How 'Aliens' Gave Birth to the Modern Action Movie
Aliens wasn't just a kickass sci-fi flick; it was also a template for modern action heroines
Back in the mid-80s, action heroes were predominantly (if not almost completely) male. But in this video essay by Fandor's Leigh Singer, we get to explore how Aliens, James Cameron's pluralized sequel to 1979's classic is arguably, the mother of all action movies, and the protagonist, Ripley, the mother of hardcore action heroines.
Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi action movie Alien was one of the most innovative sci-fi flicks ever made, not least for its, in the words of Leigh Singer's essay for Fandor, "run-down...'trucks in space aesthetic.'" That was a deliberate move on the part of screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, who said in an interview, regarding the film's luck in being made, that is was almost entirely due to Star Wars.
"They [Fox, who had released Star Wars] wanted to follow through very rapidly (with another movie). The only thing that resembled that was my script. It was a spaceship movie and it was lying on Alan Ladd Jr.’s desk.”
Written in a low-budget aesthetic, and deliberately contravening the shiny aesthetic of most space movies, the script, Scott's underexposure, as well as the lack of a reveal of the full monster led not only to suspense, but budgetary savings. The film was, superstitiously, released on the same day Star Wars had been, May 25th.
Seven years later, Terminator director James Cameron made a run at the sequel, though he turned in, as Singer notes, "anything but a clone." In fact, she puts it that Cameron's key success with the sequel was the way the film "explor[ed] and expand[ed] its predecessor’s mythology, while getting even further under the skin of an already fascinating protagonist. For all its patiently mounted tension and relentless adrenalized action, what makes Aliens so much more than just a thrillingly rendered, “purely visceral” sci-fi war movie, is what writer-director Cameron—and star Sigourney Weaver—do with ex-Warrant Officer Ripley."
Aliens, even more than its predecessor, tackles the questions: "How do you depict a female lead in a male dominated genre?" In the original and sequel, she is presented, the video essay argues, as a variant on the "final girl" trope familiar from horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. But, by changing the genre to sci-fi action, Ripley couldn't just be independent, resilient and resourceful. In an era of hyper-macho action stars (like, well, Cameron's Terminator), she had to be something more. And that something more, according to the essay, is a mother.
As the film begins, she is a wreck, traumatized by the events of the final film, and what's worse, because she has been in floating stasis for 57 years, her daughter has grown up, grown old, and died. The movie lets tough-as-nails Ripley redeem her motherhood through the character of the orphaned Newt.
Furthermore, in the future corporatist state depicted in the film, Ripley is subjected to a subversion of the "male gaze," though this one comes from other women, who have been, along with the men, turned into corporate wage-slaves, stripped of human feeling. The way Cameron solves the main problem of the film, which is how to reconcile Ripley's maternal side with her action-hero side, is to put her up against the egg-laying Queen Alien, who is, in Singer's words, the "toughest, smartest female of the species." Each seeks to "protect their young from an alien mother."
And, while some have criticized the film as being "conservative," for the presence of quasi love-interest Hicks, which completes a sort of nuclear family, that idea underestimates Ripley's "take-charge attitude, cool professionalism, and destructive rage," and when the two arcs, Ripley's motherhood and her need to destroy the alien threat, are brought together, what the audience is left with, besides a kick-ass movie, is the template for modern action heroines, from Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, to Sarah Connor in T2 (another Cameron film), and Angela Basset's Mace in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, along with countless other female action heroes.
This essay is fascinating for the light it shines on one film's importance in creating a modern cinematic archetype.