There are, as we have learned, two ways to do morally and ethically defensible action sci-fi in the 1980s. You can either take the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind route and depict the violence as something awe-inspiringly grotesque to be avoided at all costs, or you can go the Dirty Pair route and wear your artifice completely on your sleeve (or really, to be more accurate, strip down to nothing but an artifice bikini) and just go wild in your wholehearted embrace of camp performativity. Both paths share one thing in common, however: The spectacle, irreducible from all forms of action sci-fi, is translated somewhere else, such as the breathtakingly imaginative worlds both works show us or, in the case of Dirty Pair, fully acknowledging we want to see fun and colourful explosions and gleefully giving them to us with wild and knowing abandon.
Which brings us to Aliens. The first thing that we should square away is that the whole idea of doing a sequel to Alien in the first place is inherently a bizarre one-There’s not a whole lot of room in that movie to build subsequent works out of, it’s pretty self-contained. Furthermore, Alien is a bit of a one-trick pony: There’s simply no way a sequel can be expected to deliver that same level of shock and impact or posses the same sort of novelty. So, given the fact that a sequel to Alien was, in fact, greenlit, this sort of forces whoever the incoming creative team will be to improvise quite heavily to avoid feeling entirely repetitive. And this, I think, touches on the largest complaint against Aliens from fans of the first movie: Aliens is, in fact, quite different from Alien in a number of significant respects, and arguably on a fundamental thematic level. But the thing about that line of reasoning is that not only is James Cameron not Ridley Scott or Dan O’Bannon and thus is sort of by default not going to be approaching this movie with the same positionality, his film furthermore *had* to stand apart from theirs one way or another if it was going to see any manner of success.
And, like it or not, Aliens was very, very successful.
The stock criticism of Aliens I seem to have noticed is something along the lines of that, while the first movie was an intelligent sexual horror film that also proved to be a unique and innovative take on 1950s pulp sci-fi and horror archetypes and cliches, this one takes all of that and swiftly shoves it out an airlock in favour of flashy action sequences, unreconstructed militarism, wisecracks and Bill Paxton. Bluntly, this isn’t even remotely true. Aliens does in fact lack the same level of, for want of a better phrase, sexual maturity, of Alien and has one or two annoying gender issues of its own (and I will address all of them a little later on), but this absolutely does not mean it’s a mindlessly unironic action movie. Aliens is not Rambo: First Blood Part II, and is every bit as clever and innovative when it comes to exploring film genres as its predecessor was.
As is always my go-to for this sort of thing, I’ll turn once again to James Rolfe. I’d say he’s forgotten more about horror movies then I’ll ever know, except for the fact I don’t think he ever actually *has* forgotten anything about horror movies. As James explains in his own review of this film, Aliens, like Alien before it, takes its inspiration from both 1930s haunted house movies and 1950s sci-fi B-movies. While it inherits the former from Alien and retains the conceit of a bunch of unaware travellers finding themselves in a corner of the universe they’re not supposed to be, the B-movie this time is not It! The Terror from Beyond Space, but Them!, a 1954 movie about an ant colony becoming exposed to nuclear fallout in the deserts of New Mexico, causing them to, naturally, grow to giant size and terrorize the populace. It’s from Them! that Aliens gets the majority of its action pedigree, and also many of its iconic setpieces: Both movies feature charismatic military agents who investigate the scene of a mysterious disaster and then fight off a swarm of monsters, a young girl who survived the previous attack in catatonic shock from what she experienced, and even a climactic showdown against a “queen” monster in a nursery where the heroes torch her eggs.
Here’s where the haunted house trappings come into play again, because we can tell right from the get-go that the Colonial Marines are overzealous, ill-prepared and dangerously underestimating their enemy, and the suspense comes from watching them charge blindly into things and, inevitably, getting picked off by the Aliens. So, just like in the first movie, we can say this group of protagonists is once again not supposed to be in this part of the galaxy (the movie poster even says “there are some places in the universe you don’t go alone”) and we can extrapolate the anti-capitalist message of the first movie to now include the military industrial complex. So, far from being a straightforward action movie, Aliens continues to wear its influences and its ethics on its sleeve and reveals itself as a provocative deconstruction of militaristic action sci-fi as filtered through an expansion to Alien while still remaining a *ton* of fun to watch. Aliens may not equate its critique of unscrupulous institutionalized authority with a critique of rape culture as clearly or as elegantly as the first movie did (though it does inherit and invoke some of this by default being a sequel to Alien and using the titular monsters), but in its place it has all the trappings of genre bending and Long 1980s postmodern cinematography to play with, the styles having been long established by this point.
Though dialing back on Alien‘s vitriolic polemic against rape culture is perhaps in a sense necessary to keep it feeling fresh, this does mean Aliens is somewhat less sexually progressive and bold than its predecessor, though it does try, it must be said. The biggest problem is Ripley herself, now a legacy character. Marked from the beginning as the main character, she suffers the same fate as every other female lead, action or otherwise, to come in her wake: Namely, the problem that Hollywood screenwriters tend to have no idea what to do with a female lead unless they rest on comfortably familiar stereotypes about femininity. What made the Ripley of Alien special is that she was a gender-swapped male character with none of her lines changed except pronouns. The Ripley from Aliens is a woman from the start, and that’s where writers tend to fall back into their bad habits. So, Ripley has to act as a surrogate mother figure to Newt, and this goes on to define a lot of her motivation in the back half of the movie (and I’m not even touching the stuff that happens in the further sequels) and is given another female character to be contrasted with. And naturally, Ripley is portrayed as the more feminine and “correct” one, and thus the one who survives.
(Frustratingly, Cameron seems to have this problem a lot in his science fiction stuff: The whole point of his Terminator films is that Sarah Conner is only important because she gives birth to John Conner and has to be protected. That she gets a massive badass boost in Terminator 2 does little to draw attention away from this troubling truth about her role in the series’ narrative.)
But wait, I’m not going to brush by Private Vasquez just like that. Because she’s the real reason we need to talk about this movie. Ignoring for the moment the fact she dies, Vasquez is a bloody amazing character and a rightfully deserved milestone in cinematic history. Even more butch than the original Ripley, ripped and crew-cut Vasquez smack-talks her way through the whole film, is more fun to watch than even Bill Paxton (yeah, I said it), thus immediately shooting down any critique that she’s less sympathetic than Ripley and gave audiences a female character the likes of which they had never seen before. As for me, I absolutely adore her: Vasquez is bang on in the territory of female characters I love seeing, especially in a movie like this, and is far and away my favourite part of Aliens. Between them, both Ripley and Vazquez have indisputably defined the way Hollywood (and video games for that matter-Some of you know where this is going) conceptualizes female action heroes since, both for better and for worse. However, though Vazquez has had a profound impact on generations of creators, there are only two we need concern ourselves with for the moment. And those would be Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana.
Energized to discover they’d be working on Paramount’s hastily announced new Star Trek series, Fontana and Roddenberry set about acquainting themselves with how science fiction had changed in the decade or so since the Starship Enterprise last took flight. This entailed watching a whole bunch of sci-fi movies, one of which was Aliens. After they watched it together, Roddenberry pointed to Vasquez and told Fontana “I want a character just like her on the new Star Trek”. This young lady was the first properly original character created for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and both Roddenberry and Fontana spent a lot of time hashing out who she would be and what she would be like. The character brief they came up with was, frankly, astounding. She was going to be a hardened, working class survivor of a failed Federation colony torn apart by gang wars and, in keeping with Star Trek’s history of diverse casting, she was going to be a Latina.
(In fact, Vasquez had such an impact on Roddenberry he wanted to straight-up offer Jenette Goldstein the part on the spot, before Fontana, probably wisely, pointed out that Goldstein is not actually Latina, but is in fact a small Jewish woman.)
We’ll talk more about this character (or rather Tasha Yar, which is who she eventually morphed into) once the rest of Star Trek: The Next Generation crystallizes, but just stop and think about the magnitude of the ramifications somebody like this could have had for the Star Trek franchise. Here’s a character, a working-class human woman of colour, mind you, whose entire life has been a testament to the Federation’s most systemic and shameful failures and is now among the USS Enterprise‘s senior staff. Though interpersonal conflict was always going to be a no-no, just imagine the perspective she could have brought to the show and the ultimate exploration of its own ethics it eventually became. Someone who doesn’t speak or act like a philosopher or a refined, eloquent Starfleet Academy graduate, yet who is still treated as an absolute equal and a vital, beloved member of the crew. To me, the storytelling possibilities here are endless, and the potential futures she represents are the most achingly, heart-rending examples of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential in the entire history of Star Trek.
I know Vasquez has also been criticized as an example of half-baked feminism, especially in recent years. It’s either bad that she embodies so much of what is seen to be the masculine conception of badass, bad that she’s butch and also sexualized or bad that the non-traditionally feminine woman is the one who has to eat it. But here’s the thing: There’s no wrong way to be a woman, and the sooner we all realise this the better off we’ll all be. The fact remains Vasquez was a wake-up call to US filmgoers and an important reminder that different kinds of women exist. Maybe she’s not everything we’d want to see today, but she’s still a milestone and an important, inspiring character. That she remains one of the benchmarks for women in action movies to this day is a testament to how little progress we’ve made since Aliens, not how retrograde Aliens itself is.
Really both Vasquez and Ripley are indicative of what’s good *and* bad about Aliens from a feminist perspective. The film is frustrating not because it’s poor or reactionary, but because it’s constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. You can see the legacy of this in the comparative safeness of the works the film has inspired, such as Vasquez’s inability to make the jump to Star Trek: The Next Generation and how Samus Aran suffers, beat-for-beat the exact same fall from grace in the Metroid series Ripley does here. And, ultimately, because history has shown this is pretty much as far as the Alien franchise ever got: Whatever individual merits Alien³, Alien Resurrection, Prometheus or the Alien vs. Predator series (the comics, movies and cartoon show, not the video games) might have, I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that, as cohesive works, any of them are remotely on the same level as Alien or Aliens. Just like the Contras and the Xenophobes that followed in its wake, these works took the superficial aspects of the first two movies out of context and emphasized them such that their original meaning was all but lost. In fact, the debacle the Alien series became is part of the reason H.R. Giger revisited motion picture science fiction sexual horror eight years later and worked hard to give us his definitive statement on it.
But the fact there even is an Alien series and that its iconography and motifs have permeated pop consciousness to the extent they have is unquestionably due to Aliens. As well-received as Alien might have been at the time, this was the film that made the Aliens and H.R. Giger pop culture staples, and, furthermore, that gave Alien a second life. Many people, especially people of a certain age, saw this movie first and then, high on how much they enjoyed it, eagerly sought out Alien. For that alone Aliens has had a positive impact on society and earned its place in science fiction history. It deserves to be treated accordingly.