by Cole Hutchison
Them’s fightin’ words. An immortal verbal throwdown barked out by the true queen of action cinema, delivered from the steel womb of an artificial exoskeleton just before it’s maneuvered with equal parts strength and grace through what still holds up as one of the greatest final battles in film history. Ellen Ripley was Imperator Furiosa before most of the film-going world was prepared to acknowledge the patriarchal status quo of modern society, let alone dial in to its sly, joyful subversion by what ostensibly presents itself as another balls-to-the-wall blockbuster. James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens isn’t really a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece of isolated, sweat-drenched terror; it’s a tonal inversion orchestrated and delivered with all of the subtlety and nuance of a robot split gruesomely in half by a hulking insectoid behemoth. It’s an action flick down to its linen, and the rare one that never dumbs itself down too dramatically in its mission to never quit its grinnin’. It passes the Bechdel test by default because all of its characters—be they male, female or pre-pubescent—yell at each other almost exclusively about survival, guns, and how to survive without guns. Its predecessor relied on the highly-sexualized queasiness of H.R. Geiger’s iconic character and landscape designs to invoke an inevitable musing on the unwanted pregnancy/rape survival undertones of its barebones story of a female laborer’s desperate attempts to reject the violent penetration of her stalker/attacker and avoid the harsh, impersonal destiny of becoming just another doomed incubator. Aliens doesn’t give a single flying fuck about gender issues. Cameron’s film is concerned with one thing: “WHERE. THEY. ARE.”
Or is it? In 1986 James Cameron was flying high off of the unexpected success of his relatively low-budget and unexpectedly successful film The Terminator, itself revolving around an everyday woman’s struggle to survive the hyper-masculine assault of an emotionless killing machine’s future-mandated mission to erase her before she can utilize the female-specific skill of giving birth. Sarah Connor wasn’t exactly a kickass feminist warrior in the first Terminator film, but she was also nowhere near being a passive victim. The theme of a strong female protagonist has always been present in Cameron’s work, but he’s never made the panderer’s mistake of highlighting gender or placing a fully fleshed-out female character on an unnecessary pedestal. The women in his films exhibit the strength that all humans are capable of, but they also have moments of indecision and weakness. That’s because they’re human, just like the men. This dichotomy of strength and weakness is on full display in Aliens. It’s the spectrum of emotion and instinct that stretches from Hudson’s testosterone-fueled drop-ship pep talk about weaponry and badasses and his eventual emasculation into a whining, terrified child as the inevitability of death closes in. His sexist jokes hinge on traditional gender roles, but it’s always obvious that he recognizes the female Vasquez as his legitimate superior in terms of both pure physical strength and the tactical know-how of battle.
Hicks is the warrior that Ripley gravitates toward because the masculine/feminine dichotomy of humanity is so fully present and obvious in him, just as it is in her. He has a heart painted on the chest plate of his armor that literally has a closed lock attached to it, but he’s the only Colonial Marine to gently lift Newt up onto a table so that she can be a part of the conversation. He’s so tough that he falls asleep during their initial entry to a dangerous planet, but the naked lady photo hanging in his locker is artistic and classy; it’s not pornography, it’s erotica. His attempt to flirt with Ripley is teaching her how to use his weapon; she loves this interaction more than he could even expect. Two peas in a pod, both complimentary and similar in their humanity, the perfect pair balancing one another’s masculine and feminine aspects by way of their own respective dualities.
It’s the same duality that would, a whopping three decades later, imbue George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road with such intelligent weight that would simultaneously fly over the heads of both the so-called “men’s rights activists” and the big-hearted but short-sighted cheerleaders of any and all “ SOCIAL ISSUES.” Miller’s film obviously recognizes and criticizes the inherent self-destructive weaknesses of a war-obsessed patriarchal dictatorship, but it never takes the foolish path of depicting anything as a simple male vs. female issue. Rather, since the very existence of balance is dependent upon the beneficial co-existence of multiple, often seemingly disparate elements, cooperation is key. That film’s pivotal scene, as quiet and nearly hidden in importance as it may be, comes when the more skilled and patient Furiousa rests her weapon on Max’s sturdy shoulder in order to take out an enemy. Fury Road may rage against a war-sickened society structured around aggressive, unchecked strength, but it’s not an anti-war film. It knows that warfare should never be a way of life, but that when it does inevitably become a necessary tool for survival, it’s important to utilize all aspects of human nature to master it. Aliens possesses this same knowledge, but does seem to possess less empathy for the supposed enemy. Furiosa and her comrades in survival are aware of the programmatic nature that instills the War-Boys with their bloodlust and quest for glory in battle; Hudson, Hicks and the rest of their crew of “ultimate badasses” are really nothing more than a death squad lacking discretion. They engage in bug hunts as ordered, wiping out the “other” in whose direction their weapons are pointed by hands impossibly larger and more socioeconomically powerful than their own.
Maybe that’s Cameron’s real beef. The danger of corporate greed and a massive military-industrial power complex is a recurring theme in his work, significantly more so than the issue of gender roles. He seems to take male/female equality as a given, pointing out that the unfortunately commonplace debate over the natural balance of masculine/feminine aspects (no matter how they manifest themselves, or within whom) is really just an obstacle to the bigger issues at hand, namely the class war inherent in a system that oppresses the many for the financial and political benefit of the few. It’s ironic that the military, so often understood and depicted as a backwards bastion of regressively macho sexual politics, is portrayed in Aliens as possibly the least sexist of institutions. Hicks and Apone are initially skeptical of Ripley’s abilities with the power-loader not because she is a woman (many of their best soldiers/pilots/etc. are women), but because she is a civilian. These soldiers never demand that she prove herself capable in terms of her existence as a woman, only that she prove herself useful in terms of her ability to survive and help others to do the same. And in certain cases, survival depends on the ability to balance mastery of combat with sensitivity to emotion. Ripley commands that balance, and it is that combination of more traditional “strength” and her nurturing, motherly skill with Newt that ultimately leads to her survival of a situation that leaves an entire hyper-masculine squadron of “ultimate badasses” glued to a wall, forcibly impregnated and waiting for the nightmarish end of fatal penetration from within.
Ripley’s embodiment of motherhood—that most important role of species survival—is established early in the film as an image of her sleeping face dissolves into a shot of our serene blue planet from the orbit just above its atmosphere; Mother Earth, indeed. But there’s nothing serene about her protective instincts when they’re pushed to their limits, and her aggressive assault on the “other” represented by the aliens is masculine in its powerful assertion, while still being intuitively felt as necessary and carefully considered and deemed unavoidable. She is a mother protecting her adopted daughter Newt by mercilessly torching an entire nursery of that other mother’s children. The alien queen is also concerned with the survival of her progeny, but there’s no dichotomy to her nature. The aliens are an inherently violent, aggressive species that depends on the death of others in order to propagate their own. They are careless force inherent, a function-obsessed perversion of sexual anatomy. Aggressive, crude and efficient, their very bodies function as both sex organ and weapon. Contrast the ridiculousness of Drake and Vasquez strapping the massive and imposing artificial phalluses of their comically gigantic weapons to their crotches with the built-in death-phallus of the alien drone’s internal projectile mouth. These human soldiers must use weapons when it becomes necessary, while their opponents simply are weapons by design. The alien queen’s offspring serve one real purpose: to increase the strength and depth of her ammunition in a war against all other lifeforms. The survival of their species depends upon masculine aggression, unbridled and ignorant of consequence, morality or any trace of tenderness. With the murderous thrust of the drones’ internal mouth-shafts, the proliferation of their kind is quite literally dependent upon “dick moves.”
Much of Cameron’s Aliens cast would appear in Kathryn Bigelow’s mesmerizingly violent western-vampire-noir Near Dark the following year, and it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Cameron and Bigelow had such a close relationship for so many years. Bigelow’s films tend to shine an incisive but understanding light upon the misdirected sensitivity and repressed urges of masculine ritual, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that similar ideas are lurking beneath the tough exteriors of Cameron’s work. Aliens is a film that has a lot going on beneath the surface, but can still be enjoyed on the skin-deep level of a big, loud war movie. It’s like a Paul Verhoeven genre subversion, but maybe not quite as well-read or effectively over-the-top. Verhoeven’s characters are trapped within the restrictive margins of their respective genre’s conventions (and the equally suffocating guidelines of popular American culture in general), while Bigelow’s men are poisoned by an overdose of testosterone with which they’ve never been effectively shown what to do. The soldiers and civilians of Cameron’s “Aliens” exist within a perpetual flux between masculine and feminine instincts; their true challenge lies in discovering how to maintain the best balance for survival. Empathy and weaponry coexist as necessary resources. The question in this film is never really “who wears the pants?” but rather “what is the difference between learning how to use a tool, and just plain being one?”
Cole Hutchison grew up in rural Virginia, where he worked in a video store and watched Lucio Fulic’s Zombie on prom night. He spent 12 years in Richmond, gradually earning a degree in film studies, touring with terrible punk bands and working odd jobs. He then moved to Brooklyn, where he wrote film reviews and had a few internships at the coolest cinemas in the world. Now he lives in Seattle, roasts coffee and volunteers at Scarecrow, which is just as good a resource for cinematic knowledge as any grad school, but way more chill. He enjoys cats.