Study Guide for Aliens

1. Citation

Aliens. James Cameron, dir., screenplay. USA: Brandywine / Twentieth Century Fox, 1986.

2. Brief Description

An important film for several motifs significant in SF studies: threatening and protective containment, a highly positive superimposition of the mechanical upon the human (an augmenting waldo allowing Ripley to do personal battle with the Alien Queen), merging of the mechanical and the insectoid/organic in the Aliens and in the on-planet habitat when the Aliens get finished with it, a good and heroic android in the structural position of the evil android in Alien, a yuppie bureaucrat representative of "the Company"-who manages to be nastier than the android robot Ash and the ship's computer Mother in Alien and miscellaneous images of exoskeletons, things hexagonal and octagonal, and post-punk future-funky. Indispensable for study of The Great Mother in the SF film and presentations of women and men under conditions of battle and horror.

3. Novelization

Foster, Alan Dean. Aliens. New York: Warner Books, 1986. (Consulted for names of characters, #4 below.)

4. Major Cast

Ripley: Sigourney Weaver Newt: Carrie Henn
Corporal Hicks: Michael Biehn Burke (Company representative): Paul Reiser
Bishop (android): Lance Henriksen Lt. Gorman: William Hope

Private Drake: Mark Rolston-male on smartgun team with Vasquez
Private Vasquez (Foster: PFC; Latina woman): Jenette Goldstein
Sgt. Apone (Foster: Master Sergeant): Al Matthews
Private Hudson (Foster: Comtech Corporal, "incorrigible hard-case" [114]; a little whacko): Bill Paxton
Private Spunkmeyer (Foster: PFC and dropship crew chief): Daniel Kash
Corporal Ferro (Foster: Pilot-Corporal [woman]): Colette Hiller
Corporal Dietrich (woman): Cinthia Scott
Private Carver: Tip Tipping
Private Frost: Ricco Ross
Private Wierzbowski: Trevor Steedman

5. Misc. Names

Planet taken over by Aliens: Acheron in novel (name of a river in Hades); Colonial Marine ship: Sulaco (14 on board, twice number of humans on Nostromo in Alien).

6. Review

Newsweek, 21 July 1986: 84 f. (source of some names).

. . . every now and then a director will come along to pump bright red blood into action movies. The flamboyant George Miller did it with his Mad Max trilogy. And now James Cameron, having demonstrated his bold kinetic talent in "The Terminator" [sic: quotes instead of italics], unleashes his big guns in "Aliens", a spectacular sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 "Alien."

But, you protest, the first "Alien" was not an action movie. Correct. What Scott fashioned was a terrifying haunted-house movie set in space. Cameron is after something different. Sigourney Weaver is back, and so are those primally yucky creaures (now an entire herd). But the emphasis has shifted to combat: this is a matriarchal science-fiction war movie with Sigourney leading her ever- dwindling troops into battle against the queen alien and her insatiable brood. Motherhood is the movie's unstated theme.

. . . But the film is not merely a triumph of bravura action and masterfully slimy monsters. At its core is the ferociously urgent performance of Sigourney Weaver, who hurls herself into her warrior role with muscular grace and a sense of conviction that matches Cameron's step for step. Next to her wonderfully human macho, most recent male action heroes look like very thin cardboard.

7. Comments and Questions

  1. The end of Aliens has Ripley putting Newt to bed for hypersleep, and the last shot is of their two heads, mostly on level but with Newt's closer to the camera, hence a little larger and higher. One critic has read this shot to stress that "Motherhood is the movie's" highly emphasized "theme"-a motherhood of equality between mother and child.
  2. In terms of its plot, Aliens is primarily about a retreat to safety through enemy territory, like The Warriors (1979), about a New York street gang's attempt to get home across rival turf-or the (mostly?) true story of the "Ten Thousand," Greek mercenaries whose thousand-mile retreat is commemorated by their commander, Xenophon, in his Anabasis. Note that well: the Terrans start losing early on; James Cameron has said in at least one interview that he had in mind the US loss in Indochina, a loss in part because of our dependence upon inappropriate high technology.
  3. Studying H. R. Giger's designs for Alien makes clear that the source of much of our discomfort in that film comes from the images of the mixture of the mechanical and the organic-and from the highly stressed sexual images, both phallic and vaginal. If Alien plays upon our fears of rape and monstrous pregnancy (and it clearly does), what fears are tapped in Aliens?
  4. There's a touching Star Trek episode where a harmer of humans turns out not to be The Silicon Monster we initially thought but the Silicon Mother: a creature protecting her eggs. Good liberal show that it was, Star Trek worked out a reconciliation (through a highly symbolic mind-meld between Mr. Spock and the creature). Is the Alien Queen sympathetic in Aliens? Is she justified in defending her brood? A worthy opponent for Weaver?
  5. What are the politics, gender and otherwise, of the first two ALIEN/ALIENS films so far? Were they worked through to your satisfaction in the last film of the ALIEN(S) trilogy?