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After watching Aliens for the upteenth time this week, I struggled to come up with a way to approach it for this review. As with my Alien write-up last week, I knew I couldn't just do a straightforward review in which I try to be objective, because I have this movie practically memorized from watching it so many times. Sure, I could nitpick about things like the jump scare at the beginning of the film, where a major character is introduced and critical plot exposition is given within a dream sequence, but my heart wouldn't really be in it. After all, anybody whose read my article from when this blog was less than a year old knows I consider Aliens to be the greatest movie sequel ever made. I thought about writing about why it's the perfect movie sequel, outlining all the things it does right and why they work, but after writing a few paragraphs in that direction, I wasn't feeling it.
So instead, let's talk about motherhood, which is one of the movie's core themes and what I was thinking about most during my latest rewatch. A bit of housekeeping, though: I'm writing about the Director's Cut, because the theatrical version of the film is missing a key element of this theme, namely the fact that Ripley discovers upon her return to consciousness that she has outlived her own daughter, Amanda. I usually give filmmakers and editors the benefit of the doubt when it comes to cutting out things like this, but James Cameron films are notoriously terrible in what they keep and what they axe when the studio demands a shorter cut. Aliens is one of the biggest offenders (second only to The Abyss), precisely because of this critical plot detail, which not only explains her parental attitudes toward Newt but also gives meaning to her actions.
She may have wound up on the cutting room floor, but Amy still got a video game out of the deal
This is because one of the reasons Aliens succeeds where so many other sequels fail is the character development. Ripley, who didn't emerge as a protagonist until the final act of the preceding film, is given a new character arc centered on a simple question: why would she go back? The answer, it turns out, is intimately tied to her maternal instinct, to the fact that she had (and lost) a daughter. It's a profound loss that affects her as deeply, if not moreso, than her trauma in having survived the Xenomorph, and when she learns that "sixty maybe seventy families" are being threatened on LV-426, she knows it is her responsibility to try to save them from that loss.
I know that might seem like a stretch, but the rest of the movie bears it out, so stay with me for a minute. Despite being riddled with post-traumatic stress and grief that threaten to make her meek and withdrawn, she agrees to return to LV-426 with a group of marines she barely understands. These marines are jacked up on overconfidence and bravado, "ultimate badasses" who don't take the threat seriously until it ruthlessly takes half of them out in the atmosphere processing station. Again, Ripley is faced with a choice: react with indecision and cowardice like the inexperienced Lieutenant Gorman, or go into the hornet's nest and save the people in harm's way.
The real ultimate badass
Here's what I love about Ripley's character in Aliens: she not only grows as a character and is given more dimension (and backstory), but she remains consistent with her previously established personality. Ripley was always decisive, as demonstrated throughout the original Alien: she calmly put her foot down concerning quarantine protocol even though the rest of the crew disagreed, she never failed to let her opinion be known, and she emerged as a natural leader after Dallas disappeared. She's the kind of person who makes choices without even thinking of them as choices, and when the marines are being slaughtered, she does exactly that by grabbing the steering wheel and rushing in to save the day.
But she still hasn't become the full-blown heroine yet, because when Hudson discovers that Dietrich and Frost are still alive, it is Ripley who squashes all talk of going back in. "You can't help them," she says. It isn't until she is faced with this dilemma again that she is willing to face the most nightmarish hell she can imagine, when the person "being cocooned just like the others" is a little girl. That's when it becomes clear why she came back, why she would be willing to put herself through the trauma again.
Not to brag, but my Mom has called people "bitch" for me too
Newt is what makes this whole journey back into the horror worth it, a surrogate daughter to replace what Ripley lost. To be clear, Newt represents far more than just a replacement daughter; she is also a stand-in for Ripley's ability to cope, trust, love, and find purpose, other things she lost to her original encounter with the alien. When the aliens threaten to take all of that away from her again, nothing is going to stop Ripley from fighting back with everything she's got. And who, ultimately, does she have to face? The queen, the literal mother of the aliens, a twisted, horrible realization of the same maternal instinct that drives Ripley.
Of course, this isn't the only reason Aliens is an exceptional film, nor is it the only theme its narrative is exploring. There's also the obvious Vietnam allegory, with the film at times feeling like somebody grafted Platoon over top of the original Alien, and there's the unassailable filmmaking talents of a young James Cameron, who turned a career building model sets for Roger Corman into a career doing whatever the bleep he wants, even if it's four Avatar sequels. As with Alien, there are a lot of different things that make this film work, including the remarkable score by James Horner, the brilliant cinematography, the incredible (and cost-effective) use of special and visual effects, the art direction, the set design, the acting, the casting, etc. I daresay that, even if this film had somehow come out in a universe where the original film didn't exist, it would still stand proudly as a classic.
-e. magill 3/12/2020
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