Aliens, Where Have You Gone?

Tonight, for the first time in ages, I put on Aliens in the background while I worked. Was it a mistake? Yes. It’s hard to tinker away at comma splices when colonial marines are getting their asses kicked by alien drones.

The fact that I hadn’t watched it in years helped to see it with fresh eyes. Or refreshed eyes, I suppose. At university I studied horror and sci-fi, and Aliens, and its parent, Alien, were oft-analyzed works. Both, but particularly the first movie, are thick with primal horror imagery, intended or not. The readings of the first two movies are fascinating for what they say about the maternal, the wild, the unknowable dark and uncontrollable feminine that the orderly, rational world of men would be pleased to keep out.

So my early, pure viewing of the first two movies was overlayed for a long time with various theoretical frameworks. Later the context of fandom and fan commentary, in all its infinite detail, would be added. Still later came a certain resentment, that we were constantly asked as viewers to look back so far to find a female action hero to admire. It was as though, having given us Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, Hollywood had done its job, and we should be damned grateful for anything more. Finally, the movies would be asked to bear the weight of the ponderous prequels and their philosophical woolgathering.

That is a lot of water under the bridge. But watching tonight I was struck by a renewed, pure appreciation for a sharp, simple little action movie that worked precisely because it was simple. With a certain sadness I also realized that it would never, ever be made today.

To begin with, there was neither need nor desire for weighty explanation. I remember quite vividly certain drunken discussions about details in Aliens that I’m sure subsequent years have answered in the endless fannish detail. At the time, they could have had answers or they could have been plot holes. Where did all the drones come from? How long would eggs lay dormant? How did things live with acid for blood? They were fun questions, but the answers weren’t necessary. There was no need to not only know, but be absolutely right, backed up by interviews and citations.

The more I think about it, the more I see how the same problems bedevil both the Alien movies and Star Wars. Regardless of how Lucas originally planned nine movies, the original trilogy worked because it, like the first Alien movies, was absent a larger context. It was fun to imagine the larger universe, but it wasn’t necessary to know.

Nor do I think Aliens made today would have the same collection of actors. The cast was brilliant, and Cameron took care to make them seem lived in. I have renewed appreciation for Al Matthews as Apone, but all of the primary and secondary actors are great. We wouldn’t get a friendship like Drake and Vasquez now.

Even the music wouldn’t be the same.

But above all I don’t think it would be the story of Ripley and the Queen. Ultimately, that’s what Aliens is. Action heroes in general have changed over the years, but the female variety more even than the male. I’d forgotten exactly how badass and how resourceful Ripley is. Even in the med bay, while she figures out a way to call for help, in the back of my mind is the sense that she would have figured something out if the marines hadn’t shown up in time. She’s allowed a flirt with Hicks, who admires her competence in his understated way. Sexually mature, you might say, without being sexualized. These are two people who you could imagine at some future date drinking a beer and hitting the sack. At the moment, there are aliens to fight.

There’s room for all kinds of action heroes. That’s my point. Why is it so hard to find one like Ripley these days? Why are there a million stories in pop culture that read easily into father/father-son dynamics but so few that look at the complexity and ambivalence of the feminine?

For me, Alien and Star Wars, and even Terminator, are victims of their own success. However I feel about the rest of the franchises,* their place in movie history by being simple and straightforward has encumbered them with so much cultural baggage that they’ve mostly lost the ability to delight.

So these are my scattered thoughts on Aliens. Tl;dr: what a great little movie!

*Hated Aliens 3, enjoyed Alien Resurrection as an interesting response to the film theory surrounding the first two movies, wavered between bored by and disappointed in Prometheus and Covenant, found Alien vs. Predator mildly entertaining and was completely baffled by the existence of Alien vs. Predator: Requiem

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