I hope everybody has been having a fabulous week. I was cleaning the house last weekend, and doing laundry, and all of that (domestic bliss, fer sure), and I noticed on the teevee was a movie I hadn’t seen in a while and dammit, got sucked right in.
That would be Aliens, released in 1986, friends.
And as I watched it (saying all the lines along with the actors), I realized that DAMN. This is still a well-paced, kick-ass movie with some tight writing and strong characters, especially in the lady division
So let’s have a chat about this throwback fangirl movie! AND OMG SPOILERS! THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE. So if you haven’t seen these movies (and I pity you), you’ve been warned. On the other hand, they might make you want to see them. Especially since both Alien, the 1986 movie’s predecessor, and Aliens racked up Academy Award nominations and won in a category, and racked up tons of other awards. These ain’t no weenie movies, friends.
Those of you who fangirl and follow spec fic and the like are probably aware of the Alien(s) series. The first, Alien, was released in 1979. That movie, directed by Ridley Scott, was a sensation at the box office. It was a hybrid horror/sci fi flick that scored an Academy Award for best visual effects, and won several other awards. The 1979 cast included Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, and Harry Dean Stanton.
The screenplay was written by the late Dan O’Bannon, a sci fi and horror screenwriter and director who based it on a short story he wrote with screenwriter and producer Ronald Shusett. They drew from both sci fi and horror to develop their plot, and what ended up on the screen is a blend of both, I’d argue. It’s not a fast-paced thriller (Aliens came closer to that), but it does have elements of horror in the building tension between crew members as they deal with something really freaking scary in a confined space (i.e. a spaceship).
The plot of the 1979 film is thus: the 7-person crew of the Nostromo in stasis is headed back to Earth, but a distress signal is detected by the ship’s computer, who wakes the crew to investigate this situation (following protocol). They land on a planetoid and discover what appears to be a derelict space ship. Upon investigation, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, the archetype character through this series) begins to suspect that the signal wasn’t a distress call, but rather a warning and she alerts the others. In the derelict ship the investigators are exploring is what is an alien life form, long dead, whose chest cavity appears to have exploded outward. Then one of the crew, Kane, comes across a chamber in the spaceship that appears to hold bunches of large eggs.
You know where this is going, right? You’ve seen the references to this embedded throughout pop culture. Kane leans over to have a look at one of the eggs (they’re probably about two feet tall) and it opens and this creature jumps out and attaches itself to his face, using its corrosive acid blood to melt through the faceplate of his helmet. He’s taken back on board the Nostromo by his colleagues and they determine that the creature has inserted part of itself down the man’s throat, but it’s also operating as a life support system and keeping him breathing and in yet another form of stasis. Major gross-out parasite incident, fer sure.
Soon after, the creature detaches and dies (yay! Problem solved! OR WAS IT…?) and Kane wakes up and he feels great, just kind of hungry. So he goes to eat and then doesn’t feel so good. That’s of course what happens when an alien life form basically injects you with another stage of its growth cycle that then explodes out of your chest to continue said growth cycle. And that’s what happens to Kane. It tears out of his chest. Because that’s how this species works. It’s not only an aggressive parasitic being, but it’s also basically a hive animal, as we will learn in the 1986 movie, with a clutch of eggs laid by a queen, protected by drones.
Okay, as if the face crab wasn’t bad enough, now we’ve got this creepy little fanged hellbeast that literally was birthed out of a ribcage racing around the ship. But the fun doesn’t stop because this miniature grows into the next stage of its life cycle, which is easily an 8-foot-tall killing machine.
So the gist of Alien is that this species is now loose on a ship, picking crewmembers off one by one. As if that isn’t bad enough, we find out that one of the crew was actually under secret orders to find this species and get it back to some evil corporate entity on Earth. The crew is considered expendable in this endeavor. Ripley and the remaining crew find this out, and are of course horrified and pissed. The crewmember that betrays them is also determined to be an android, which makes Ripley somewhat of an android-o-phobe, and that’ll play out a bit in Aliens. The 1979 film ends with Sigourney Weaver as the last woman standing (her surviving male crew mate is incapacitated but alive) on one of the Nostromo‘s shuttles. She blows up the Nostromo and has a battle with the life form that managed to get onto the shuttle and finally blows it out the airlock.
These are important themes that carry over into Aliens, the sequel, to which we now turn.
The 1986 movie opens with our heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver again) aboard the last shuttle Nostromo had and she’s still in stasis. She’s rescued by another ship, and it turns out she’s been out there for 57 years! So everything she knew on Earth is basically gone. She’s tormented by nightmares and is put through rigorous interrogations by employees of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who don’t believe that she blew up the Nostromo to save her crew from an alien. CUE sinister music…of COURSE the corporate entity wants to harness this alien thingie!
Suffice it to say that there’s another distress signal from terraforming colony Hadley’s Hope [NOTE! Patrick from the comments below pointed out that the colony is on the planet from Alien!], which is on the moon that the Nostromo originally visited and apparently, Ripley’s old nemesis, the creepy parasitic xenomorphs are STILL there (they totes ruin everything, for realz). She agrees to help this mostly military operation because she’s basically the only person who has survived dealing with this life form and she thinks that it’ll help with her PTSD to face it again. As long as she gets certain assurances from the corporate shill who accompanies them (the smarmy Carter Burke, played by Paul Reiser): they will destroy this life form. Right? RIGHT? But ha ha, we know from the smarmy little asshat shill that he’s probably under orders to bring one back for bioweapons research.
That’s a carryover theme from the first, as is Ripley’s weirdness toward the landing party’s resident android, Bishop. The difference here is that it’s not a secret that he’s an android. She tells him to stay away from her (major PTSD from what happened with Ash on the Nostromo). But with smarmy Burke on board, we don’t need a bad android. Still, it’s something that dogs Ripley throughout this movie until the end.
So let me give you the reasons that I really dig this movie:
Brilliant derelict space colony (on the friendly-sounding [ha!] “LV-426” exomoon) setting ups the tension. It has horrible weather and an unwelcoming topography and as night falls, danger increases. Evidence abounds that the colony members tried to fight something off in their structures. They soon find out exactly what they were fighting. The xenomorphs from Alien have established their own colony, and they’ve used the human colonists as hosts to increase their numbers.
Strong characters, but especially strong women. We’ve got Vasquez, the Marine; Ripley, the woman who’s looked these things in the face and lived to tell the tale; and Newt, a lone survivor of the colony who also happens to be a little girl.
The relationship that develops between Ripley and Newt is a perfect pairing of two lost souls finding their missing pieces in the other. They’re both shell-shocked, they’ve both dealt with this predatory species and lived, and they’ve both lost everybody they ever knew. Sure, it’s kind of trope-ish — Ripley’s maternal instincts kick in and she’s basically canonized as Newt’s mom figure — but it’s a much more subtle and sophisticated interaction between these two. There’s a kindred spirit thing going on. Ripley never assumes Newt can’t take care of herself (clearly, she has — she survived that long with the xenomorphs running rampant), and Newt never assumes she’s anything less than a member of this ragtag band of alleged rescuers, most of whom are military.
For a movie made in 1986, putting female characters like this front and center was rare, and even with all the soldier talk and activity, the male characters never marginalize the female, or pull sexist tropes, though there is a little bit of gender policing in the relationship Vasquez has with fellow Marine, Hudson. She presents as a bit “masculine” and he teases her, asking if she’s ever been mistaken for a man. She responds, “no. Have you?” Which garners laughs from the other Marines. So this could just be soldier-ly banter, and it doesn’t seem to happen again, but it does position Vasquez as “different” because she’s a badass woman and doesn’t “look” like a woman is apparently supposed to. And whatevs, gender tropes in the future? Ugh.
I will now sing the praises of the pacing, writing, and dialogue. There were some stilted moments, but overall, this is a thrill ride, with a great balance of quiet tension-building and then action galore. James Cameron wrote and directed it, and Gale Anne Hurd produced it, so this is a hell of a team that helped put this thing on screen.
Which doesn’t mean there weren’t other problems: The characters of color all die before the movie ends, even though one gets a martyr’s death (Vasquez). Some of the subplots were easily predictable — the evil corporate shill (like in the 1979 movie) wanting to acquire one of these aliens and the lives of the marines and Ripley are expendable (don’t worry! He gets his!). But it’s a thrill ride from beginning to end and just when you think it’s finally over…IT’S NOT.
As I watched the final 30 minutes, I got to thinking about how the movie actually pits two archetypal females against each other. Ripley steps into the role of “mother” with Newt, who is a burgeoning bad-ass on her own (and I really enjoyed the interaction of the rest of the crew with Newt — they just accepted her as part of their party), and she will face off with the alien queen, who is the hidden presence laying all the eggs until her big reveal toward the end. In other words, another “mother” figure.
In that reveal, Newt has been captured and is being prepared for alien face crabbing, so she’s been alien-cemented to the interior wall of the atmospheric plant which is, of course, about to explode given damage from an earlier incident. There’s an egg near her for the commencement of face-crabbing, but Ripley appears, shoots the shit out of the face-crab, and grabs Newt. She’s brought a flame thrower rigged with her rifle, and she and Newt now have to go back up to the main level. But OOPS they take a wrong turn into the laying grounds and there’s this slightly different-looking alien, laboring in her breathing and efforts as she produces eggs in her long, massive ovasack (for lack of a better term). There’s a standoff of sorts, where Ripley demonstrates to the queen that if she lets her drones attack, she will fry the hell out of the queen’s eggs.
So the drones back off and it’s a tense, interesting moment because she has come to an impasse with her nemesis in a hot, underground hatching ground, and they have managed to communicate a bit — they understand that there will be fried eggs if they don’t let Ripley and Newt leave. But as they’re leaving, one of the eggs opens and the look on Ripley’s face is basically, “Really, bitch?” And she toasts the hell out of the eggs, which enrages the queen, but gives Ripley and Newt time to escape the lower levels before the whole site goes up in a fireball.
Except the queen manages to tear free from her ovasack and she is now on the loose and after Ripley. She manages to actually get into the landing gear of the dropship that Bishop is piloting (and that part of the movie was sort of flawed because it’s not readily apparent how it happens) back to the main ship. And that’s where the final showdown between Ripley and the alien queen occurs, as the queen goes after Newt and Ripley suits up for battle in a power loader and utters the penultimate line of woman vs. female power: “Get away from her, you BITCH!” A mom figure protecting her young from another mom figure who lost hers.
And thus Aliens ends along the same lines as Alien. Ripley blows the queen out the airlock, the hive blew up, but holy shit the ride to get to that point!
Watching the movie again, I was immediately caught up and then thought about when it was made and was all, “1986? REALLY?” So in that regard, seeing it within the context of when it was made and thinking, too, about some of the underlying themes, made me realize again how truly visionary in some respects this film was at the time, with regard to special effects, the role of women and continued focus on the main human female and her new charge and then the female queen villain, and the inclusion — however limited — of strong characters of color.
We shall NOT, however, speak of Alien 3, which ruined everything. Perhaps I will tear that one down in a later Fangirl Friday. Regardless, ignore that one and instead have a look at Alien and Aliens. Get some popcorn and some buddies and have a movie night!
Happy Friday! Oh, and stay tuned. Next week I’ll be interviewing another veritable cornucopia o’ fandom! 😀
May the odds be ever in your favor!