Apologies for not catching up on my Halloween posting. It’s been a surprisingly busy previous couple of days, but I recently re-watched “Alien” and “Aliens.”
Now, I feel I need to make a claim. It is completely subjective and all of you will probably disagree, but I don’t care.
I feel that “Alien” and “Aliens” are the best sequel combination ever. Yeah, I said it. Suck it “Godfather.” Beyond that, Ellen Ripley, the protagonist of the two films, is the best action hero of all time. The reason being that not only did they set the standard for horror and action movies in space, but two different creative teams ended up completing a complex overall arc for the main character between the two movies.
So, here is my completely subjective opinion on the two films and Ellen Ripley. Having never taken a film course, this should be fun.
Spoilers abound, and I’m going to feature mainly on the development of Ripley’s character in “Aliens,” following her mental state at the end of “Alien,” so watch those. If you haven’t I’m a bit disappointed, but we can still be friends.
Completely Subjective: Alien(s)
“Alien” came out in 1979, two years after “Star Wars” revolutionized space movies. I love “Star Wars” and am not ashamed to say that I want to be an A-Wing pilot to this day. Look it up if you’re not nerdy enough to know the best second-string fighter of the Rebellion. I want the future to be like “Star Wars,” but that’s not going to happen.
It’s going to be like “Alien.”
The future will be grimy and shitty. Ruled by corporations who hold sway over Earth’s governments. Space travel will be prohibitively expensive except for commercial enterprises and military concerns.
That’s the thing that makes the film great. Where most other space films were fantasy showing either the “Star Trek” version of perfect harmony or “2001: A Space Odyssey” with it’s transcendence of humanity, “Alien” is about the crew of what amounts to a space tugboat. Nothing glamorous, not the best humanity has to offer. They are just blue collar workers, doing a routine job.
By the end of “Alien,” Ripley and Jonesy the cat are the only survivors. Ripley barely having beaten the titular Alien by blasting it out the airlock, and hitting it with thrust from the engines. The Alien is powerful, nigh unkillable, and one of the best displays of body horror on film. Ripley is left tortured and frightened, but ultimately is the last standing.
The follow up, “Aliens,” set the standard for ‘space marine’ movies. Many people view it as James Cameron’s critique of the Vietnam War (technologically superior forces being beaten by guerrilla forces fighting on their own ground.) I like to view it as the evolution of Ripley from what has become a cliche trope in horror, the ‘Final Girl,’ to a completely fleshed out action hero and human being. The easiest way to look at this is by evaluating her relationship to her allies, and the aliens in question. The interesting thing to me is that the characters who represent her negative traits die, whereas the positive ones live. The ones representing negative traits do redeem themselves in death, with the exception of Burke (he really represents corporate greed anyways.)
“I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to current events, but we just got our asses kicked pal!”
Hudson is arrogant and brash, but his tough exterior hides his true cowardice. In the beginning of the film, Ripley is suffering from PTSD, night terrors, and panic attacks due to the events in “Alien.” She was wholly unprepared for what she faced, much like Hudson is when the shit hits the fan. He represents cowardice, and overwhelming panic. When the marines first enter the alien hive, they find one of the colonists cocooned onto the wall, with a chest burster starting to break free of her rib cage. Ripley, safe inside the APC elsewhere in the facility, clutches her chest and is covered in a sheen of sweat. Remembering Kane from the first film, she starts to panic, and in the background we hear Hudson scream “Kill it! Kill it!” The gravity of the situation hits them both like a rock, collapsing the cynical shell she raised over herself, and causing Hudson to drop the tough guy charade.
The difference is that over the course of their relationship, she begins to reject panic as a coping mechanism for dealing with threats. Hudson has a complete breakdown, and repeatedly needs to be put back in to line by a stronger Ripley. Ripley takes charge of the situation alongside Hicks, and calms Hudson. When Hudson is brought down by an alien in the fight in the operations room, he goes down yelling vulgarities and firing his rifle at everything that moves. He isn’t frightened anymore, he’s just pissed. Hudson dies without panic and in the throes of survival, just as Ripley begins to harden and shed the panic about the action around her.
Where Hudson represented Ripley’s cowardice, Vasquez represents unchecked aggression. While dealing with the inquiry board in the beginning of the movie, Ripley repeatedly blows up at what are admittedly dumb views of her warnings by the council. Her outbursts go unheeded by the Colonial Marines as well during their briefing, causing them to write her off as crazy until they actually enter the complex and see the results of the previous siege. Her aggression and outbursts conflict with her growing attempts to lead where others are failing. Vasquez dies with Gorman in the vent, having saved the rest of the group with her own sacrifice. Instead of trying to scrape by, she accepts her fate and in doing so let’s the rest escape. Ripley on the other hand, begins to pick more measured tones and adopts the stance of a leader. She begins to keep herself from flying off the handle, and becomes the most responsible and stable of the party.
“All we know is that there’s still no contact with the colony, and that a xenomorph may be involved.”
Gorman’s fate and role in Ripley’s development is tied closely with Vasquez. He is her opposite. She is aggressive, he is timid. He is an ineffective leader who tries to do things strictly by the book, whereas Vasquez breaks his ‘no firing’ rule in the hive by putting a battery in her Smartgun that she allows them to escape. They butt heads, but in the end go down together, clutching a grenade to save the others and spare themselves the pain of meeting a face hugger.
In “Alien” Ripley struggles with her role as the 3rd in command on the Nostromo. She is constantly overridden and disobeyed by her subordinates, even while she tries to go exactly as regulation states. When she is in the APC with Gorman and the marines are being slaughtered, she makes the conscious effort to get them out by any means necessary while Gorman remains frozen. He can not adapt and function as a leader, which is where Ripley first definitively picks up the reigns and is supported by the remainder of the party for it. Her insecurity of being in a leadership position, combined with her unchecked aggression, prevented her from being the hero she could be. As Gorman and Vasquez die, so do Ripley’s fears and insecurities about being a leader.
“’Surgically removed before embryo implantation. Subject: Marachek, John J., died during the procedure.’ They killed him taking it off.”
Bishop is an interesting case, and is linked closely with Ripley’s fear of the aliens. Bishop, being an android much like the murderous Ash in the previous movie, represents mortal danger to Ripley. Upon realizing he is synthetic, she treats him with fear and disdain. He is an other. The alien in the first film is just as inexplicable. She struggles to figure out the rules, and once she discovers how it operates she generalizes it. This can be seen by her warnings to the inquiry board. With Bishop, she knows not to trust him due to her attack from Ash, however she disregards that things have changed over 57 years. Much like she disregards that things may have changed with her understanding of the aliens. By the end, she begins to look at them as enemies instead of the mysterious other. Bishop also becomes known, and she loses her fear of him as he proves himself repeatedly. The loss of her fear of the ‘other’ and being able to see things for what they are lead to the defining moments where she becomes her true self.
“Okay, look. What if that ship didn’t even exist? Did you ever think about that, I didn’t know! So, now, if I went and made a major security situation out of it, everybody steps in; Administration steps in, and there’s no exclusive rights for anybody, nobody wins! So I made a decision, and it was… wrong. It was a bad call, Ripley. It was a bad call.”
While Bishop is Ripley shedding her fear of the other, Burke is her mistrust being reinforced of the worst in humanity. Upon learning that Weyland-Yutani lead to the death of her crew by declaring them expendable in search of the alien beacon, she still attempts to work with them during the inquest, and trusts Burke enough to accompany him to the colony on LV-426 on his word that there will be no scientific or retrieval operation. They will only be there to exterminate.
Burke himself is representative of modern corporations. We want to think that humanity always tries to do the best things, but then we ignore the stories coming from the greed of Wall Street or the poisoning of the land and the cover-ups by chemical companies. Ripley realizes she can only trust her team, but she makes a true leadership moment when she begins to stop the marines from killing him on the spot after he tried to get them impregnated with the alien embryos. She wants him to face justice, and be an example for the quarantining groups, and even though he’s done worse than the aliens, she let’s him live to face justice. In the end however, he gets himself killed by trying to escape with his secrets.
“I like to keep this handy, for close encounters.”
Hicks is Ripley’s equal, and along with Newt, forms part of the nuclear family that Ripley develops over the course of the movie. He represents calm and coolness under pressure, and respects Ripley’s outlook. Their development into leaders parallel each other, as they are both just grunts as some of the others would look at them. While there are hints of romantic feelings and flirting that show themselves over the course of the story, their relationship is instead defined by trust and respect. After the initial attack on the hive that fails, Hicks overrides Burke in support of Ripley to nuke the colony. He knows when to listen to advice, and in that way is superior to Gorman as a leader. He later takes command of the defensive aspect in the Operations center while Ripley spends time with Newt. Hicks represents an equal, and someone who Ripley respects and who he respects in turn. He is the only one to teach her how to use the pulse rifle and to view her as an asset. As a continuing positive influence, he survives the encounter.
“They mostly come at night. Mostly.”
Newt forms the other part of the impromptu family that Ripley develops. She is a survivor, and while she has lived for weeks hiding from aliens, she is still vulnerable. She gives Ripley something to focus on, something to save, that allows her to begin to shed the fear that has ruled her life since being rescued from the lifeboat. She forms a bond with Newt, becoming a surrogate mother after Ripley lost her daughter, and Newt lost her mother. She also marks a break in the cynicism that Ripley demonstrates in both movies. Earlier, after the hive fight, she tells the others to write off Apone and Dietrich as dead since they were taken. Her love for Newt later causes her to completely reinvent herself. She becomes a one-woman whirlwind of destruction to get back her daughter, even though she had been gone longer than Apone and Dietrich. She even puts the safety of Hicks and Bishop at risk to allow her to save Newt. Newt awakens her feelings of responsibility and a nurturing nature, thus she survives. She also represents Ripley’s resourcefulness that will save her multiple times over.
“Get away from her you bitch!”
Ok, so the Queen alien doesn’t say that part, but it was too cool not to include. Anyways, the Queen is the worst aspects of the identity that Ripley sheds. She has no value of human life and has no problem writing them off with the exception of when Ripley threatens her eggs. Her aggression pushes her drones to make mistakes that bring down the colony, as one caused the drop ship to crash into the terraforming towers. While clearly sentient, she does not have anything or anyone to evaluate her decisions. By killing all the humans on the colony, she represents the greed displayed by Burke. By chasing Ripley to the Sulaco, she makes the mistake of the marines by placing herself in an unfamiliar situation which leads to her demise at the cold metal claws of a power loader. And unlike Ripley saving Newt, the Queen makes no effort to save any of the drones, leading her to fight on alone. She represents Ripley and motherhood at their worst, and Ripley’s development as a character is what allows for her to defeat the Queen.
As such, Ripley has a huge development cycle that covers each character she interacts with after the hive fight. She transforms herself from a survivor haunted by what she has seen, to a leader that conquers her fears. She is the opposite of the “Last Girl” horror movie cliche, as she takes matters into her own hands for a majority of the film itself. Her characterization alone makes her in my mind the greatest action hero. The transition of her character over the events of “Alien” and “Aliens” make for what I feel is the best sequel pairings. I am ignoring the events of “Alien 3” since they kill off Hicks and Newt for no real reason other than “uhhh, not sure what to do with them.”
This analysis makes me oddly more uncomfortable to write than my horror stories. I feel like a first year film student putting out his first essay.
I don’t care what it takes, but I want an M41A Pulse Rifle. I have the Colonial Marines Equipment Book and I’ve read it cover to cover multiple times. I am a USCMC nerd and I don’t care if you know it.
I bought the Colonial Marines game based only on my love of the films. I preordered it, even though the whispers on the wind were saying it sucked. It did. Goddamnit Gearbox and Sega.
Ripley was originally meant to be a man in the first film, which is why I love her development in “Aliens.”
Michael Biehn (Hicks) demanded as much money for his likeness in “Alien 3” that he received in “Aliens” because he was pissed they killed his character for no reason. Michael Biehn is a badass, and I want him in more movies.
The second best action hero is John McClane, but only in the first 3 films.
I’m writing this at 1 AM so I’m sorry if I missed any of the connecting points that were in my mind, but you are awesome for reading this far. You have received your first “Words for the Internet TL;DR” badge.