A child, Newt, clinging to Ripley. image credit: 20th Century Fox

Movie Review: Aliens (1986) ***

In the sequel to Alien (1979), our story brings us back to Ripley some fifty-seven years after she entered stasis. It turns out colonists have settled the Zeta Reticuli planet where she initially encountered the alien. She returns with a group of Colonial Marines when the colonists disappear. She plans to exterminate the aliens they find, but of course the corporation does not, and hijinks ensue.

I’m still trying to parse my negative reaction to the movie. I can recognize many good points in it: Sigourney Weaver is great, the action scenes with Ripley vs the Queen are very enjoyable, and the aesthetic surrounding the aliens is still delicious. Yet I found myself largely bored and annoyed while I was actually watching it.

I knew to expect an action movie rather than horror this time around. I do vastly prefer horror. But one of my favorite infinite-rewatch movies is Die Hard (1988), so I had good reason to suspect I wouldn’t mind the shift in genre. Aliens lacks the engaging dialogue and methodically escalated stakes of Die Hard. You really can’t understate how much the dynamic between McClain and Gruber pulls the movie along. As cool as the Xenomorph queen looks, she lacks the gravitas of Alan Rickman. Carter Burke, the resident Weyland-Yutani wiener who serves as primary antagonist for much of the movie, is not all that interesting either.

So Die Hard wasn’t a good comparison (and Aliens couldn’t have been in conversation with it, as Die Hard came two years later).

It seems likelier that Aliens was some kind of improvement over older action movies. It earned quite a bit of cultural cachet in its time, including memes that have persisted to this day (“nuke it from orbit”), so something here hit hard. I just don’t know what. I’m just not all that familiar with its subgenre. I’m guessing that having a woman-led action movie by the guy who wrote Rambo II and Terminator was exciting.

And boy, is Ripley a woman in Aliens. She was androgynous in the first movie. Themes of reproduction weren’t especially played up then. By the time Aliens comes around, they’ve left Ripley’s cat somewhere safe (thankfully) and replaced her with a small child, whose nurturing falls exclusively on Ripley’s shoulders. Ripley is also put against an alien mother as her ultimate foe. The woman-as-childbearer aspect has been pulled into focus. I vaguely recall the few later-franchise movies I saw, and it seems the reproductive stuff only gets increasing importance.

Believe it or not, this came out only twelve years after women could have credit cards under their names in America, so I can appreciate how second wave feminism might have enjoyed it.

The Marines were generally obnoxious, though. The action scenes with the Marines in them were muddy and incoherent — possibly as a way to emphasize the emotional chaos of the situation — and their machismo leading into the battles got tiring. I suspect some of what I “missed” may be an expectation the Marines would be more useful, better-regarded, and survive even a little bit. Without that expectation, there was very little pleasure in watching them fall apart.

I really suspect I need to revisit this movie as part of a bigger self-education on 80s action movies. It will probably come across better that way. In the meantime, I am comfortable rating it three stars because Sigourney Weaver did her job excellently, “Chekhov’s Mech Suit” was fun (as my child termed it), and I really do always love the alien aesthetic.

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