We’re on an express elevator to hell—going down!
As long as there is sci-fi horror cinema, the king and queen will forever be Alien and Aliens. The first entry being the atmospheric scare-fest in the stars created by Ridley Scott in 1979 and the sequel, Aliens, which James Cameron directed in 1986, bringing the machismo and bravado of the American military into the mix of an already brilliant story.
First, we have a film that Ridley Scott famously pitched as “Jaws in space” and gave birth to the most iconic creature to ever feature in a creature feature. The xenomorph is the perfect combination of scary as f*** and badass—imagine if Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men was nine feet tall and had a much tinier bolt stunner inside his bolt stunner, that also had sharp teeth.
This atrocity of nature is often described throughout the series as the perfect organism. It is constantly adapting and evolving to survive and overcome any environment or threat. They are the representation of nature in its most perfect form; savage and brutal with a complete disregard for human life. Furthermore, the use of an insectoid design immediately presents to the audience something foreign to us naturally and emphasizes the idea that we should be repelled by it. True to its name, it is an “other.”
Their parasitic nature is beautifully mirrored by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Not only do they use humans as an end to a means, but they also do it in the name of profit and the advancement of weapon technology. This results in a never-ending battle of survival of the fittest between nature and technology. Indeed, Weyland-Yutani would probably run a xenomorph petting zoo if it meant they could make a buck. The capitalist corporation is a horrific monster of a different kind, one born from our own greed rather than our chest. So ironic is the scene of Ash (Ian Holm)—under the direct command of the company—shoving the pornographic magazine down Ripley’s throat in an attempt to kill her, which mirrors the overtly sexual act of forced oral impregnation from one of the face-huggers on a human.
Important to note here: the crew and their run-down mining ship are the product of industrialization and are, therefore, representations of civilization. For them, not only does horror present itself in the form of a giant bug from hell but also as worker exploitation. Hooray!—a stunning portrayal of a sci-fi nightmare take on the fear Karl Marx had of people’s alienation from their humanity, the idea that people would not be the center of the process of capitalist production. Ultimately, we are watching both parasitic entities fighting over who gets to use civilization to achieve their goals: one of a commercial nature and the other to simply survive.
Beyond the corporate greed with a capital G, Alien shows the monstrous side of motherhood. I swear to God, Ridley Scott was in his bag the day he decided to name the A.I. “Mother”—a Mother who we, the audience, believe to be there to protect her children. Except the twist here is that the crew are not the children it is meant to be protecting. It is unfeeling and uncaring. It follows only the command of the company and is under direct and secret orders to bring back an alien lifeform.
Despite her evil stepmom intentions, Mother is what keeps the Nostromo floating through space with her babies, the crew, inside. It’s because of this that most onboard trust Mother because they have to—like a kid buckled into a car seat. It was named specifically to conjure up ideas of comfort, love, and security. So, when the creepy Mother Machine goes haywire and explodes, you are comfy and loved as you are turned into space sprinkles.
If Alien was “Jaws in space,” then Aliens is the Vietnam War in space. We meet the cast of Marines, waking up in their pods, and the first thing they do? They go straight for the guns—inspecting and holding them in an almost ritualistic manner, hooting and hollering a mix of insults and military slang. They are uber-macho soldier beefcakes with huge guns and are DEFINITELY ready to commit a few war crimes “anytime, anywhere.”
The significance of these Army Chuds overcompensating is that it’s reminiscent of America’s approach to the war in Vietnam; the way they ooze confidence and have no idea that they are about to be in way over their heads. We have been put on notice that Aliens is taking a more militarized and action-heavy approach than we saw before. The Marines were sadly pawns in a war they have no business being in. After their first encounter with this new enemy, the curtain falls on that illusion and shatters their world. Their weapons are useless, their ride off that hellhole has been destroyed, and now they are stuck with a giant nest of seriously pissed off xenomorphs and their queen.
That being said, I always did appreciate the first scene of the alien nest, as if Cameron said, “Oh, remember how scary the first film was? Okay, what about 75 feral xenomorphs attacking the kids in your yard.”
At the beginning of Aliens, we learn in a debriefing that Ripley has been floating in space for 57 years and the daughter she had at home is long dead. So not only has she had to endure losing the rest of her crew and nearly her life, but she’s lost her daughter.
After reaching the small colony of LV-426 and finding it destroyed, they come across a young girl named Newt. Ripley immediately gravitates to her, and her maternal instincts kick in right away. Newt has lost everything as well; her brother and parents were killed by these horrible monsters. So, the connection between them was instant, giving Ripley a new reason to fight back the xenomorphs: protect the young girl at all costs. Continuing with the maternal theme, Newt soon takes to calling her “mommy” as well while clinging to her tightly after a close encounter with an alien.
Following the Marines’ first deadly encounter with the big bad bugs, the chain of command begins to crumble among what’s left of the group. They turn to Ripley for guidance and leadership, which is another representation of her new parental role. Yes, that means when she tells them that Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn) is in charge, it is the equivalent of “I don’t know, go ask your father.”
With “Mother” being the artificial terror of the first, the alien queen was the natural way to go in the sequel. It is the biggest xenomorph shown in the series yet. When it meets Ripley and Newt for the first time, you can sense an understanding between them as they stare each other down, in awe of each other’s ability to annihilate the other. It plays the opposite of Ripley’s surrogate mother perfectly, a grotesque and monstrous organism that is biologically perfect in every way. A few times throughout the film, we can see that while it can use technology, it actually doesn’t need to; it is biologically engineered to kill anything it wants. One thing here is for sure: don’t mess with a mama bear or her cubs because, well—
“Game over, man. Game over.”
When this showdown between moms-at-the-space-playground comes to an end, it finishes with Ripley mastering the cargo-loader suit technology to defeat the evil forces of nature. That is the disconnect between them; we can let go of technology at any time and still be who we are, whereas the queen is connected organically to things like her carapace. This comes into play when it grabs Ripley’s foot in the airlock during the climactic final scenes in a dramatic attempt to take Ripley down, despite the queen’s coming demise. Ripley gets away when her shoe falls off, and the queen falls into the cold abyss of space.
You could argue that neither mother is actually in the wrong here since both are driven by the same maternal instinct to safeguard their children. Who among us wouldn’t fight off a giant alien queen to protect our surrogate daughter?
Behind the teeth and tiny second mouth is the harsh reality of the harm capitalism can and is doing to mankind, taking away what it is that makes us human in the name of profit and deeming us expendable, alienating us from our humanity.
Alien and Aliens burst through our chests and deliver a one-two punch that is as good as it gets, even delivering one of the greatest movie tag lines of all-time: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Are you serious? It’s so perfect. Go home, other tag-line people.