And the xenomorph trifecta is complete!
Gosh, where do I start with these two films? I guess at the beginning.
So, Alien. How is it that I’m nearly 28 and I had not seen this movie yet? I feel like I’ve been missing out on a key cinematic experience here. The set design was fantastic, the characters were all memorable (and did not make stupid decisions), the plotting was good, and the monster was scary.
I suppose I should go ahead and get it out of the way: Ripley is a badass. She’s smart, she keeps a level head in a crisis, and even the decision to go back for the cat ends up not being a bad one. I can see why she’s considered a great feminist icon, because in this movie, she is every bit as capable as her male crewmates and her femaleness isn’t an essential trait.
I recall reading somewhere that Ripley was originally written as a male character, and then when casting was proceeding, someone (I can’t remember who) decided that there was no reason a woman couldn’t play the part, and so Sigourney Weaver got the role. This kind of casting decision points to what I’ve written before about gender: it is socially constructed. Masculine and feminine traits are defined by our society, not by our biology.
So I honestly don’t think I can heap enough praise on Alien as a film. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, the special effects hold up well, the characters are awesome; I don’t know where to go from there.
Aliens on the other hand… I don’t know. It’s not a horror movie, it doesn’t have any very likable or even memorable characters, and it goes on for way too long.
There’s a huge tonal shift between these films. Where in Alien we had a small crew of seven people (who were all very fully drawn), we now had an entire company of space marines, most of whose names we never learned before they were unceremoniously killed off about halfway through the movie. Where Alien had just one monster that was scary because it was stealthy and dangerous to fight in close quarters, Aliens has swarms of the things that are easily dispatched by trained soldiers, and which aren’t so much scary as they are just a threat. I never felt scared watching Aliens, and I don’t think I was meant to.
The best way to look at the differences in these two movies is just to go ahead and acknowledge that the first one is horror while the second one is action. That’s fine. I’m cool with stupid action movies. I’m not cool with stupid action movies that have no likable characters because then I’m actively cheering for them to die. That’s not what a good action movie should do; if it were a slasher flick, then yeah, I could get behind that. Of course, slasher flicks run on terror because the monster is supposed to be nigh unstoppable and the jerks I just spent twenty minutes getting to know are supposed to be impotent. I’ve read that James Cameron intended the space marines to reflect soldiers from the Vietnam War, but I didn’t really sympathize with their trauma over finding that they were ill equipped to handle the threat they found. Maybe I’m biased, but I find depictions of the military where they’re boastful idiots too insulting and stereotypical to enjoy.
Ripley’s characterization is a complicated issue. I was originally going to say that I didn’t like how she was depicted in Aliens, because it felt to me like a regression in her character. I talked with Rachael and my friend Houston about it at length the other night though, and I’m coming around to how Ripley’s relationship with Newt can be read as a positive thing. Ripley is essentially a unisex character in Alien, which is great, but she has to develop somehow in subsequent movies or else there’s no point in bringing her back. Because Alien was essentially set entirely in the workplace, Ripley’s personal life wasn’t on display, and that was appropriate. With Aliens, Ripley’s now more or less unemployed, and she has nothing left of her old life since her daughter is dead (what about trying to reconnect with her daughter’s family, though?). There’s nothing wrong with expanding a character to show what her personal life is like after we’ve gotten to know and like her as a professional.
What I found problematic with Ripley’s characterization was that while Aliens is largely about her empowerment in the face of a traumatic experience, the method of empowerment comes through parental concern. I’m not opposed to that; I think that parenting is an important role that any person can find fulfillment in. I think in Ripley’s case I balked at the use of that role because it doesn’t communicate empowerment through parenting; it speaks empowerment through motherhood, which is something that can easily be co-opted to reinforce gender essentialism. I think it’s great that Ripley faces her fears at the end of Aliens (though the action at the end felt drawn out to me), but I think the fact that her motivation comes from the desire to protect a child runs too close to the thought that she’s strapping a flamethrower to a pulse rifle because it’s intrinsic in her gender to do something crazy for the sake of her adopted daughter.
I know that conversely, if roles had been switched and it was Hicks going into the nest to rescue Newt, then he’d be viewed as a hero for risking himself to save the innocent child. I think part of the reason for that, besides the fact that he’s a man, is he didn’t develop a relationship with Newt. Ripley does develop a relationship, largely because she and Newt share a common traumatic experience, which is a great storytelling feature. For me, that connection was muddled because of the apparent parallels Cameron intentionally drew between Ripley’s grief over her daughter and her sudden responsibility for a surrogate child. I think that I probably would have had fewer gripes if Newt had been an adult who was in danger, and her and Ripley’s relationship was more expressly about common trauma instead of child/parent.
As for how Prometheus relates to these films, I think it’s good that I saw it before I watched Alien and Aliens. In retrospect, it strikes me as a hybrid of both films with an emphasis on action over horror, but while exploring the themes of what it’s like to survive extreme trauma. Shaw’s story ends in parallel with Ripley’s at the end of Alien (though maybe Shaw’s was worse since she did actually go through the horror of giving birth to a real monster), but along the way, there was a lot more flash akin to what happened in Aliens. And yes, the characters in Prometheus are idiots, probably more so than the marines in Aliens, but they’re idiots that I like.
Except Holloway. He can die in a–oh right.