Sigourney Weaver as ‘Ellen Ripley’ in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
Watching Aliens on TV right now. This movie holds up so damn well over time.
I think people forget how important Aliens was to pop culture.
Most sci-fi action movies and games look they way they do because of the art direction and production design of Aliens. (The first movie, Alien, borrowed a lot of its look from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
The success of Sigourney Weaver’s Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Ellen Ripley in Aliens created roles for strong women in Hollywood action movies. It preceded a cultural shift in America, past second wave feminism and towards a world where we were allowed to celebrate women who rocked. Ripley also became the archetype for James Cameron’s later characters of Sarah Connor (Terminator 2), and Max Guevara (Dark Angel). I’d even argue confidently that Ripley laid the groundwork for all of Joss Whedon’s sci-fi asskickers from Buffy to River Tam.
Also: Paul Riser’s greedy, conniving “Burke” was the perfect foil for a 1980’s America pissed off at the greed of yuppies who seemed to value profits over humanity.
I’ve read board posts where people describe the dialogue and tropes of Aliens as cliché — the sci-fi movie with the false ending, the badass military Latina soldier, lines like “game over man, game over” — but most of this is ignorant of pop culture history. You have to remember that many of these elements became tropes because everybody copied them from Aliens.
Also: Alien 3 is still a huge fucking disappointment.
This is the legacy of Aliens. It’s a seminal film - though Kenyatta and I seem to disagree on whether Alien or Aliens is a better movie (spoiler alert: I think Alien is - but I also love the claustrophobic feeling of confined filmmaking) and to what degree Alien borrowed from 2001, versus to what degree Aliens borrowed from Alien (I think there’s a lot more of Geiger in Alien than there is 2001, and I think Aliens took that Geiger and simply ran with it.)
However, Aliens did literally create and then define a genre of film, and then it simultaneously defined the tropes and archetypes of that genre so well that they’ve almost never deviated. Additionally, it created a new style of female protagonist that was unapologetically awesome, completely modern and unlike anyone else in contemporary media. Also worth reiterating, James Cameron wrote and directed it, so all of this was his defining vision (presumably) from start to finish.
So I mostly agree with all of this…with the possible exception of the last line.
Now to be fair, I’m also disappointed in Alien 3, but I’d like to expand on why. The film David Fincher intended to shoot was ballsy. It was a throwback to the intimacy and organic claustrophobia of Alien. It treated Aliens like The Empire Strikes Back, and openly recognized that the entire trilogy was actually the story of Ripley and the inevitability of her solitude. She is, without getting into hyperbole, the loneliest woman in the universe. She has seen and survived things that no one else has; this is her strength and her weakness.
From that standpoint, Alien 3 attempted to finish her story of being fated to a life of solitude, survival, loss, and never knowing anything more than pyrrhic victories. In fact, fate versus free will (especially within the contexts of class and religion) was a big theme running through the whole film.
But where Aliens was a sequel trusted to the singular vision of one writer/director, Alien 3 was now a “franchise film,” subject to meddling, studio-mandated script changes, and production infighting. The best description I can think of is that David Fincher set out to make a sequel to Alien - a film that was claustrophobic, thoughtful and lonely - but the powers that be wanted Aliens 2.
The film was co-opted and then edited to be…well, awful. The film cobbled together for the Alien
Quadrilogy Anthology from the husks of what Fincher shot and what made it into the theatrical version is…well, it’s okay. There’s a lot of potential, but it’s still uneven. It’s certainly miles ahead of Alien: Resurrection, which was nigh unwatchable.
But I do have a soft spot in my heart for the film nonetheless. I consider it the final leg of Ripley’s dramatic arc. Her tragic final act, if you will, and a fitting end to her character. When taken out of the context of any other Alien sequels, it’s a recognition of the importance of her character, and it treats her with the respect that she deserves without shying away from the inevitability of her fate.
Her final act is a sad - albeit selfless - end and the one time in the three films she’s ever, truly been in control of her own fate. She takes back control over her life by ending it in defiance of the Xenomorphs and the corporation that have combined and conspired to haunt her for unknowable years now; and the relief on her face is the last image we have of her life, her journey, and her fate.
It’s beautiful, really. Flawed beauty, but beauty nonetheless.
…Of course, then they made a fourth film.
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