Movie Discussion: James Cameron’s Aliens (1986)

  • Monthly Theme: Alien Invasions
  • The Film: Aliens
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: July 18, 1986
  • Studio: Twentieth Century Fox, et al.
  • Distributer: Twentieth Century Fox
  • Domestic Gross: $85.1 million
  • Budget: $18.5 million (estimated)
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Producers: Walter Hill, Gale Anne Hurd, et al.
  • Screenwriter: James Cameron
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematography: Adrian Biddle
  • Make-Up/FX: Stephen Norrington, Stan Winston, Howard Berger, et al.
  • Music: James Horner
  • Part of a series? Yes. This is the second entry in the long-running Alien series, preceded by Alien (1979) and followed by Alien(1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997). A spin-off series was launched in 2004 with AVP: Alien vs. Predator and continued with a 2007 sequel, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. Prometheus, a prequel to the original film series, was released in 2012.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre character actors Lance Henriksen (The Terminator, Near Dark, etc.), Bill Paxton (Frailty, Near Dark, etc.) and Michael Biehn (The Terminator, The Seventh Sign, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood movie star Sigourney Weaver (Alien). TV star Paul Reiser.
  • Awards?: Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects at the 1987 Academy Awards. Best Visual Effects at the 1987 BAFTA Awards. Top Box Office Film at the ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards. 8 Saturn Awards at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror. Best Dramatic Presentation at the 1987 Hugo Awards. Best Foreign Language Film at the 1987 Kinema Junpo Awards. Best Sound Editing at the 1987 Motion Picture Sound Editors.
  • Tagline: “This time it’s war.”
  • The Lowdown: Ripley (Weaver) is found 57 years after the events of Alien. Her daughter is dead and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation doesn’t believe her story about what happened to her ship and crew. In fact, colonists have been living on the Death Planet for years… But when contact with the colony is suddenly lost, Ripley ships out with a cadre of Marines to investigate. Will Ripley, still shell-shocked from her earlier encounter with the alien, be able to handle hundreds of alien monsters?

If you haven’t seen Aliens our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: I only have three things to say: Vasquez, Vasquez, Vasquez. Talk over.

Kristine: Stop reading my mind.

Sean: Does she own the universe or what? She is everything.

Dicks for everybody!

Kristine: This movie should have just been Vasquez doing pull-ups and Vasquez saying, “Let’s rock!” Then it should have ended.

Sean: I was actually really surprised, upon rewatching Aliens, how the Marine Corps of the movie is this gender-equity utopia. There are several badass women and they’re all just part of the team. It’s just a bunch of working stiffs doing their jobs, being comrades, without any tension around gender. I realized how it is still incredibly rare, in 2014, to see that, especially in any kind of action-oriented “the squad goes on the doomed mission” kind of movie. I mean, Aliens has plenty of The Dirty Dozen/The Wild Bunch DNA. Not even Soderbergh’s Oceans movies (another franchise based around the assembly of a diverse team to do a job) have gender equity. The women in those movies are defined by their femininity, by their skirts and legs and hair and lipstick. Aliens might be one of the most feminist action movies ever, just for that. It is so easy to see the version of this movie where it’s just Ripley and all the boy soldiers. Or the soldiers are all boys except for just Vazquez.

Kristine: You make a good point. Though I was cracking up at how 1980s identity politics made their way into this super-futuristic movie, like Hudson making ‘illegal alien’ jokes about Vazquez.

Sean: Oh, I know. Even though James Cameron harassed Kate Winslet throughout the shooting of Titanic, he still did a lot to establish women as mainstream action stars. Ripley, Vasquez and Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies are still probably in the top ten best female action heroes list. We’ve got Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil movies and Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld movies… and then all the women in Cameron’s filmography.

Kristine: Geena Davis hitched her wagon to the wrong star with Renny Harlin. She should have taken a meeting with Cameron in the ‘80s.

Sean: Seriously.

Post-apocalypse is no excuse for your hygiene, Nasty Newt.

Kristine: So, spoiler alert: I hated this movie, but Vasquez was amazing. Bishop was also good. And of course, Jonesy and Ripley from the first movie are still great. Everyone else can go die.

Sean: Jonesy! That jerk.

Kristine: The absolute worst is Paul Reiser trying to work his Romantics hairdo and failing hard.

Sean: But how much fun is it to be invited to openly loathe Paul Reiser as the sniveling company stooge? It is very enjoyable.

Kristine: My emotions were on a rollercoaster in the first five minutes of the movie: “Jonesy? Yay! Paul Reiser? Vom!” However, I must admit that the casting is fantastic. Everyone is perfect for their role.

Sean: Agreed. So tell me about hating the movie.

Kristine: Basically, my reaction to Aliens was exactly what you feared. It really hit all my sci-fi/space horror impatience buttons. I was bored and depressed for most of the movie. The silver lining here is that it did make me appreciate both Alien and The Thing and realize I might have underestimated them. But overall, as far as Aliens goes? C’est pas mon truc (it’s just not my thing). I presume you aren’t surprised that Aliens didn’t rock my world? Or are you?

Sean: I had no idea what you’d think. I thought you might get swept up in the action and setpieces and be won over. Though I’m not sure I understand how one is made ‘depressed’ by the movie… I knew you were definitely going to hate Nasty Newt. The highlight of the movie’s climax is just seeing that bitch’s hair finally shampooed and combed.

L.L. Beancounter

Kristine: I have extensive notes about how much I hated Newt. I’d like to ask some questions. What film in the franchise is considered ‘the best’?

Sean: The consensus on what is the best entry in the franchise is a complete tossup between this movie and the original Alien. You’ve got vocal supporters for both. Though I feel like since Scott did return to the franchise with Prometheus and it was underwhelming, that undercuts his credibility. I think if it were reported that James Cameron was going to make another Alien movie with Sigourney Weaver, the Internet would explode.

Kristine: Is it a conceit of the Alien franchise that each film is always made by a different director? Was that intentional or did it just happen?

Sean: Yes, each entry is helmed by a different director, though I don’t know if that was intentional. It just happened that way.

Kristine: Are they all depressing as hell?

Sean: This is the most lighthearted movie in the franchise. Alien3 is the most fucking depressing thing ever made.

Kristine: Do you know if Ridley Scott wanted to/was asked to return to make this movie?

That Gothic moment.

Sean: Not exactly sure, but I do know this sequel was James Cameron’s brainchild and baby. He dreamt it up and wrote the script while he was making The Terminator. The studio did not want to make Aliens, but when The Terminator was a success they agreed to it.

Kristine: Why didn’t they want to?

Sean: They crunched the numbers and said Alien didn’t make enough of a profit to warrant a sequel.

Kristine: So is Cameron throwing the studio bean-counters shade by populating Aliens with evil money-grubbing corporate suits worrying about their expensive spaceship instead of human lives?

Sean: Probably. He comes off like he’s all anti-corporate and green-minded, what with his weird Avatar movies. He’s a big lefty. Also, for trivia, Cameron is another genre star who, like John Carpenter, closely collaborated with a lover in his early career. The big honcho producer Gale Anne Hurd started her career helping Cameron get his early movies made (including Aliens) and she was married to him at the time this was made. Also, there was allegedly an incident where a male crewmember openly dissed her on the set and was like, “Ya fuckin’ da directah, ya floozie. Yer a joke!” and it was a thing.

Kristine: Did Cameron stand up for Hurd?

Sean: I’d assume so, but I don’t know for sure.

Kristine: Interesting that he’s also been romantically linked to Linda Hamilton and Kathryn Bigelow… He likes the strong, independent women.

Sean: So why did this movie depress you? It’s so exciting! It’s a rollicking good time at the movies.


Kristine: I wasn’t excited. The relentless action backfired for me. First of all, 2 hours and 34 minutes. Jesus Christ. I loathe long movies, even movies I love. So that was a big problem.

Sean: 2:34 is a totally standard running time for a blockbuster these days.

Kristine: Well, I hate that. Then there is the aesthetic problem that I have complained about when we discussed Alien, the goddamn gray-on-gray, dripping, dark, life-sucking “design” that springs from the “imagination” of science fiction writers and directors. I hate it so much. It’s really hard for me to engage with films that look this way. I was into it for the first five minutes when Ripley’s shuttle is found and discovers her fate and testifies in front of the evil corporate whoevers. Then I was bored for like over an hour, excepting the five seconds when the facegrabber was on-screen and ten other seconds when Vasquez was doing pull-ups. The interminable colony-exploring sequence and discovery of Newt (ugh) was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. When a movie has been playing for and hour and half and I’ve only been engaged for 5 minutes and 15 seconds of that time, something is wrong. The entirety of 22 Jump Street is 112 minutes and is delightful.

Sean: I figured you must have been scared/exhilarated during the scene where the facehuggers attack Ripley and Newt, because last time you said that the facehuggers are scarier than the full-grown aliens.

Kristine: I stand by that claim. Are you mad at my reaction to Aliens?

Sean: Of course not. But I just had such a different experience of the movie the first time I saw it. I mean, it was in the theater on opening night and I was 11, but still… I remember squirming in my seat and getting a stomachache from the unrelenting suspense and tension.

Kristine: I am jealous. Like how I felt during The Descent?

Clash of the titans

Sean: Yeah. I remember being especially gripped with terror during all the scenes where they use that echo-locater thing that reads movement (I think Hudson uses it the most). That scene where he’s reading the movement but the aliens are hiding in the ceiling? And Ripley is like “But that’s right inside the room!” and Hicks is like “You must be reading it wrong…” and then he looks in the ceiling???? I was dying and sick with tension and exhilaration.

Kristine: Okay, I agree that that part is awesome. That’s in the last part of the movie, which was definitely the best part. That whole sequence was amazing, when they realize how fucked they are and are watching that little screen and being like, ‘But where are they?’ I loved that.

Sean: That part and also the epic grudge match between Ripley in the loader and the Alien Queen. At 11, that was probably the coolest thing I’d ever seen in a movie. When Ripley tries to drop the Queen down the airlock shaft but it grabs the loader and pulls her down with it and she screams? Oh my god. I remember like, jumping out of my seat and chewing my fingernails down to bloody stubs.

Kristine: We are in sync regarding the second half of movie. I loved the whole thing where Ripley discovers the Alien Queen’s gigantic womb/lair and I also loved Ripley in the loader, though it did remind me of those inflatable sumo suits people wrestle in on spring break. Still, it was badass. I also really loved how the Alien Queen looked in that final faceoff.

Sean: So scary. The hissing? Bishop being ripped apart? So awesome! I just remember having grown up with like, Princess Leia in my genre movies and then there I was, at 12, seeing Ripley and Vasquez and being like, ‘Where the fuck have you ladies been all my life???????’

Kristine: The design of the Alien Queen was awesome and legitimately scary. I also loved the Bishop bisection, and I thought it was hilarious how he is just plopped there, secreting on the floor, during the rest of the fight. Like, ‘Doo di doo di doo.’ I could have done without his one-liner at the end though.

Snowballing video gone wrong.

Sean: “Not bad for a human.” Because according to this movie prejudice is bad.

Kristine: My eyeballs were a-rollin’. Newt also tries her best to ruin that whole awesome fight scene by existing and also by her ridiculous and disgusting “Mommy!” wail, but the scene is stronger than her.

Sean: Nasty, nasty Newt.

Kristine: “Mommy!” might have been my most loathed moment in the whole movie. I bellowed in anger.

Sean: See, I’ve been really divided on how to think/feel about the movie insisting that Ripley’s character arc has to be about her status as a maternal figure. On the one hand, it’s lame that a woman action hero has to be all about being a mother. But then on the other hand, it’s cool that Ripley is allowed to be such a virago and that doesn’t mean that she has to sacrifice her maternal side. She is truly the Woman Who Has It All, if you get my drift. Plus, watching this in the gay parenting era, it’s a tacit endorsement of queer families.

Kristine: Yeah, I went through pretty much the exact same questioning and ultimate conclusion. I did not enjoy the Ripley-as-mama scenes, but I think the overall characterization of her having a nurturing side is okay. It’s good that she is allowed to be a person. I feel like, instead of detracting from her toughness (or saying that her toughness only comes out when she is in the ‘defending her young, Mama Grizzly mode’ – barf Sarah Palin vomit) it instead allows her to be three-dimensional. The movie affirms that uptight, protocol-following, pragmatic-minded, female RIMAs exist and that doesn’t mean they don’t like kids or have a compassionate/parental side. Does that make sense? Ripley is not this loner cat-lady or tough-as-nails caricature. She is a real person, which means ladies really can be rational and bad-ass and use reason over emotions in real life but not be robots and still have feelings. I hope that makes sense. That is my overall take on the maternalization of Ripley. Still, I did not enjoy her scenes with Nasty Filthy Dirty Newt.

Just one of the crew.

Sean: Yes, I agree with all that. Plus, Vasquez and Dietrich and Farro are all there as other examples of competent, serious-minded women. It’s just still unusual to see that many women who are presented as (1) tough and (2) good at their jobs.

Kristine: I didn’t dig the “Stay away from her, you bitch” line, which I assume is the catchphrase of the film. I am imagining theatres full of people cheering at that line (á la Glenn Close’s death scene in Fatal Attraction).

Sean: Yeah, that’s the iconic line from this movie.

Kristine: I knew it.

Sean: It’s dumb.

Kristine: I hate it.

Sean: Scariest part of the Alien Queen? Her whip-tail. I’m just really impressed by the whole way this movie deepens and fleshes out the xenomorphology of the aliens and how they’re these insectoid hive-mind wasp creatures… I just thought all that was very dope.

Kristine: Like I said, the Alien Queen was damn cool-looking in the last scene. Like a crazy scary mechanical kangaroo of death.

Sean: Where was she when the ‘roos in Wake in Fright needed her?

Not a good time for jumping jacks.

Kristine: Oh god, right?

Sean: I agree with you about that moment when Ripley stumbles into the Alien Queen’s hive/womb. It’s amazing. I love how the first thing we see of the Queen is the mouth end of her long egg-sac depositing a new egg on the floor and then the camera pans down the sick translucent egg sac… It’s Grendel’s mother + everything that’s gross about insects + existential body horror and so much more.

Kristine: It’s The Brood. The parallelism between Newt and Ripley’s died-while-you-were-sleeping daughter was weak and over-obvious. I was engaged by Ripley’s fate in the first five minutes, but then it is completely abandoned. Not only her feelings about losing her daughter, but she also loses her anger and distrust way too quickly, too.

Sean: I don’t agree with that.

Kristine: Hold on. I liked the fact that she was initially presented as this ‘failed’ mother, whose tragic predicament is how the company is not only responsible for the death of her crew, the loss of 57 years and the trauma of the incident with the alien organism, but its also responsible for the shattering or destabilization of her identity in all these ways. The company’s capitalist (and military-industrial) logic has stripped Ripley of her class identity (from the middle-class status of her work as a pilot to working in the loading docks as a blue collar nobody) but also her biological/gender identity. Her normality and her mother status was taken from her. That works on its own and I think it would have been better to just let that be this incredibly sad thing that never gets addressed again, rather than hammering it home with the inclusion of the Newt character.

So…. this is a vagina.

Sean: I agree.

Kristine: And I feel like the movie sells her out a bit. I get that Ripley is fighting the Man, but I don’t think it’s realistic that she would be able to put aside her trauma out of compassion/fear for mankind and go on the expedition. I get that once she’s on the colony planet, sure, she is going to fight like hell to protect others and also save her own ass. She has no choice. But I don’t buy that she would go in the first place, and I don’t think to “face and conquer her own fear” is a plausible reason. The only way her decision to go back is plausible to me is if it’s about being able to speak truth to power and prove that she was right about the alien.

Sean: One of my big notes from this rewatch was, “Woah, this is a trauma/recovery narrative.” I didn’t think about that shit as a kid when I first loved this movie. But rewatching it now, its so clear that this movie is about recovering from trauma (and a specifically ‘female’ trauma that is gendered by the threat of rape that bubbles under the surface of her PTSD and the mothering/motherhood component). I think one of the big payoffs for Ripley’s recovery arc is that moment when the grunts find a female colonist stuccoed to the wall and an alien bursts out of her chest. I was really struck by the emotional potency of us as the audience watching Ripley as she watches on the monitor, literally reliving her worst nightmare (“Kill me…”). I was fascinated by how the colonist serves as a double for Ripley in that moment, and I was really moved by Ripley’s gutshot reaction to it, and appreciated the way it moved her towards catharsis. That moment, for me, was every woman whose ever been raped/assaulted being forced to relive the trauma of the event and deal with it. Its pretty feminist.

Kristine: That is a good point, and I must agree 100%. She’s another Cassandra figure.

Sean: But back to your claim that it’s unsatisfying or implausible that Ripley would go on the mission in the first place. I think that’s central to the ideas about trauma and recovery that the movie is exploring. She is haunted by the trauma of what happened in Alien and she is deeply damaged, so she must go on the mission in order to confront her demons. I think that’s a deeply satisfying motivation. I love the character arc of the damaged trauma victim becoming the death-dealing motherfucker. It’s roots are actually very Gothic. The Achilles heel of many a Gothic hero/heroine is some traumatic past event that they must confront/relive in order to heal or move on. And that catharsis is often through a confrontation with The Monster. I like those psychological dimensions to the movie, and to Ripley’s journey. I was especially struck that she is this Nanny Mommy wearing High-Waisted Mom Jeans next to all these ass-kicking female Marines/Warriors, and yet she is center of the story. I just found the dichotomy between Ripley and the Marines in the first part of the movie all kinds of interesting.

Bug rape.

Kristine: I am glad that you brought up how Ripley does not look like the übertough badass chick when compared to the female Marines. I totally noticed that. She looks frail and older and, as you say, like a trauma victim, shuffling around the locker room.

Sean: The movie puts this ineffectual/emasculated male (Lt. Gorman) in charge so that Ripley can push him aside, literally, and take control. The movie is this big empowerment narrative for Ripley. The other big payoff from her recovery arc is the fight with the facehuggers. I think (like you) Ripley was traumatized by the facehugger more than the full-grown alien itself in the first movie. And, of course, the facehugger represents rape/nonconsensual penetration, impregnation, gestation and all these other sexual and reproductive threats. So that moment when Burke unleashes the two facehuggers against Riply and Nasty Newt is really interesting because its not just about confronting the monster that could rape/impregnate her, but also protecting this younger daughter-proxy from that fate. It’s also interesting that she must be rescued in that scene by the Marines. There’s the gender-equitable Marines to rush in and save you. I feel good about Vasquez blasting the facehugger in that moment, as Ripley chokes and struggles to get her breath after being assaulted. Of course, we need the battle with the Alien Queen at the end so Ripley can take complete ownership of her own recovery. It’s a 1980s action movie, so the only way to recover from a trauma is to pummel, shoot, destroy, kill. Vasquez and Hicks saving her from the facehugger assault (which was engineered by the representative of capitalism and the military/industrial complex – another way The Man betrays Ripley) must transition to Ripley, holding her daughter-figure, with a gigantic gun mowing down and torching hundreds of facehuggers/eggs, as well as the monstrous womb that is responsible for them.

Kristine: Ripley getting back her badassery and taking ownership of her own recovery is definitely cool and definitely a thing. I must concede on that point, for sure.

Sean: Were you rooting for the aliens here?

Kristine: No. Was not rooting for the aliens.

Pregnation anxiety.

Sean: Interesting.

Kristine: I did notice that, once again, aliens can be defeated by fire. So that’s, what, four out of the six movies we’ve watched this month? That seems like a pretty big vulnerability. The aliens should work on that.

Sean: You made me notice that. Vampires are to crosses and daylight and garlic as Aliens are to fire.

Kristine: My very own analogy.

Sean: We observed that Alien (end of the ’70s) ends with this very uncertain ellipsis, but Aliens’ ending shot of Newt and Ripley in cryosleep feels very saccharine and beatific to me. I don’t think we’re supposed to think for one second they’re not going back to Earth to be happy forever.

Kristine: Agreed. Like the presence of a child ensures a safe passage, which, knowing what we know, should be anything but the case, right?

Sean: I want you to tell me why you hated Newt before we wrap up.

Kristine: WHY? Because she’s wretched! A dumb trope, a dirty ragamuffin, and a manipulative liar! She didn’t say “Mommy!” as an expression of actual trauma or primal fear. She totally did it on purpose to get sympathy and make Ripley feel responsible for her. She’s the worst. Hate the little-kid-as-reminder-that-humanity-is-worth-saving. Jonesy for life.

Sean: What about when she was like, “Ah-few-mat-tibs”? That’s her catchphrase.

Kristine: If she’s supposed to be portrayed as a developmentally-disabled child, then I apologize, but she is intolerable and far too old to have such poor enunciation.

Sean: “Dewe dead! Awwight? Ked I go now?”

Kristine: She was the only survivor because she’s a conniving little opportunist.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: This movie either has too many ideas or not enough – I don’t know which and I am too depressed to figure it out AND This movie IS the 80s

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Pop perfection AND This movie IS the 80s AND As feminist as you’d think

5 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: James Cameron’s Aliens (1986)

  1. Loved this when I saw it at the cinema, on release. Went three or four times, I think.
    Re-watched recently, and was a bit disappointed – it shows its age a lot more than ‘Alien’, which is far superior. Not sure how anyone could rate this higher than ‘Alien’, maybe not enough action in the original, for most viewers?
    Oh yeah, where did that ‘that Gothic moment’ still come from? I don’t recall seeing that in the film – doesn’t it cut away before we see the Alien?

  2. What’s so impressive about the space marines is that, despite the fact that they are basically a pack of red shirts, they all have distinct personalities to the point that, even 20+ years later, audiences can remember who was who.

    The marines are also a nice reminder of how post-Vietnam syndrome ruled so much of 80s action cinema.

  3. Quick correction: the “Illegal aliens” line by Hudson had nothing to do with 80s politics but was actually an inside joke amongst the cast. When Jennette Goldstein auditioned for the movie she incorrectly thought it had to do with illegal aliens, so she came dressed in ethnic attire. She still earned the role, but the cast still found a way to poke fun at her in the film.

  4. Great conversation about the movie. Love morse88’s comment too, I had no idea. It seems rare to see a highly feminist action movie in the 80’s. Feel like this type of film is hope for a lot of people who are jaded by the notion of male-dominated Hollywood.

    I felt like Newt was talking with a british accent at some points in the movie, and you were mentioning she had problems with speech. I thought she was a british actor and had trouble nailing down an american accent. Then I find the actress Carrie Henn is from florida…Hmm….

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