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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Retro Nostalgia: Aliens (1986) and Ripley's Maternities (Some Rambly Thoughts)

(What follows are some random thoughts I had while re-watching James Cameron's Aliens.  I'd love to open up a nice discussion about the film, so feel free to leave a comment agreeing/disagreeing with or adding to my argument(s).)

I've always loved the relationship between Ripley and Hicks.  Obviously, it's implied that there's a significant romantic link between them, but the film makes light of it through jokes, in part so the very real problem -- survival in the face of certain death -- never falls prey to the romantic narrative underneath.  And there's also a sense -- for me, anyway -- that Ripley and Hicks don't
actually have to develop a romantic relationship for there to be something between them.
A lot of people also read Aliens as a narrative about maternity.  I've started to think about the narrative as a metaphor for unexpected parenthood (and child mortality), too.  If you think about it, the first chunk of the film focuses on Ripley's return to the world; one of the reveals is the death of her child, whose death she cannot prevent.  While an inaccurate metaphor for infant mortality or some equally naturalistic death of one's child, these sections of the film seem remarkably like a story about a parent dealing with the death of a child.  In this interpretation, Burke takes the form of a father (I can't think of a single mention of the biological father of Ripley's daughter, so I assume one of the two is out of the picture -- probably Ripley, which is unusual in the real world).  Since Burke represents Ripley for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who seem to be the ones in control of everything, he also acts as a kind of father figure in the remotest sense.  Her relationship with him, as such, is strained by his link to the Company and to her past (i.e., the death of her child, etc.).  I also think there's something profoundly disturbing to read into Burke's actions near the end of the film, in which he tries to infect/impregnate Newt and Ripley with xenomorphs (a rape and child abuse metaphor?).

The other maternity narrative is one we've all probably heard before:  Ripley's "adoption" of Newt.  I think of Newt not necessarily as the adopted child in a traditional sense, but more as a discovery of a child you didn't know you had.  Ripley jumps into the role of mother figure quite naturally (she is technically a mother, after all), but she also seems to acknowledge the distance between them.  These two elements suggest to me that Newt is supposed to take the place of an unexpected child.  But I'll admit that this idea is not as thought out as I would like.
I won't suggest that Aliens is a perfect film from a feminist perspective, but it's hard to imagine it as anything else.  Every aspect of the narrative involves questions about the place of women in worlds that for so long have been the domain of men.  After all, in 1986, women didn't serve in combat positions in the U.S.  In Aliens, they do (even Ripley, though she sort of gets roped into it).  Women are shown doing a lot of things our culture likes to tell them they can't do.  They can have children and work jobs "meant for men."  They can serve in the military, use weapons or heavy machinery, fly complicated aircraft, fight for themselves, and on and on and on.  True, most of the women die in this movie, but so do most of the men.  This is one of the reasons why I love this movie.  It doesn't pander to a masculine audience in the same way as other SF action movies.  Ripley isn't eye candy here.  She doesn't run around bending over so you can see her toned abs or the curves of her breasts or her toosh or whatever (not that she's not physically attractive, mind, but most of the characters in this movie end up covered in filth and wounds; the whole Megan-Fox-bends-over-a-car-so-we-can-stare-and-her-tumtum wouldn't make any sense in that context).  If anything, what makes Ripley such an attractive character is the fact that she is a character.  And, honestly, I think she's probably the greatest female protagonist in all of science fiction.

But maybe I'm stretching with that last statement...


Note:  I may return to this film for the Retro Nostalgia feature.  Keep an eye out for that.

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  1. Anonymous7:59 PM

    I agree with most of your post, especially your assessment of Sigourney Weaver's performance. Outstanding! Yes, this is a film about maternity and how Ripley takes on the role most naturally. One beautiful director's shot is immediately after Hicks saves Newt and Ripley - the three of them embraced in the moment suggests to me they are indeed a family. I only think of Burke as a continuation of Ash though and nothing more, with much to hide. And I think in this interpretation what they did was expand on the most important element of "Alien" in which Ripley's character truly comes to light - Ripley is a protector after all (a mother's most important function!) and she protects at every cost. She values her cat's life as much as her own. I love every facet of her character! Ms. Weaver was truly sublime in this.

  2. Anonymous10:56 PM

    Was thinking she deserves a much broader category than that of "all of science fiction" :)