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An Analysis: Aliens


Every genre has a quintessential opus, some
work of art that perfectly embodies that which every like-minded film aspires to achieve. They’re not necessarily the best films,
but they are so fundamental to the very identity of their genre that it’s difficult to imagine
a world without them. Films like The Exorcist for horror… [Merrin] Who lives and reigns with the Father, and the Holy Spirit! Damian! [Karras] Amen. [Rafa] …or the Maltese Falcon for film noir. [Cairo] This is the second time that you’ve laid hands on me. [Spade] When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it! For action, that film is unquestionably James
Cameron’s Aliens. [Hudson] We’re on express elevator to Hell — going down! [Ferro] Two. One. Mark. The
film exists in two different versions, the 1986 theatrical release and the 1991 Special
Edition, and if we’re being honest, the best version of that film has yet to be edited. [Newt] It won’t make any difference. [Rafa] But the truly wonderful, magical thing about
this movie is that it’s almost impossible to care about its imperfections because it’s
simply too damn awesome for them to matter. Infinitely quotable… [Hudson] Game over, man, game over! [Rafa] …masterfully suspenseful… …cathartically thrilling… [Ripley] Punch it, Bishop! [Rafa] …this film is the crown jewel of the era of big hair and big explosions. And yet, none of that is what makes this film
so interesting. [Bishop] Magnificent, isn’t it? My name is Rafa, and for me at least, it’s
the radical departure from its predecessor that makes it so intriguing. The first film is a horror classic defined
by its anxieties about sexuality and gender in a world whose institutions and technology
offer no protection, comfort, or guidance, and James Cameron followed that up with a
rousing war film unshakably confident in its understanding of the world. While Alien offers no explanation for why
everything has gone to hell, just that it has and that the Company, whoever they are,
had something to do with it… [Parker] Damn Company! [Rafa] …Aliens knows exactly what went wrong, who to blame and why, and how to fix it. But first, why the big change? Well, quite simply, the 80s happened. [Reagan] Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. [Rafa] Before Ronald Reagan came along, 1970s America was in a bit of a funk. The Vietnam War was lost, and with it, any sense of American invincibility and righteousness. The oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis,
the recession, the decline of the auto industry — all these things and more contributed
to an overall sense of American impotence and an unravelling social fabric. Films like First Blood and The Deer Hunter
explicitly dealt with the crisis of identity and disunity Americans as a people experienced
in the sobering aftermath of the Vietnam War, featuring returning veterans struggling and
failing to find a place in the country that was once their home. Alien, as much a product of its time as any
other work of art, is infused with a similar sense of being cut adrift by an institution
the protagonist was pledged to serve, lost in a broken world with no clear remedy. But then the Reagan 80s came along, a decade
that saw a resurgence in conservative values and American exceptionalism. The nation seemed to rediscover its identity,
and with it, its well of strength. The swaggering bravura that had all but disappeared
came roaring right back, and American cinema began to reflect that. First Blood Part II, for example, is a revisionist
fantasy where John Rambo redeems his country’s honor and triumphs over his trauma by rescuing
POWs his government left to rot and unleashing vengeance upon the cruel enemies who’d left
him and his people broken. Where the first film was depressing, this
one is an adrenaline-fueled barn-burner about a man and his country getting their mojo back. [Rambo] Do we get to win this time? [Trautman] This time it’s up to you. If you noticed a few similarities between
this film and Aliens… [Ripley] You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out. [Burke] That’s the plan. You have my word on it. [Ripley] All right, I’m in. [Rafa] …well, James Cameron happened to write both. It’s no secret that Cameron intended to
make Aliens about Vietnam as well, but this time around the fantasy of winning a rematch
is tempered by a more nuanced, conservative critique of what went wrong in the first place. At the time, there was a renewed conviction
that American institutions and capitalist ideals were inherently good. [Reagan] And make no mistake: America is recovery bound. And the world knows it. [Rafa] So the blame
for misfortunes and misdeeds shifted toward individuals who had betrayed that inherent
goodness. This ideological shift is omnipresent in the
film. Instead of blaming the company as a whole
(and by extension, capitalism), the film blames Burke, an ambitious asshole acting alone. [Ripley] You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage! [Rafa] Sure, the company big wigs give Ripley a lot
of grief… [Ripley] But I’m telling you that those things exist. [Leuwen] Thank you, Officer Ripley, that will be all. [Rafa] …and were certainly responsible for allowing the establishment of a colony on LV-426. And yes, their slogan is clearly meant to be ironic. But while bureaucratic BS may plague the company,
it’s certainly not presented as an evil cabal. The film takes care to note that they were
ignorant of any danger at the time. [Man] are there any species like this hostile organism on LV-426? [ECA Rep] No. It’s a rock. No indigenous life. [Rafa] And their unwillingness to believe Ripley is reasonable, given decades without incident at the colony. [Leuwen] There’ve been people there for over twenty years and they’ve never complained about any hostile organisms. [Rafa] Rather, it is Burke and Burke alone who initiates
the catastrophe, sending colonists to investigate Ripley’s claims and making things worse
at every opportunity. [Ripley] You sent them out there and you didn’t even warn them. Why didn’t you warn them, Burke? [Burke} Okay, look. What if that ship didn’t even exist, did you ever think about that? I didn’t know. So now if I went and made a major security situation out of it, everybody steps in. Administration steps in and there’s no exclusive rights for anybody. Nobody wins. So I made a decision and it was wrong, it was a bad call, Ripley. It was a bad call. [Ripley] Bad call? These people are dead, Burke! Don’t you have any idea what you’ve done here? [Rafa] Out of the two institutions in the film, the military
comes out looking the worst, and here the film is a bit more ambiguous. Do we blame the bad apples like the incompetent
leader… [Gorman] I told them to fall back. I told them to fall back! [Ripley] They’re cut off! Do something! [Rafa] …and the paper tiger… [Hudson] This can’t be happening, man, this can’t be happening! [Rafa] …or do we blame a military culture that, paradoxically, fosters both blind obedience… [Apone] Let’s go, Marine, give it up. Frost, you got the duty, open that bag. [Rafa] …and poor discipline? [Hicks] I like to keep this handy. For close encounters. [Rafa] Well, the film seems to suggest both. On the one hand, Gorman ordering the soldiers
not to shoot and thus setting them up to fail is a story development that echoes the claim
that America would’ve won in Vietnam if the government had the conviction to fight
without restraint. [Rambo] And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win! [Ripley] I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. And again, this order does not come from some
unseen, faceless entity, but from one man. [Gorman] So? So what? [Rafa] On the other hand, these marines are almost
cartoonishly overconfident in their superiority over an alien species they view as mere bugs. [Vasquez] Look, man. I only need to know one thing: Where they are. [Drake] Go Vasquez, kick ass! [Rafa] Their inability to maintain combat discipline
in their first encounter with the xenomorphs is a direct result of their arrogance clashing
with reality. Either way, the military is still presented
as something inherently good, even if it has strayed from its nobility. Its mission is still virtuous, bravery and
self-sacrifice are still its defining characteristics, and the two bad apples both redeem themselves
in their final moments. Corporal Hicks is the film’s conception
of the ideal soldier: quick-thinking… [Drake] Fuck! [Hicks] Hold up! [Rafa] …cool under fire, and humble… [Burke] He’s just a grunt. No offense. [Hicks] None taken. [Rafa] …Hicks rises from his
lowly position and shoulders the responsibility of leadership in a time of crisis with admirable
grace. [Ripley] This operation is under military jurisdiction and Hicks is next in chain of command, am I right, Corporal? [Hicks] Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. [Rafa] The film seems to suggest the military can
return to its former glory if it tried harder to produce more soldiers like Hicks instead
of Hudson or Gorman. But you need no further proof of this film’s
intensely politicized take on the Alien franchise than its treatment of its core elements: the
Alien, and Ripley. In the first film, the Alien was a solitary,
mysterious creature who was symbolic of universal issues of sexual violence and gender identity,
placed in a context that was more timeless than it was topical. It’s assault on traditional notions of motherhood
was opposed by the atypical figure of Ripley, who didn’t quite fit into any established
gender roles and whose lone act of maternal defiance was saving a cat. Which is why James Cameron’s greatest contribution
to the Alien mythos, the Queen, was also its most radical. On the surface, it seems like a perfectly
logical extension of what we already know. [Ripley] But each one of these things comes from an egg, right? So who’s laying these eggs? [Rafa] But really, the theatrical release of Alien
only established that this thing came from eggs. There was no suggestion of a social
structure. Cameron’s transformation of the Alien into
a hive species was therefore devoid of any basis in the previous film, and as such it
was a massive game changer. The first and most obvious consequence was
that the Alien became a metaphor for communism. An endless swarm of cruel, collectivist drones
threatening to overrun a planet is pretty close to the classic American caricature of
communism that prevailed during the Cold War. The xenomorph’s sneaky ambushes and relentless
expenditure of fighters as cannon fodder also bears resemblance to popular culture’s image
of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. And the hive itself, with images of cocooned
captives dying horrifically one by one, touches on a favorite trope of the Vietnam War film
– the POW camp. But the second and far more interesting consequence
was that it completely transformed the Alien’s sexual threat. [Hicks] Looks like love at first sight to me. In the first film, the Alien is a masculine
or gender-fluid monster that kills through rape or rape-like acts — acts that threaten
the male identity of some of its victims. But while that gendered anxiety still exists… [Hudson] Have you ever been mistaken for a man? [Vasquez] No. Have you? …the phallic threat of the first film becomes
subordinate to a far more threatening matriarchal power. The unstoppable rapist has been one-upped
by the seemingly infinite fertility of a monstrous mother who does not appear to need male intervention
to reproduce, nor is in any way regulated by it. A female whose sexual power is completely
free from male influence is, in many ways, a conservative nightmare, but in this case
in particular it appears to be because the Queen stands in direct opposition to the nuclear
family. The revision of Ripley’s character proves
the central importance of the family in Cameron’s film. In the 1991 Special Edition, it’s clear
that Ripley was rewritten as a single mother who neglected her child in pursuit of her
career. [Ripley] I promised her that I’d be home for her birthday. Her eleventh birthday. [Rafa] And this transgression of traditional family values resulted in the loss of her
child and the loss of her career. [Leuwen] It is the finding of this court of inquiry that Warrant Officer E. Ripley, NOC14472, has acted with questionable judgement and is unfit to hold an ICC license as a commercial flight officer. [Rafa] As opposed to the theatrical release, where
the absence of that scene focuses the themes more on Ripley’s lack of traditional maternity,
rather than her outright rejection of it. But either way, in electing her career over
family, Ripley’s character at the beginning of the film seems to embody the conservative
belief that the rise of 2nd wave feminism in the 70s was eroding family cohesion and
upending gender roles that were wholesome, rather than oppressive. [Schlafly] I do think that men and women are different and that in certain areas they have different roles, which is apparently the most obnoxious four letter word to the type of people who really want a gender free society. The right’s response to the left’s vision
of feminine liberation was the strong mother –a Margaret Thatcher type figure emboldened
with greater social, political, and economic agency, yet still firmly entrenched in her
destiny as a homemaker and caretaker. [Thatcher] Well I don’t know about Dad’s Army. But I’m a mum, and I’d like to think that those who believe in keeping Britain strong, free, and properly defended belong in Mum’s Army. [Rafa] The faintly androgynous Ripley of the first film becomes… [Ripley] Ellen. [Rafa] …a woman on a journey
of redemption through the lens of a distinctly conservative vision of feminine power. First, she pulls a Rambo, going back to the
war zone to finish the job and save the prisoners who were left behind. In so doing, she not only puts the Vietnam
war back in the win column, but she also manages to overcome her PTSD
through her own individual effort, confronting her personal demons without needing to confide
her emotional issues to anyone nor rely on anyone for therapeutic guidance. It’s hard to imagine a more emphatic endorsement
of the “just get over it” ethos than that. She also reclaims her maternity by becoming
the surrogate mother for the orphaned Newt, whose classic American family of bootstrap-pulling
pioneers was annihilated by the Alien Queen’s profane offspring. [Newt] They’re dead, all right? Can I go now? [Rafa] She then finds Newt a father figure in Hicks,
the bond symbolized here in the wrist tracker handed down from Hicks to Ripley to Newt. Ripley doesn’t even have to kiss Hicks to
seal this union, a virtuous chastity that stands in clear opposition to the Queen’s
rampant sexuality. In the battle between the good mother and
the bad mother, the good mother wins. This, ultimately, is the key to this film’s
popularity: despite the tremendous losses and sacrifice endured by our main characters,
the film is undeniably optimistic. Even America’s uneasy relationship to nuclear
weapons is given a positive consequence. Unlike Alien, in which the nuclear explosion
has no effect on the enemy, here the explosion, however accidental, nonetheless eradicates
the alien hive. With the Alien Queen banished to the void,
the victory is total. The enemy has been completely exterminated, conquered by the traditional American ideal: the fierce,
loving mother, the brave and noble father, and the adorable, precocious blonde daughter,
together ready to build a better world. And then they made Alien 3 — which I will get to, after I finish Part 2 to Star Wars & Star Trek. So please subscribe if you enjoy listening to me drone on about movies. Also, I will be releasing a channel update video, because not updating in five months deserves a little bit of an explanation, so stay tuned for that.

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