Though considered a classic, James Cameron’s Aliens isn’t without its critics. A sequel to Alien, one of the most persistent criticisms of Cameron’s film was that it de-mystified the creature. Its approach is said to lack the personality of the original beast, dumbing it down to an unintelligent animal that more closely resembled an insect. While certainly an issue found in various comic book and game adaptations released in the film’s wake, is Cameron’s film guilty of the same thing?
THE ORIGINAL CREATURE
The creature in Alien was a bio-mechanical nightmare, made all the more imposing by the subliminal sexual imagery instilled by designer H.R. Giger. The Alien was representative of fears like sexual violation, making its stalking the characters doubly unsettling. Dan O’Bannon spoke of this in the Alien Saga documentary, viewing the alien’s life cycle as being very sexual, and thus, a great way to make his audience uncomfortable.
The whole thing was supposed to be about the sexual life cycle of the Alien. One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex. Everybody is always all in a knot about sex. I said that’s how I’m gonna attack the audience. I’m gonna attack them sexually.
Design wise, it was difficult for the audience to put their finger on just what they were looking at, one of the reasons the creature lives up to its title so well. The original film had one monster hiding in the dark. Aliens shined a light into those shadows, revealing there was more than one monster waiting there.
THIS TIME THERE’S MORE
The first big difference with Alien and Aliens is the number of creatures. Alien was more of a slasher film, much like Halloween, with a single monster picking off the crew one by one. Aliens on the other hand was a siege film, featuring no less than 157 monsters. Gone were scenes of a single dark entity stalking the corridors. The second film set loose an entire civilization of bio-mechanical horrors.
Siege stories are well suited for horror and suspense. One particular example, John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, bears a strong resemblance to Aliens. Not only does it similarly blend horror with small bits of action, but the villainous street gag is developed in an identical fashion to the Aliens. Rather than focus on individual gang-members, the film instead makes the entire hoard into a single character.
One of the things that made the original creature so frightening was its power as an individual. Still, the sequel’s approach has plenty of merit. The characters are just as isolated as in the original, but instead of being surrounded by space, now it’s the Alien itself that’s everywhere. H.R. Giger, while initially put off by the idea, gradually warmed up to the approach of the sequel.
Aliens was also terrific. I am sorry I was not asked to work on it. At first I thought ‘this is like a war film,’ but it is really powerful.
THE INSECT INFLUENCE
Though often attributed to Cameron, the insect influence was part of the creature from the very beginning. Insects were, by Giger’s own admission, one of the most critical design aspects of the beast. In an interview with the magazine Cinefex, seven years prior to Aliens, he had this to day about his iconic work.
We decided to make a very elegant creature: quick, and like an insect.
It was this aspect that initially appealed to Ridley Scott after Dan O’Bannon showed him Giger’s Necronom IV. Scott described the creature design as ‘like a rather beautiful humanoid bio-mechanical insect.’ He talked about this in a 1991 interview for The Alien Saga.
I wanted him [the Alien] to be insect-like. Like an ant. Because if you examine an ant under a microscope they’re kind of elegant, and I wanted him to be very elegant and dangerous.
One of the creature’s most famous and frightening aspects is its reproductive cycle. It was the idea of a parasitic time bomb inside a human host that caught Walter Hill’s attention, saving Alien from becoming a low budget B movie. While O’Bannon commented on the sexual nature of the life cycle, he and Shusett reached this inspired idea by studying parasitic insects. Dan O’Bannon talked about this in his reflective essay, Something Perfectly Disgusting.
I also patterned the Alien’s life cycle on real-life parasites … parasitic wasps treat caterpillars in an altogether revolting manner, the study of which I recommend to anyone tired of having good dreams…
Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett compared the Alien specifically to the paralyzing wasp. This species of wasp operates similar to the alien, immobilizing spiders before laying their eggs inside. The eggs grow, eventually bursting out and killing the host. O’Bannon and Shusett scaled up this unsettling idea, added some of the sexual subtexts, and applied it to a human host. Shusett talked about the decision to Cinefantastique.
It was our idea that it would be the life cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyze it, and lay its eggs in the spider …. We thought people might pick up on it and say, ‘yeah, an Alien life cycle can be an insect life cycle.
Though insects were looked to for inspiration since the original film, traits common in mammals and reptiles are equally prevalent. Insects for example are all invertebrates, yet the Alien possesses a spine like a mammal or a reptile. The end result was a kind of chimera of our darkest fears. In such a monster, insects are a valuable component. But, with the addition of the Alien Queen, did Cameron take a once subtle trait and make it a little too obvious?
The biggest addition in Aliens is the Queen, responsible for laying the eggs. The Queen was designed by Cameron himself largely out of necessity. With a largely faceless hoard as his antagonist, Cameron needed a unique creature to serve as his final villain. Also the theatrical cut of Alien didn’t explain how the eggs could have come from a creature too small to lay them. The original intent wasn’t revealed until much later.
In the 2003 director’s cut of Alien, a restored scene seemed to show the Alien didn’t lay eggs, but made them out of its victims. This process was dubbed ‘egg morphing’ by fans. Since the release of this scene, many were disappointed it wasn’t expanded on in the sequel. Cameron commented on the sequence, which wasn’t available publicly at the time of Aliens.
What you saw in the film was a thousand eggs. One of them hatches, one of them goes through its life cycle, becomes an adult, and is killed. There is no connection between the adult and the future eggs. Now in the scene that was apparently shot and cut, and which I never saw, in which Tom Skerrit and Harry Dean Stanton are turning into eggs, that closed the cycle. But, to me, that was completely irrelevant to what you actually saw in the film.
Cameron later said had the scene been included, he would have tried something different.
Had the first film appeared in its complete form, then I would have had to take a different approach to the story.
Gale Anne Hurd has compared their approach to the creature as similar to termites, and by all appearances, the presence of a Queen seemingly rules out anything but insects. However, there are numerous examples of such societies outside the insect kingdom. Even mammals, most notably the naked mole rat, have nests with a single fertile queen. Aside from that, there’s not a lot about naked mole rats, or ants and termites, that resembles the Alien.
Aesthetically, the Queen is a thing of beauty. Using Giger as his palette, including such paintings as Giger’s The Spell III, Cameron takes the original creature and expands on it. The end result combines both Cameron’s and Giger’s talents to create a wholly new monstrosity. Giger himself lent his compliments in numerous interviews. While he didn’t like the ridged appearance of the Warrior, he did say he ‘loved the Alien Queen designed by James Cameron.’
The Alien Queen is also nice. She’s a bit smaller in the face than my alien but my basic design was very well studied. She was frighteningly well animated.
In spite of the Queen, Aliens does try to stick with the spirit of the original with insects being just one of the creature’s many traits. While Hudson compares the creatures to ants, Vasquez harshly retorts that he’s a fool.
These things ain’t ants, estupido.
So the insect influence has been covered, but what about other criticisms of the creature’s portrayal? Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, the Colonial Marines have a limited arsenal to defend themselves with. Regularly they face off against the monsters with high powered weaponry, successfully killing several Aliens. Many have said this makes the creature appear weak, whereas the beast in the original seemed almost indestructible. But how fair is this?
While certainly threatening, the original Alien was hardly indestructible. It is shown to react painfully to blasts of superheated air. Even more telling is Ripley’s final close quarters fight with the monster. In this standoff, Ripley fights the creature off with a harpoon gun, shooting it in the chest. As it’s ejected out the airlock, a large splash of acid blood is visible, showing even the original Alien could be hurt by low velocity projectiles. If a harpoon gun could work, the weapons of the Marines should be pretty effective.
One must remember that the Marine Pulse Rifle is a powerful weapon, with armor piercing bullets topped with explosive tips, designed to penetrate their targets and then explode. It’s the explosion, not the piercing, that does the damage. Even for an acid-bleeding horror beyond the stars, a weapon like that will punch hard. But while the Pulse Rifle seems reliable, most other weapons fall short.
Smaller arms fire like pistols aren’t nearly as effective. Shotguns and pistols only work at extremely close range. When the characters attempt to fire from greater distances, these weaker attacks bounce harmlessly off the creature’s hardened skin. This is seen briefly during the ventilation chase sequence. The creature’s skin may not be completely impenetrable, but it’s a lot tougher than ours.
Still, none of this matters if the creature isn’t an effective villain. Given a large number of creatures are killed by the Marines, it’s easy to dismiss the Alien as dumb cannon fodder. However, this misses a methodical intelligence seen in the Alien’s society. The film’s most telling moment is also one of its most iconic. As the heroes plan their escape, the lights suddenly flicker out, leading Ripley to a startling conclusion.
They cut the power.
The implications of this one moment are staggering. The Aliens, by means still unexplored, somehow learned they needed to cut the electricity to reach the survivors. Power at the colony was still active when the Marines arrived, so the Aliens hadn’t yet tried this against the less prepared, largely unarmed colonists. In facing this new, more capable enemy, the Alien shows an ability to learn, sabotaging a complex piece of technology to improve its chances.
In the face of a formidable foe, the Aliens still slaughter the competition. They adopt new strategies when challenged. When characters place motion sensitive gun turrets in a few key corridors, instead of attacking blindly, the Aliens fall back and rethink their plan. Rather than attack up front as before, they find a way inside that even the heroes somehow missed, bypassing the barriers and attacking from above. Coming in waves from all directions, this final assault proves devastating, nearly scoring the creatures a decisive victory. When Newt said the Marines ‘won’t make any difference,’ she was nearly right.
The Alien even learns how to use technology. On two occasions, on the dropship and during the final siege, doors are shown opening for the creature without being used by people. This is significant as the doors to the colony and dropship are not motion sensitive, but panel operated. This strongly suggests that the Aliens know how to use doors, later confirmed when the Queen learns how to use an elevator. Though not impervious to bullets, Aliens still shows these creatures have capabilities the scope of which we still don’t know.
To say Aliens ruined the creature not only ignores the intentions of the original creators, but also misses out on a remarkable film. Aliens revealed little more about the monster aside from the eggs being laid by a larger beast. What it did do was show the Alien as resourceful and effective against a technologically superior enemy. Such efforts didn’t undo the mystery of the original. It threw more mystery at the audience. In doing so, it showed how truly deadly the Alien could be.
Special thanks to our friends at Monster Legacy for their help in preparing this article. Be sure to give them a visit.
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