James Cameron’s Aliens is a rare breed of sequel, one that manages to be a worthy successor to the original but still maintain its own identity. Expanding on the universe of the original, Cameron’s film revealed more about the creature, and included what fans have assumed for years was the monster’s proper name. The name ‘xenomorph’ has appeared in numerous incarnations of the series such as comics, video games, collectible figures, and more. However, further inspection reveals that the inclusion of the name was for a very different purpose.
The supposed naming of the creature comes early in the film, shortly before Ripley and the Marines embark on their ill fated mission. The line is uttered by Lt. Gorman, played by William Hope, as he briefs his squad before their departure.
All we know is that there’s still no contact with the colony and that a xenomorph may be involved.
When one of the Marines asks what he means, Gorman repeats himself:
Since this moment, pretty much everything in the expanded universe uses ‘xenomorph as the name for everyone’s favorite cosmic horror of acid-bleeding death. It has even appeared in some of the film’s direct sequels. The Assembly Cut of Alien 3 for instance has Ripley refer to the creature as a xenomorph. Yet, this line was never intended as an official name for the monster. To understand why, you need only look at the word’s meaning.
WHAT IT MEANS
‘Xenomorph’ is a Greek construct. ‘Xeno’ translates to ‘Strange’ or ‘Foreign’ and ‘Morph’ translates to ‘Form’ or ‘Shape,’. Translated, the literal meaning of the term ‘xenomorph’ means ‘strange shape’ or ‘foreign form.’ In other words, it’s just a fancy way of saying ‘unknown life form,’ which could apply to any extraterrestrial creature, not just the monster Ripley fought in the first movie.
It literally just means ‘alien.’
A lot of you will be scratching your heads by now. You’re no doubt thinking ‘Well if that’s all it means, why not just say ‘alien?’ The answer is this moment was never really about the Alien. It was character development for Gorman.
Gorman bears a lot of responsibility for the hardships the characters face, mainly due to his lack of leadership skills. The Lieutenant is not well liked or respected by the other marines, which we see before the mission even begins. Hicks remarks that the Lieutenant thinks he’s too good to eat with his soldiers, and he even misidentifies Hudson as Hicks, leaving a bad first impression during an important briefing. The troops respect Sgt. Apone a lot more, even though Gorman has a higher rank. After-all, he’s only been on two combat drops – including this one.
Throughout the film, Gorman shows poor judgement. He claims an area is secure after only one light sweep, shows a complete lack of awareness in how his weapons can overload the atmosphere processor, and when the monsters first appear and his troops need him most, he freezes up, leaving Ripley to do the rescuing for him. Gorman is a weak character, and he knows it. Because of that, he finds various ways to overcompensate. The briefing is such a moment.
The briefing is Gorman’s first opportunity to assert his authority, and he wants to show off in a big way. He starts off strong with a nice commanding presence, but his blunder with Hudson undoes any credibility he’d built up to that point. Wanting to save face, Gorman uses the word ‘xenomorph’ in an ineffective attempt to appear smarter. It ironically has the opposite effect. The line makes him look vain, pretentious, and as the late Frost would say, like he’s got a corncob up his ass.
Gorman’s use of the word is a part of a show he puts on to hide his weaknesses, which makes this a very fascinating scene in terms of character development. A weak leader tries to mask his ineptitude by putting on a performance. When duty actually calls, he inevitably comes up short. But many creators of the EU took a more basic reading of the scene. They believed it was intended as a name for the monster, and the rest is history.
The use of ‘xenomorph’ as the creature’s name gained a lot of traction in the mid to late 90s, especially with the release of several tie in video games like the 1999 Aliens vs. Predator. Just last weekend I took a stroll down to our local comic book shop. Nestled in with the figures were several toys based on the Alien-verse. Figures of the creature still bear the name first uttered by William Hope in 1986.
Many that I know have expressed disdain for the name, and even blamed James Cameron for its spread. This isn’t entirely fair however. It’s not his fault if someone didn’t understand the true purpose of Gorman’s line in the briefing. It seemed like this name would be around forever, but there are signs that people are catching on. The excellent Alien: Isolation for instance didn’t refer to its monster by the divisive title, which for many was a small but nonetheless welcome touch.
Will realizing this make any difference? Perhaps it will and perhaps it won’t. For now, ‘xenomorph’ seems to have stuck like a nickname for a friend or favorite pet. Whether or not it’s a good nickname is subject to some debate. Some love it. Others hate it. Others couldn’t care less. Personally, knowing the proper context for the name does make it a little irritating to hear it misused so constantly, but misquotes and misunderstandings are common in a medium with such wide appeal. Will someone finally set the record straight and bring an end to this name being misused? I hope so.
Oh, and before we go, ‘bug hunt’ was just Hudson’s way of saying ‘wild goose chase.’ So let’s stop calling the Alien a ‘bug,’ shall we?
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