I recently re-watched James Cameron’s Aliens. I revisit this movie a lot. I was able to catch it last year at Cinerama during their Science Fiction Fest, and it was such a treat to see it on the big screen! I highly recommend catching it in this format if you ever have the opportunity. Every time I watch it, I’m newly excited and inspired by it. Of course, there’s a lot to be excited about: the effects, the action, the sets, the ALIENS! But what really gets me jazzed is the inclusion and downright center-stage spotlight of female characters in an action film.
You might have noticed that ladies don’t often play active roles in action films, if they’re in them at all. It’s still rare today to have a female lead in an action movie, so it’s pretty dang impressive for a film released in 1986. So, I’m gonna stop here for a second to personally thank Mr. James Cameron, because out of the handful of action films that DO have active female leads, he’s directed THREE of them. This guy gave us Sarah Connor (twice) and molded Ellen Ripley, who was already a resourceful, developed heroine, (thank you cast and crew of the original Alien) into the full-fledged action star we now have for all time (with her own catchphrase too!). Also, personal thank-you’s to Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver for giving their respective characters life and for giving little girls heroes to look up to.
Not only does ALIENS have a female lead, but it also has other women in it too. Imagine! There’s the dropship pilot, Corporal Ferro, the medtech Dietrich and, of course, one of the most notable Colonial Marines, Vasquez (played by Jenette Goldstein). Holy cow, do I LOVE Vasquez! What can I say about Vasquez? She’s “just too bad.” And the really neat thing is that these ladies are a part of the team–that’s the really mind-blowing aspect of ALIENS, the little added cherry on top of the feminist ice cream sundae. They’re treated like equals.
sVasquez and Drake, best friends forever!
Right from the moment we meet the Colonial Marines, we are thrown into a world where men and women fight side by side. They eat, sweat, banter and gripe together. This is particularly well observed in the special, nonsexual bond between Vasquez and fellow marine Drake–they’re buds. This buddy dynamic runs throughout the film but is most apparent between these two. It’s no accident that the marines appear to be such a tight unit. The actors actually trained together for two weeks in pre-production (check out the fantastic making of Aliens documentary, Superior Firepower). I think achieving real, believable relationships was one of Cameron’s goals with ALIENS and that resonates on screen.
Then there’s Ripley, who is an outsider among the marines. The movie makes a distinction between her being an outsider as a civilian rather than her being an outsider because she’s a woman. This is an important point the film makes again and again, primarily through the portrayal and inclusion of other women in the movie. See how easy it is? Just show other ladies doing things–just like real life!
“Where do you want it?”
Ripley is shown as being quite capable early on when she operates the power loader, thus demonstrating to the Marines that she can pull her own weight (and SPOILER ALERT, it’s a great foreshadowing moment). It’s at this point in the film that Hicks takes interest in Ripley. Hicks is played by Michael Biehn, who also plays Reese in Terminator, which begs the question, “Is he the best dude ever?”
Ripley and Hicks. Hicks and Ripley. My god, do I love these two. (I’m not the only one either, there’s a TON of fanfic on the subject) Let’s not mince words here, though; this is Ripley’s movie. Ripley is the star and hero and I don’t want to detract from the importance of a female action hero by talking about a dude. However, she’s got a buddy and ally in Hicks. I would even argue that the Hicks character is almost as important and culturally game-changing as Ripley, and here’s why: Hicks is a secondary male character who only helps and supports the female lead. In fact, it’s almost an exact gender flip on the classic action film love interest, the only difference being Hicks is slightly more capable than most female secondary characters in main stream action films. In a world where no one believes her, Hicks trusts and listens to Ripley from the beginning–this is so refreshing. He takes what she says as the final word because she’s the authority.
Their relationship dynamic is actually quite rare in action movies, but one recent film that reminded me of it was Mad Max: Fury Road, which has been at the center of debate about feminism in film, specifically action films. You can and certainly should read what others have to say about that topic. For me, the thing I thoroughly enjoy is Furiosa and Max’s relationship. They’re not love interests, they’re buddies. Buddies implies equals. Amazingly, this is actually a fresh concept.
Also important: Max doesn’t overshadow Furiosa as the hero of the film. They work together. Furiosa is even lifted (literally) to heroine status as Max bows out, realizing that this is her fight–not his. This new incarnation of Max follows in the footsteps of Hicks; the supportive, empathetic, cooperative comrade. More Hicks, less Burke! There was a 30-year gap between Aliens and Fury Road. I know change takes time but Christ, that’s a long wait.
Heroes are among the major reasons we make and love films; it’s important for ALL of us to have some to relate to. I personally look forward to a future where people of color, women, transgender folks, gay and lesbian peeps and anyone who doesn’t look like Chris Pine or Pratt can have a blockbuster hero fighting for them.
Emily Shahan is a local showoff, an avid watcher of movies and a Scarecrow super fan. Her writing has appeared in Geekwire.