No one wants to admit it, but one of the most difficult tasks any filmmaker is likely to have in their career is making a sequel befitting of the original film. Most sequels deem themselves comfortable to just re-mold themselves into a pale, often lifeless, imitation of their predecessor and call it a day. No need to expand on the stunning, potential-laden world and characters you’ve been handed. Luckily, this isn’t true for all sequels, and there exists a handful of them that do just that. Look no further than Aliens (1986), which has just recently celebrated its 35th anniversary.
James Cameron’s epic follow-up to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) has been lauded since its release for laying the groundwork for what marketable sequels should do with the budget they’ve been afforded. Compared to the original film, which identifies itself not even as a science fiction piece, but more as one of stalking horror within an altogether unconventional haunted house known as the spaceship Nostromo, Cameron’s continuation of the story is longer, contains legitimate action sequences that were revolutionary in their time, and, as the title would suggest, offers up an even deadlier adversary that has multiplied in numbers.
In no way does Cameron ever seek to tell the same story that Scott developed with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. Just as many believe this is precisely what makes it arguably the greatest sequel ever made, so too has it invited its fair share of detractors who tend to argue that Cameron’s ambition in honoring the original film with his own originality ultimately leads to the film’s undoing. In their eyes, this largely comes down to how the protagonist, Ellen Ripley, as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in both films, is portrayed in Aliens.
It often feels a bit questionable that Ripley is uniformly praised for being the prolific action hero she is, yet people are still expected to declare their allegiance to one film or the other. This brings an inherent blindness to the fact that the sequel can’t exist without the original, and appreciation for the original can be amplified by the sequel. Aliens, if nothing else, demonstrates why making a sequel can actually be the best thing for a character and the world they inhabit. In other words, Alien and Aliens pair so well together because they are two different films, and Ripley is a great character because she serves two distinct, but rewarding, purposes according to the visions of the films’ directors.
Was Alien Sexist?
James Cameron’s creative decisions for the sequel were not just born from a desire to do something different, but also because he believed the first film’s feminist agenda was undermined by a sequence toward the end of the film in which Ripley, the lone survivor of the Xenomorph’s attacks on the Nostromo, strips down to her underwear before facing the creature one final time. Speaking with Australia’s Toowoomba Chronicle, Cameron said of the scene, “For me that stepped over the line, [when I took over] I said I think I can make a movie with a compelling female character who doesn’t have to do that, so that’s been my goal and my mission throughout.”
It is interesting to note that almost all of the dialogue in the original Alien is gender neutral. Despite the men of the crew outnumbering the women five to two, they are each referred to by their surnames at all times ー Ripley is not given a first name until Aliens ー establishing a sense of equality in which the audience is not easily swayed by first names into believing that Ripley and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) are expected to conform to certain roles as women. The complete omission of first names suggests that the male characters could easily have been played by female actors, and vice versa. What is not so neutral is how each of the actors’ genders sway their performances in certain directions, as seen in the way Tom Skerritt attempts to play up the more heroic, all-knowing qualities of Captain Dallas, or how Veronica Cartwright turns Lambert into a stereotypically hysteric mess whose attempts to convince the crew to abandon ship fall on deaf ears.
It’s this gender-based influence that has caused backlash from the Alien fandom due to Ripley’s strip scene. Had the character been played by a man, the scene would have been viewed under a much different lens, especially since the men of the crew wear much less revealing undergarments. While the scene is not meant to be viewed as objectification, it is still very much shot in a way that exacerbates Ripley’s vulnerability when she is at the apex of danger. What it is meant to do is use Ripley’s compromised state to increase the audience’s fear of the bloodthirsty alien with a desire to “impregnate” its victims and reproduce. So, should we care that Ripley is in a more revealing state during this scene? No, we should not. After all, her ultimate triumph over the alien confirms her perseverance and her tenacity, especially since she spends the majority of the film taking a backseat while her senior officers either ignore her requests or shoot down her ideas.
What Does Aliens Do Differently?
If we should care about anything, it’s the fact that James Cameron cared so heavily about the issue of Ripley’s femininity. His concern is revealed in both big and small ways in Aliens, which picks up with Ripley being rescued from hypersleep after 57 years, only to head back to LV-426, the moon where her crew first discovered the alien species, once she learns that a group of humans have colonized the terrain and are now being attacked by the hoard of creatures that are still there. In placing Ripley amongst a group of macho, gun-toting Marines who are assigned to wipe the Xenomorphs out, Cameron seizes upon many opportunities to change the viewer’s perception of Ripley.
This is not just true of his decision to fit her in less revealing underwear, but also in the way both the camera and the men aboard the Sulaco gaze upon her in much revealing or lustful ways. What’s more is how he does the same for other female characters in the film, such as the butch, badass Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). Aside from being braver and more capable than all of the men around her, Vasquez is a character who doesn’t let her physical appearance and sexuality affect her, as her response to the cocky Pvt. Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) joking question, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” is a very quick and humorous, “No, have you?”
Whereas Ridley Scott emphasizes Ripley’s feminine qualities despite her not having a gender to begin with, James Cameron takes the opposite approach by reminding the viewer that her gender is, in fact, a crucial element to her character. He downplays her femininity, but not her womanhood, and he does this through the relationship she builds with Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who loses her family to the aliens on LV-426. When Ripley reveals to Newt that she had a daughter of her own who passed away on Earth while she was in hypersleep, their surrogate relationship becomes that much stronger and becomes the driving motivation behind Ripley’s climactic showdown with the Xenomorph Queen, another mother driven by a desire to protect her young.
The crucial nature of Ripley’s gender to her character is also what makes the emergence of her more aggressive and masculine qualities feel that much more rewarding, such as when she displays her mastery of the Sulaco’s exosuits when moving heavy cargo, a talent that helps her when she mans one of the suits to fight the Queen. Not only does she prove herself to the skeptical men in her midst, but the knowledge that she can do just as much as them, if not more, amplifies the viewer’s investment in her traumatic experiences with the Xenomorphs, as it’s her desire for revenge and catharsis that leads her to not only face the Queen, but intentionally lure her into battle by torching her eggs with a flame thrower.
What It All Means
Ultimately, when looking at the first two films in the Alien franchise ー trust me when I say that investing time in the subsequent films is not really worth it ー neither portrayal of Ripley necessarily tops the other because Ripley is molded to fit the situation in which she finds herself, all the while demonstrating what it is about her that makes her such as resilient and entertaining action hero. In essence, both films work as a two-part telling of the same continuous story because of this. On one hand, Alien addresses very real-world implications in its portrayal of extraterrestrial sexual violence, confirming that all pay the price when assault of this nature is left unfettered. On the other hand, Aliens is, at its core, a film about revenge, making it logical for a more experienced Ripley to relinquish her fear, re-obtain her womanhood and re-discover a part of herself (her motherhood) that motivates both her and the Xenomorph Queen.
One must not forget a strength the original Alien still maintains, which is the notion that its thematic content and visual aesthetic both feel a bit more perpetual and ageless. Cameron’s Aliens is very much a product of the 1980s. The narrative of unprepared soldiers fighting an unseen and unknown enemy has earned the film an allegorical label in relation to the Vietnam War. Rather than wear extra protection for intergalactic warfare, their armor is not that different to the traditional gear soldiers wear overseas. Not to mention, the poofed hairdos, popped collars, and product placement in the film are obvious markers as well.
Parallels to American culture are a known trademark in Cameron’s filmography, less so in Scott’s. With Scott being the more atmospheric filmmaker of the two, his ability to inspire fear for Ripley’s situation is much greater, which makes her first victory extremely gratifying, especially since it is clear that her gender is not a factor in her ability to survive. However, Aliens, if not the better film, is the more socially aware of the two because Cameron’s mindset was so firmly ensconced in the time period he himself was in. As a result, he ultimately crafted a nearly perfect sequel because he positioned Ripley in a way that her trauma from her experience aboard the Nostromo was just as vital to her development as was her embodiment of the feminist ideal of women succeeding in traditionally male-dominated spaces.
At the end of the day, both Alien and Aliens stand tall as horror and action tour-de-forces, respectively. They are each unique, tonally divergent masterpieces for their own reasons, yet when put together, the two halves that make up each film combine to form the timeless appeal of the feminist icon that is Ellen Ripley. While the plot of the sequel may, at times, feel derivative of the first film, its boldness in completely altering the pre-established gender dynamics only adds to its legacy, a legacy that matches its predecessor in almost every way. So the question, again, must be asked: Why should we have to pick one film over the other when Ripley is the best part of both?