Film * James Cameron * Late-Stage Capitalism, the Real Monster * 1986
Let’s just rip this Band-Aid off: I like Aliens better than Alien. Does this make me a bad person? Of course it does. Does this call my taste and dare I say my intelligence into question? It does. Does this undermine every single thing I’ve ever written on this blog and erode reader confidence in my ability to think critically about, well, anything? Obviously. Do I give a single, solitary fuck about any of that? I mean, a little, just look at this preamble. Still, not enough to disavow my preference. Alien is one of those masterful films that I know I should enjoy but kind of don’t, while Aliens is a big, dumb, James Cameron action flick and I fuckin’ love those. So here we are. You, knower of good cinema with impeccable taste and an eye for quality film. Me, idiot lowest-common-denominator mouth-breather, who likes when things go bang-bang-boom real good. Might we find common ground in the fact that Sigourney Weaver is a straight up badass? I thought so.
Since most of the plot boils down to “I sure hope everyone isn’t eaten by these gross aliens,” I won’t spend too much time on the setup. At the end of the first movie, Ripley the badass is the sole survivor of a disastrous encounter with a scary alien-monster. Well, the cat lives too, but Ripley can talk so she’s the one we’re going to listen to. Anyway, Aliens begins 57 years later, because that’s how long Ripley has been in cryogenic sleep floating around by herself in the vast emptiness of space. In that time, The Company (which still needs a proper cyberpunk name) has built a full-fledged colony on top of the horrible alien nest that Ripley thought she had destroyed. When she tells her superiors that acid-blooded horrorshows will certainly eat all the colonists, The Company scoffs at her. What would a lady know about gooey black tooth monsters? Of course not too much later, the colonists stop communicating. The Company sends an analogue in the person of Burke (Paul Reiser, who is 80’s corporate sliminess personified) to persuade Ripley to be a “consultant” to the Space Marine strike force being sent in to investigate the suddenly silent colony. Some fairly predictable things happen after that.
Aliens is great because it knows what kind of movie it wants to be and just does it in the best way possible. The concept is simple: space is scary and humans are greedy dipshits. But they also can be brave and noble. Also, they can have giant ass guns what blow up the aliens real good, which is immensely satisfying after the long, tense first film. And that’s where the split between the first two Alien films comes in, since everything else lines up pretty well. I argued that the atmosphere and aesthetic of the first film was probably the most important thing about it. There was a good deal of subtle, environmental storytelling in that first movie which I thought solidified the world in a way that straight exposition could not. And let’s be fair here, Cameron pulls that atmosphere and aesthetic off pretty well. It’s just that his focus is different. The aliens are still scary mucus-monsters, but the marines are better equipped to deal with them. Aliens is the cathartic pay-off to Alien. Yet for all the focus on action, for all the outsized Space Marine characters and the less-than-subtle story beats concerning The Company, Aliens works well as another story in this strange, unpleasant universe.
One of the scariest scenes of Aliens happens in the very beginning, within the confines of a nondescript conference room. Ripley, newly thawed out and bluntly told she’s been floating unconscious in space for nearly sixty years, stands alone staring down a hostile group of corporate executives. They don’t believe her. More than that, they are angry with her for even suggesting that they, The Company, are not in control of any given situation. This anger is not a red-faced, raging kind of anger. It is expressed via cold, naked contempt. It doesn’t even matter that Ripley is right, and that in all likelihood these doughy, middle-aged white men know that she is right. What matters is that she dares to challenge their power, their decisions, their entire world. As a doughy, middle-aged white dude, I will never, ever know what it is like to be in Ripley’s situation. Because that scene, in which she is derided by powerful, horrible, downright evil men, is reflective of the reality that #Metoo is calling out. As of this writing, we’re a couple of days out from an unbearable sequel to the Anita Hill hearings, in which a single woman dares to defy the power structure. Obviously I’ll never know that kind of fear, but one thing stories and film can do is give me a fleeting look through another person’s perspective.
Compared to that, being chased by hideous, slimy, fang-monsters is kind of anticlimactic. Okay, well, not really I guess. I suppose most people would rather have a dipshit Senator call them a slut in front of Congress than be melted and eaten by a Xenomorph, because of the finality of death and all, but honestly it might be a close thing. In any event, most of Aliens is designed to make you forget all that reality-based uncomfortable stuff by having lots of rad, noisy firefights and Bill Paxton being great. I appreciate having both things available in a story, you know? One thing does not preclude the other from existing, and James Cameron – at least early in his career because I don’t ever want to think about Avatar again – is excellent as providing ample subtext beneath the big, exciting set pieces. Terminator 2 is probably the high point of this, but Aliens might be a close second. Along with that opening conference room scene, there is no shortage of evidence that the future depicted in the Alien universe is a dark nightmare world.
I mean, yeah, of course a world which consists of claustrophobic industrial corridors jam-packed with demons is a dark nightmare world. I’m not really talking about that. Although Aliens is less isolated that the previous entry, the story is almost entirely self-contained and apart from the larger society of this world. There’s The Company, who are represented by the reprehensible conference room pigs and Burke. There’s the Space Marines, who all have flag patches so I guess America is still a thing? And the Marines seem to be doing the bidding of The Company, so it’s safe to assume that at the very least private enterprise has eclipsed diffused national power in this world. It’s also a little alarming that The Company is singular, which suggests the late-capitalist endgame of a small number of mega-corporations running the world has come to pass. This idea is reinforced by the fact that neither Burke nor his overlords seem all that concerned with the public finding out about their plan to bring back fucked up demons back to earth which would immediately colonize the entire planet and kill everyone. That kind of hubris is only earned by those who have always known absolute power. Now where have I seen that before? You know what, I think Aliens might actually be scarier than Alien.