Aliens (1986) is so firmly embedded in fans’ minds as an action movie, that its masterclass horror goes entirely forgotten.
When Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) woke up several decades after encountering a murderous alien, she finds that virtually nothing has changed. Corporate interests still triumph over humans and their agents, in this case, the irksomely charming Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), are just as patronizing and manipulative as ever. One would think that the news of a hostile threat coinciding with radio silence from a colony on the same world would be met with gratitude. But no. Ripley has no choice but to pay no mind to what the leaders of the rescue missions she insist on think of her. Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn) and all of the others do not get in her way of rescuing the sole surviving Newt (Carrie Henn) and destroying every last xenomorph.
Action Versus Horror
On the surface, preferences between Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, is often about tastes in genre. The franchise is rooted in science fiction of course. It features space travel, alien encounters, androids, and a general theme of wonderous exploration versus power and its corruption. Both films also merge with elements from other genres. Alien is traditionally viewed as a horror film while Aliens is seen as an action movie with a few horror elements. This categorization matters because it dictates the perception each film gets retrospectively in today’s categorization obsessed culture. It makes for a shorthand explanation when attempting to, perhaps, explain which film somebody might prefer to watch. It also contributes to presumptions about either film’s plot, themes, and the roles its characters will play in both.
The presumption that Aliens is an action movie is fair, and somewhat of the point. The first half of the movie is very reminiscent of the overt machismo of the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stalone movies from the same era (i.e. 1987’s Predator). The supposed plot of the film is that a hardened group of space marines, with their bulging muscles, heavy weapons, and dirty jokes, are going to kills some aliens and save the day. Aliens goes all-in on this. There is a lot of fetishizing their ordinances om a way that is clearly meant to be perceived as genuine, not sarcastic or parody. The hyper-masculinity is most clear in Pvt. Vasquez (Janette Goldstein) who tantalizes both her teammates and the audience. She complies with and even contributes to self-deprecating homophobic humor. This crude humor exacerbates her traditionally male qualities, such as her haircut, physique, and Type-A attitude. She is quite possibly the most no-nonsense and mission-driven member of the entire team. She also has the least tolerance for Ripley’s presence.
Pitting Vasquez and Ripley as foils for one another is entirely a bait and switch. Ultimately, there is little difference between the two. Both women have a nearly insurmountable hill to climb in being seen as equal to the men around them. Vasquez tries to work through this by being like “one of them.” She coats herself in their machismo and their humor as a tactic for fitting in, even though it still results in her constant dismissal and mockery. She is easily one of the most capable marines on the mission, thinking the most rationally and surviving the most tactfully, yet she garners none of the respect that she deserves. Meanwhile, Ripley’s method of coping with disrespect is by digging in on her long-held character traits. When she rescues Newt, nurturing and protecting Newt becomes the absolute most important thing to her. When Weyland Corporation, particularly Burke try to push her around and denounce her experience during Alien, she absolutely refuses to cave and doubles down on her insistence that she be taken seriously.
The truth is, Aliens is even greater of a horror film than Alien was. While Alien was incredible at building suspense, utilizing darkness and anticipation to evince dread, the types of emotions it played with were less personal. Fear of the other and fear of the unknown, as exemplified in 1979, are existential. They can be avoided if one closes themselves off to incomprehensible concerns like these. Social and internal fears though, as Aliens dramatizes, are much harder to shuffle off.
In Aliens all of the serious machismo and hyper-masculinity on display in the first half is snuffed out in an instant once the xenomorphs start to attack. Hudson (Bill Paxton) captures it all with his famous whimpering “game over, man.” The commanding officers go down without fanfare while Hudson, Vasquez, and Gorman (William Hope) are killed in action where no hope of their survival ever existed. As for Burke, he runs away and dies a cowardly death.
Big muscles, bigger guns, and a total disrespect for women did absolutely no good. The gung-ho attitude that swept across the first half of Aliens was fruitless. There is nothing more clear in the xenomorphs’ wakes than the fact that guns, brutality, and self-righteousness are not as surefire a recipe for action movie victory as the genre would tend to have people believe. Again, that is why Aliens is quintessential horror. Like some of the most classic horror a la The Twilight Zone, or today’s exceedingly popular Jordan Peele productions Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), horror is most terrifying when it targets people’s senses of self.
Being A Queen
Ellen Ripley does not survive Aliens by exerting the machismo the marines promise to solve their problem with at the film’s onset. Neither does she do so in a traditionally feminine way. Yes, one of the absolute most important aspects of the entire movie is Ripley’s insistence on protecting Newt. Were it not for the “maternal instinct” in her, she would not have had nearly as much action to contend with in the first place. Indeed, her tendency towards preservation, both of herself and of the child, is what makes her a fully realized individual rather than a single-mission driven-being like the rest of her crew. Yet, there is a critical juncture at Aliens‘ climax where her dynamics becomes entirely clear.
When Ripley faces the xenomorph queen, there is supposed to be this parallel between the two, at first, over their mutual motherhood. A brief truce is made on behalf of maternal preservation. The queen does not want her children to be harmed, and neither does Ripley want Newt harmed. At first, it seems like the bond of femininity and motherhood is going to be what saves the day. Until the queen changes its mind and Ripley decides to slaughter all of the eggs as a precaution against the queen’s onslaught. In the end, a tactical and emotional decision had to be made. Ripley could have had sympathy for the queen and simply ran without killing all of the eggs and detaching the queen from her gross birthing tube. Instead, she takes the neither masculine nor feminine-coded route of firing her flamethrower and gun and then running for her life.
When Ripley eventually throws the queen out an airlock in her mech suite, she does not celebrate the victory the way the marines likely would have. She merely takes care of the survivors, herself included, and resumes the same nurturing role she had played until that point. As a result, Aliens is not necessarily denouncing the use of force and action in perilous and necessary situations. The damnation it exudes is of the machismo too often associated with that type of action. The guns blazing tactic failed spectacularly because it never works. Ripley’s reliance on instinct and emotion are what gets her to safety. Even if that means using her emotional intelligence manipulatively through threatening a mother’s children.
Aliens is terrifying because it pokes holes in the logic of action movies. It is successful especially because it never mocks the action genre, but rather, places itself firmly within it. Therefore, it is not the methods of the genre that the horror is scrutinizing, it is the emotions and attitudes that dominate action movies. Ripley shows that using one’s head and heart is even more formidable than guns and fists. Ultimately, Aliens is not an action movie with horror elements. It is a horror movie with action elements. When it is being seen this way, its value becomes vastly deeper and its enjoyability, still today, remains boundless. It also says a thing or two about how best to respond to problems.
Jason wants to tell you about his current job, but he’s afraid that it might be more trouble than it’s worth. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.