Why We Keep James Cameron Around
Given the lukewarm/scathing reception to Avatar’s trailer, and my vague recollections of James Cameron’s work, I wanted to rewatch one of his seminal flicks, 1986’s Aliens. The sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, widely considered one of the finest horror/suspense films ever made, Aliens is recognized by many respected critics as its equal…if not superior.
I’d only seen Aliens once before, but that didn’t prepare me for this viewing. It is exhilarating and exhausting. Cameron piles one spectacular sequence on another, never giving the audience a chance to breathe, terrifying, awing, engrossing them all throughout its two-and-a-half-hour running time.
Left Field Cinema, one of my favorite film analysis podcasts, recently explored the film as a parallel to the Vietnam War. I agree with his conclusion, but I wish he’d touched on the movie’s overriding themes—those of motherhood and survival. He’s certainly able enough to.
Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley, awaking from a 60-year stasis only to be relieved of her commercial license, informed that the Alien planet from the first film has now been colonized, and told her daughter is dead. Ripley’s given some time to grieve before she gets to work warning the company that their colonists are in grave danger.
From there, some future-marines, including Cpl. Hicks (Cameron’s Terminator’s Michael Behn), are deployed. From the start, they’re cocky, boorish, and totally sure of their firearms’ advantage. And after the long buildup of Aliens’ beginning, Cameron unleashes wave after tidal wave after tsunami of action sequences. We watch the marines’ confidence break down; they realize the gravity of their situation—then it’s survival.
The humans do whatever they can to survive the xenomorphs; the xenomorphs, whatever they can to survive the humans. It took my human mind a long while to realize that the title’s plural Aliens describes two things: From the human perspective, the xenomorphs are clearly the Aliens; but hold on a second: The premise is that the humans are invading the xenomorph homeworld: From their perspective, it’s the humans who are the Aliens.
The only line from the original film I recall being quoted is Ash’s, “I admire their purity.” Their instinct for survival. Their instinct to do whatever’s necessary to ensure their species’ legacy: the innumerable onslaught of xenomorphs whose sole function is to exterminate the humans. They kill, they breed, they survive. Ripley’s no different.
Though her biological daughter’s dead, Ripley finds a surrogate child in Newt. (as LFC ably notes, when Ripley first sees the colonists encased in xenomorph goo, ready to gestate their offspring, Ripley says, “Kill ‘em,”; when it’s her own “daughter” in the same situation, her attitude is different.) And an unofficial husband in Hicks. However bastardized that situation is, Ripley forms a family.
In typical Cameronian style, the female is the strongest character, and in Aliens he gives the audience two: Ripley, of course, but also the xenomorph queen. As Aliens’ two-hour-and-forty-minute run time winds down, the conflict becomes between the two. At first I found the Queen’s hesitance to kill Ripley and Newt near the end odd, but I realized that its in tune with the survival angle: Ripley, to save Newt must threaten the xenomrophs’ survival, and so an unspoken détente develops between the two: “You may save your child, so long as you spare mine.” It’s only when the xenomorph queen reneges on the deal that Ripley exterminates the eggs.
Anyway, the theme of survival—most apparent the will of a mother to survive and protect her offspring—seems to be the theme guiding the action of Aliens. And while Cameron hammers away with every angle of action he can get from the xenomorphs, I don’t think any shot, scene, or sequence in Aliens doesn’t contribute to that theme. He gives us no time to breathe, which could be flaw or a credit, Ripley’s tough and Weaver’s plausible, Bishop’s synthetic but none of a real family, Avatar deserves doubt’s benefit.