the passing of decades and the return to civilization. Having defeated the representative of the Company on the Nostromo, Ripley now has to face Weyland-Yutani’s executives and justify the financial losses incurred by her actions. Here, again, she is dismissed by those who think they know better, and she defies them just as she did before. When they end the inquest, she responds, “Goddamn it, that’s not all! Because if one of those things gets down here, then that will be all! Then all this, this bullshit that you think is so important, you can just kiss all of that goodbye!” As before, she finds that she and the Company are operating within completely different value systems; she saved humankind, and they claim that she “acted with questionable judgment.” Her heroism is re-interpreted by the bureaucratic, capitalist machine as incompetence.
By denying the existence of the aliens, the Company also undermines the legitimacy of her psychological trauma. Their conclusion appears to be that some kind of latent mental illness caused her to destroy the Nostromo, not that she developed PTSD as a result of her harrowing experiences with a very real alien. The Company clearly views her mental disorder as a form of weakness, but the audience knows that it is the consequence of a great display of strength.
Nevertheless, when a Company employee, Carter Burke, tells her that they’ve lost contact with the colony on LV-426 and offers her the chance to come along, she initially declines, saying, “I’m not a soldier.” This line becomes significant over the course of the film, as Ripley is contrasted with the Marines whose mission she joins. Like the Company executives and her former crew members, the Marines dismiss Ripley, one of them giving a misguided, condescending interpretation of the events of the first movie: “Apparently she saw an alien once.” When that same Marine dies at the hands of an alien, it becomes clear that the easiest way to guarantee your death in the Alien series is to underestimate Ellen Ripley.
The Marines are a brash, bold, hyper-macho bunch, including the three women in the group; one of the women, Vasquez, is even asked by one of her comrades whether she’s ever been mistaken for a man, to which she replies, “No, have you?” They are also, for the most part, just as incompetent and capable of “acting with questionable judgment” as the Company claims Ripley is. They are led by a lieutenant whose experience comes almost entirely from simulations, and at least a few of them directly disobey orders intended to keep them from damaging the colony’s cooling system. Still, as one of them observes, they perceive themselves as a “squad of ultimate badasses” who will protect Ripley.
Instead, it’s the other way around. In the first place, it is Ripley, not the lieutenant, who sees the team’s location near the cooling system and deduces the possible effects of a stray armour-piercing bullet. Then, when the aliens close in on the Marines, Ripley disregards Burke and the lieutenant and drives in to save the remaining soldiers. She continues to demonstrate her superior tactical knowledge when she plans the defenses that they mount using their remaining ammo. At every opportunity, she displays a military mind superior to those of the actual soldiers.
Once she has proven herself to the Marines, she still has another human hurdle to clear: Carter Burke. As a representative of the Company, Burke replaces Ash as Ripley’s primary non-alien antagonist. Ripley agreed to go on the mission on the condition that they were going to destroy all of the Xenomorphs and not, under any circumstances, bring any back. It is therefore no surprise that she becomes furious when she learns that this is precisely what Burke intends to do. When she confronts him about his plan, he says that bringing home a specimen will set them up for life and make them heroes.
In this conversation, we see the stark difference between the respective value systems of Ripley and Weyland-Yutani. Burke describes heroism and financial gain in the same sentence, equating the two; they would be heroes because they allowed the Company to make money, and they would profit from their actions. Heroism, to Burke, is acting in his own self-interest and the interests of the capitalist machine. Ripley takes the opposite approach, framing Burke and the people he’s working for as monsters. (A few scenes later, she makes this connection explicit when she tells him, “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”) She refuses to cooperate with him, instead vowing that she will let everyone know that he was responsible for the colonists’ deaths. She makes it clear that she will not let him get away with describing villainy as heroism, or achieving financial gain through the loss of human life.
Although the film has a high death toll, one of its major themes is the preservation and continuation of life; more specifically, the film deals with the concept of motherhood. In the special edition, this begins in the first act, as Ripley arrives at Gateway Station, only to learn that the daughter she left behind almost sixty years earlier has died an old woman. It finds its most obvious expression in the bond between Ripley and Newt, a girl of about the same age as Ripley’s daughter was when she last saw her. While Newt, the sole survivor of a colony of over 150, seeks a mother to replace the one lost to the aliens, Ripley finds a daughter to replace her own, lost to Ripley as a result of her experiences with the Xenomorph. However, Newt is more than Ripley’s adopted daughter; she is her heir apparent. Ripley’s ability to survive is echoed in Newt, who managed to keep herself alive for weeks while the aliens took over the colony.
At one point, when Ripley is trying to comfort Newt, the girl asks if one of the aliens grew inside her mother, and then observes, “Isn’t that how babies come?” While it may be difficult to get past the horror inherent in any conversation in which a human girl wonders if a bloodthirsty alien that burst out of her mother’s chest could technically be considered her brother, this question is important. In both Alien and Aliens, motherhood can be a problematic issue.
The first film tackles it primarily through MU-TH-UR, the computer controlling the Nostromo. MU-TH-UR initially seems to be a benevolent force, giving birth to the mostly nude crew as they emerge from hypersleep, but there are some interesting implications that emerge over the course of the film. First, while the system that the crew calls “Mother” can communicate with them at any time through the intercom, only the ranking officer can access Mother directly. Because of the maternal name, it’s a bit like the mainframe is playing favourites, and Ripley is only worthy of her attention after both Dallas and Kane die. It is from Mother that Ripley learns that they have been deemed expendable, and it is Mother who ultimately turns against Ripley by turning off the cooling unit, as if in retaliation for Ripley blowing up the ship. Mother comes across as more than a little cold and vindictive.
In the second film, the treatment of motherhood is made more complicated by the presence of three different kinds of “mother.” The first is the group of human incubators, who “give birth” to the alien fetuses who gestate within them. This is a brutal definition of motherhood, beginning with a kind of rape and ending with the violent, bloody death of the parent.
The second type is represented by Ripley, who loses one daughter only to gain another. She is presented as an ideal mother: loving, devoted, and willing to do just about anything to protect her child. The final two action sequences are driven by Ripley’s need to save Newt, as she descends into the nest when the objectively smarter course of action would be to let the whole place burn in the impending nuclear explosion. The last big set piece is a physical battle that takes place between Ripley and the alien queen, who only follows her onto the ship because Ripley torched all of her eggs. Ripley uses her skill and ingenuity to win a fight against a much more overtly lethal opponent, and her success in eliminating the threat and protecting her child implicitly labels her the superior mother.
What is particularly interesting, however, is the film’s treatment of the third kind of mother: the alien queen. By paralleling her with Ripley, the film almost humanizes her; Ripley’s love for Newt is reflected in the queen’s concern for her offspring. We side with Ripley because she’s one of us and she is fighting to secure the survival of humankind, but it’s difficult not to sympathize with someone who just watched an alien invader burn her children alive. The Mama Bear badassery that we admire in Ripley is answered by a similar quality in the queen, whose goal in boarding the ship is not spreading the species, but getting revenge. By reflecting aspects of Ripley in the queen, the film makes a species that was once terrifying in its very alienness disconcertingly familiar.
In some ways, it does the same with the female action hero, especially for a modern audience looking back. Ripley rocked the John McClane look two years before Die Hard was released, and her story resembles films about male superheroes that are currently in theatres. She paved the way for Sarah Connor, Black Widow, and the women of whom Hollywood’s favourite Strong Female Characters are merely a pale imitation. What is even more remarkable is that she did this in a film that featured other women. Of the small group of Marines that goes on the mission, three are women. One is a pilot, one is a medic, and the last one makes it through the majority of the film and dies a heroic death. All three of them get lines. The intelligent, resourceful kid that shows up as a boy in Iron Man 3 is depicted here as a girl perceptive enough to see through the happy lies she has been told by adults. For a modern viewer, who will encounter at the cinema only “a solid, impenetrable wall of movies about dudes,” this film does seem truly alien.
Verdict: Actual strong female character