Aliens: AaAaAaRrrggggh

I last saw Aliens on the big screen probably when it came out in 1986. I’d seen it multiple times since on video/DVD, but the cinema experience is different – and not just that the screen is much bigger and the details are a lot clearer.

But last night I saw Aliens at the Filmhouse. And it was great.

I’m just going to assume that everyone knows what happens and so there can’t be any spoilers. It’s been 26 years. Surely? Right?

Quick summary: Ripley, suffering from Hollywood PTSD as a result of her first encounter with the aliens which killed all her crew but her, agrees to take part in a military expedition back to the world where she and her crew picked up the original alien. There are two civilian advisers: Ripley and Burke, a Company man. The Marines are clearly an experienced group, but they have a very new and not very competent Lieutenant. There’s also an android named Bishop.

Interesting thing is that I remember not getting large chunks of the Marines narrative the first time through: I think this was the very first fictional depiction of US Marines I’d ever seen (in space or out of it). Now of course 26 years later I know no more about the US Marine Corps than I did then, but I have seen and read substantially more fictional narratives, and the internal narrative of the sub-story (a troop of Marines with an experienced Sergeant and an inexperienced Lieutenant go after aliens and eventually almost all get killed) was much clearer to me now.

At the colony they discover the only survivor is a little girl called Newt. They go after the alien nest, most of the Marines are killed – and the original landing shuttle has crashed when an alien got on board and killed the pilot. They bring in another shuttle by autopilot but the aliens attack, killing or seriously injuring all of the first group of survivors but Ripley and Newt.

The Filmhouse did a week-long showing of Alien which I missed, on account of being distracted by work and other things when it was on. I have never seen Alien on the big screen, because in 1979 I would have been too young to get in.

But famously (in some circles) that’s the first movie identified as passing the Bechdel Test. Alison Bechdel credits this test to her friend Liz Wallace, but it first appeared in the Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip by Bechdel in 1985.

A film passes the Bechdel Test if:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something other than a man.

Surprisingly few movies pass this test, but three out of the four Aliens movies do. In Aliens there are four named women characters – two Marines, Ripley, and Newt: and the Bechdel moments in Aliens are when Dietrich and Vasquez talk to each other about Ripley (Dietrich is the cool Marine pilot who flies the first lander) and when Ripley talks to Vasquez about the monster: and of course Ripley and Newt talking to each other. (I didn’t find out for years that in the original full-length version, Ripley had a daughter who was Newt’s age when Ripley left and who was dead by the time Ripley returned.)

The first thing I hadn’t remembered properly about Aliens – it is freaking scary. There’s a natural break in the narrative after the first set of deaths when they’re all back at the colony base frantically looking at the floorplans and architecture and sealing up every route from the power station where the aliens are breeding. At that point, watching the film on DVD, you might press pause, make a cup of tea, figure that nothing too exciting is going to happen for a while.

As Bishop drops into the access tunnel and starts crawling to the outside to bring the second lander down by remote control, I was aware that there was a lot of time to go, a whole bunch of awful things had to happen, and there was no way out. There’s a panicked, claustrophobic feeling just by being in the middle of the row in a crowded cinema. I wasn’t bored. I was freaking terrified.

There was one section of the showing where we got a lot of black specks on the film and somewhere about Reel Six (a more expert cinema-goer than me told me via Twitter) a missing sprocket meant that some of the most dramatic scenes in the movie took place with a large displaced section from the top at the foot of the screen.

I’m guessing that one reason Newt survived for so long alone isn’t just that she picked a good hiding place with no easy access for the aliens, but also that she’s small. She may have been the youngest child in the colony, and the aliens would have been selectively predating on the humans large enough to provide good hosting to the young. They would have taken Newt once there was no one left, but by that time she’d evidently got way good at dodging.

Plot failures that I did not notice the first time through or while watching it on TV: Mostly at the end.

I was reassuring myself in a panicked kind of way as Ripley went back into the near-critical nuclear power station to rescue Newt (which you can TELL is near-critical because of the HUGE SPARKS flashing around) that after all if she did get captured by aliens the whole place was going to turn into a cloud of gas in 15 minutes. Somehow that seemed like a comforting fate compared to having an alien fetus grow inside of you until it bursts out of your chest and kills you.

So when Ripley loses it in the middle of the room of freshly-laid eggs I thought okay, understandable (like losing her temper with Burke earlier) but not sensible. The eggs, whatever Marines and colonists are still living, and the mother alien herself and her offspring, are all going to die in less than fifteen minutes. If Ripley had hugged Newt a bit tighter and walked on out, they’d both have got out and the mother alien would have had no reason to follow.

Instead, Ripley – who has already started several fires on her way in to find Newt – starts her flame thrower and kills all the eggs. This is, in its way, as bad a decision as going back for the cat was in Alien.

Because that gets the mother alien (understandably) mad. She follows Ripley up the lift and clambers on to the shuttle and Does Not Die in vacuum (hm?) and kills Bishop just as he’s come over all big-eyed submissive and happy that he’s pleased Ripley.

I found a cartoon online, one of a series of “How MOVIE xxx should have ended!” and that clarified both of the points I have with the ending.

Bishop has been torn in half. The male love interest (Hicks) is out cold in the shuttle. Ripley shouts at Newt to run, and the little girl (sensibly enough) gets down under the floor rather than retreating into the shuttle where she’ll be trapped. Ripley goes for the huge power loader to battle the alien on equal terms: opens the airlock to drop the alien into space: the alien grabs the power loader and tugs it into the airlock with it: Ripley climbs out of the power loader and the alien grabs her by the ankle. Huge scene of air rushing out of lock tugging everything with it except, miraculously, Ripley.

One: why didn’t Ripley or Bishop or Newt think of checking that their surroundings are clear before leaving the shuttle? (Well, and why didn’t the earlier group – which included Burke, who presumably knew quite a bit about the colony station – think that the aliens could get to them above the ceiling?)

But two, in the final beatdown: the alien is much stronger than Ripley! Why would it ever lose its grip on her leg? If she can resist the pull of the airflow by just clinging with her elbow, why can’t it? And while on reflection I can see how Ripley could climb up despite the airflow (say the hold doors have closed to save the air in the rest of the ship and the hold itself is almost empty of air by the time she climbs, then the airflow would be much less and therefore possible for her to climb against – at the time ot just struck me as an Impossible. Alien should have pulled Ripley out with it, or should itself have been able to climb back up into the hold.

Just the end – which wipes out Bishop and allows Ripley one last moment of sheer terror and rage battling the alien with a heavy loader and the famous line “Get away from her, you bitch!” – isn’t as successful for me anymore.

But still. Freaking Scary Movie.


Filed under Film Reviews, Women

2 responses to “Aliens: AaAaAaRrrggggh

  1. Loquat

    One possibility: the alien queen may be strong in combat but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s good at gripping smaller things. It’s entirely possible that to her, holding on to Ripley’s ankle was as challenging as holding on to a large frog’s leg would be to a barehanded human.

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