Nuke It From Orbit: A Look Back at Aliens 35 Years Later

As I have mentioned previously, Aliens was a formative movie for me.

Guaranteed to make me smile.

In July 1986, when it was released, I had just finished my frosh year of college and was working my summer job in a computer classroom at my university. I had just played my first and only game of Assassin, had started playing a multi-player online dungeon game and had bailed out of a terrible D&D campaign, and was assisting with a class of local language teachers who wanted to build an online game that would help kids learn language skills. My 2 nearest and dearest friends were rising seniors at our high school, and I was driving us around to hang out at the mall, where we strolled between bookstores, played games in the arcade, and watched movies together.

While a number of memorable and iconic films came out that summer, I didn’t bother to see a lot of the ones folks would talk about subsequently (eg, Stand By Me, Blue Velvet, Platoon, and Top Gun), I was happily spending money seeing cheesy and/or SF movies, some of which stuck with me (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Big Trouble in Little China) and some of which did not (Crocodile Dundee, Flight of the Navigator, Highlander). But of them all, Aliens is the only movie I have seen something like fifty times, with probably 10 of those times being in the theater and the others on VHS and DVD. The only movie I’ve ever seen more times was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

It was an intense bonding experience with my friend S, who has seen it approximately twice as many times as I have since he owned the VHS (and his own player) as soon as it came out (he may have taped it off HBO or something, I can’t recall). We could recite practically the entire movie together. We had intense discussions about the biology of the xenomorphs and the human technology. We still make references to the movie even today.

I can’t really explain why 18-year-old me was so fascinated by this movie, though I can make some guesses. I showed it a few days ago to a dear friend who had never seen it, but who wanted to because it was important to me. I realized it was the first time I’d watched the movie in at least a decade, and probably only the second or third time I’ve watched the extended cut. And now my head is full of it again, so you get a giant post of my thinkythoughts, including reasons I was probably drawn into this film again and again.

I will say, if you’re worried about spoilers for a 35-year-old iconic-ass movie, you probably shouldn’t read any further.

What Went Before

An important data point, at least to me, is that I saw Aliens before I ever saw Alien. The first movie came out in 1979, when I was tweenish (though we did not, of course, have that term back then) and subject to my parents’ approval for seeing movies. While we had subsequently watched movies on VHS, Alien was not one that we rented and I had very little interest in a hardcore horror movie, despite it being set in space. I was well into my 20s before I saw the first movie.

For those who haven’t seen Alien, my synopsis is not nearly as succinct or pithy as Adam Shaftoe’s wife’s review, below.

Transcript: Soooooo I have been writing reviews for about ten years. My wife’s review of Alien puts everything I have ever written to shame. “Alien is a movie where nobody listens to the smart woman, and then they all die except for the smart woman and her cat. Four stars.”

Aliens does a good job of laying out the necessary backstory, though one point that I didn’t get originally was the actual role of the android in Alien and why Ripley was so angry that there was an android (Bishop) on the mission and hadn’t been told. In the first movie, Ash was masquerading as a human and was only revealed as an android later in the movie, when he reveals his orders were to ensure the survival of the xenomorph.

Another point that’s never really clarified is Ripley’s experience as an officer. Her rank on the Nostromo was “warrant officer,” which in the context of the Company is meaningless. The ship was nonmilitary, I suppose making it a merchant vessel, which means it should have a captain and a chain of command — which it did, as Ripley explicitly says that when the captain and first officer were off the ship, she was in command. Even in military contexts, the rank of warrant officer is blurry. In Aliens, she is discussed as a flight officer (and offered her license in return for “consulting” on the trip to LV-426). In any case, she clearly had experience with command, which came through when she took control of the initial debacle when the Marines went into the xenomorph hive.

I think one of the things that made Aliens such a success was the radical departure from the standard slasher horror tropes of Alien. In the first movie, Ripley is the Final Girl. With Aliens being far more of a shoot-em-up action film, Ripley is transformed from the hapless Final Girl into a grizzled expert and intensely competent commander.

Capitalism Destroys Everything

I remember the films of the 1980s as being the dawning of horror with the corporate machine. Yes, I’m aware of much earlier fights against corporations and the depiction of same in movies. The Pajama Game was a solid midcentury exemplar of blue collar workers fighting against the Rich Men who ran companies. But I think that the 1980s was when the anti-establishment themes of the 1960s and 1970s solidified into the dystopian cyberpunk concept of ruling corporations, where white collar workers were given 2 basic choices: be a mindless producer drone who is wrung dry or be a sociopath out to wring as much out of the Company as the Company wrings out of the worker.

Burke, the Company Guy, is such an iconic greedy sociopath that it was always hard to look at his actor in anything after Aliens. At the time, his sudden and inevitable betrayal (to paraphrase a later SF series) was indeed obvious — he reeked of skeeviness. But the words that come out of his mouth have been paraphrased and reiterated again and again in other movies and media about the Troubles With Corporations, so much so that in retrospect he is cartoonishly predictable. As with my experience with the original series of Star Trek, I’m left to wonder if Aliens was one of the major examples of the trope, informing later, more nuanced explorations, so that returning to the older media feels like the depiction is clumsy and over the top.

Isn’t that the most punchable face?

One of the restored sequences in the extended cut of Aliens is the review of Ripley’s story about what happened on the Nostromo. We are treated to a much longer scene of the Company review committee refusing to believe Ripley and stripping her of her flight officer certification. The thing that occurred to me is: why does anyone care that she destroyed the Nostromo beyond why she decided to do so? They wrote off the ship and its crew as a loss 5 decades ago. Why are they punishing her for a “crime” that occurred before most of them were born? And more importantly, why are they lightly discarding someone with years of education and experience. I mean, yes, after 57 years, she’s a wee tad out of date on technology anyway, but presumably if they wanted her, they could bring her up to date. Is it just misogyny at work? Did whoever ordered Ash to preserve the xenomorph 57 years earlier leave any kind of trail that the corporates wanted to keep as an option? Or were they, like Burke, working a side hustle to try to make it big at the Company and any record was destroyed with Ash and the Nostromo?

Smoking? In This Economy?

Ripley’s PTSD cigarette.

I had forgotten how ubiquitous smoking still was at the time. (Despite my spending most of 1992 marinating in my coworkers’ cigarette smoke.) Smoking onboard ship seems… counterproductive to maintenance of life support, honestly. But Ripley needed that lighter in her pocket during the scene in Medical after Burke’s betrayal. It was one of those nice little points that was set up early and came through in a pinch, but I have to wonder if anyone today would think of it outside a period piece.

So Many Dykes, So Little Screen Time

I know, absolutely, that one of the things that drew me to Aliens was Private Vasquez, as well as the other briefly-seen women Marines (Corporal Dietrich and Corporal Ferro). The thing is, in the mid-1980s, all 3 were absolutely coded as dykes by their haircuts. Vasquez, who has the most screentime of all of them, has a pronounced butch cut. Dietrich, who has the least screentime of the 3 women, also had a short butch cut.

Cpl Dietrich with Newt.

On closer examination, Ferro’s hair is slicked back and probably in a tight braid. Given Vasquez’s and Dietrich’s butch cuts, and Ferro’s fleeting screentime sans helmet, it was easy to assume her hair was likewise butched.

Cpl Ferro, left, and PFC Vasquez, right (Private Drake behind).

Do not come at me with the whole “women in the military” idea. Women marines are permitted to have hair to shoulder length. In the mid-1980s, butching their hair was absolutely coding them as lesbians. With Vasquez, we even have typical “you’re too masculine” anti-butch snark aimed at her by Hudson.

One could argue that Vasquez and Drake could be romantically involved — it’s probably what their broad-stroke characterization was hinting at. But, as my most recent recipient of Aliens viewing noted, it’s a lot more likely that they were close shitfriends. If one were to follow the general trend of military SF books (as established, for instance, by Heinlein, if memory serves), they probably slept together with zero strings attached, and Vasquez was probably also hooking up with Ferro, who is basically the only other Marine she seems to interact with positively.

Given how few butches are present in modern-day film and TV, you can imagine exactly how many butches were around on film or TV in 1986. While I wasn’t entirely aware of my butchness back then, I was absolutely aware that I was a lesbian — I came out to someone the first time that summer, in fact.

Welcome to the Shitshow

On this rewatch, the military rah-rah prep/dropship/explore the spooky colony sequence feels like it has shaped pretty much all military SF movies, TV, and videogames since. Did anyone do a dropship in visual media before Aliens? I feel like most of what I saw in SF before this was Star Trek-inflected. Sure, maybe we have a shuttlecraft or smaller ship or fighter, but I’m guessing this crusty, grubby, military-grunt scenario is beholden to World War 2 movies — a difference between Navy/Air Force-informed SF and Army/Marines-informed SF perhaps.

The sequence of the squads moving into the hive and getting attacked has been replicated in various forms, particularly in videogames, ever since. The dim lighting, gritty industrial backdrops/textures, alien goo/trashed surroundings of the Bug Hunt is something I’ve seen this in a number of videogames, from Doom to Mass Effect. (This is aside from games that have explicit sources in the movie, like Halo.) My impression is that this has transferred over to the various zombie-fighting games as well. (Which makes sense, since zombies and the xenomorphs fit similar niches of personal invasion and conversion/bodily betrayal in Western consciousness.)

On this rewatch, I was a little more appalled by the friendly fire losses than I’d been previously. Like… didn’t their flamethrowers have safety switches on them? My impression of trained gun use is that the finger is never on the trigger unless the gun is actively being used. So why did Dietrich fire off her flamethrower at random? I suppose there’s symbolism in the white lady killing the black man, but I somehow doubt James Cameron’s ability to use subtlety in any form, especially in the 1980s. Misogyny is another guess — Dietrich was the woman who wouldn’t live, so she needed to be incompetent at her job somehow.

Honestly, the friendly fire aspect could have been eliminated — they’d underestimated the xenomorphs badly, they were flanked, and they were essentially disarmed. There didn’t need to be a firestorm to have the whole thing be a deadly shitshow of which Gorman lost control. So I’m a little ripshit about one of my butches being a mechanism of stupidity.

More misogyny at work: Gorman had to be literally KO’d (and Apone to be killed/kidnapped) for Ripley to gain control of the situation and save people. I suppose no one could think of a way for him to surrender control gracefully and keep his masculinity intact. Or something. By the time Gorman wakes up, he’s relegated to being another pair of hands, and basically the only things of note he does is help save Ripley and try to save Vasquez.

DO SOMETHING, GORMAN.

The last blow is finding that Apone and Dietrich aren’t dead — they’re being cocooned and impregnated by the xenomorphs, as Ripley tells the Marines, and it’s no use going after them. Of course, Ripley’s stance on this situation abruptly reverses when it’s Newt that’s been taken by the aliens, but no one gives her shit about it because a) small child and b) the only people available to give her shit are Hicks, who’s gaga for her, and Bishop, who’s intimidated by her.

This Is Why Humans Shouldn’t Do Their Own Security

Speaking of Ferro, I was struck by the following question during this rewatch: Why the flaming fuck would anyone dealing with an unknown situation land their transport vessel at another part of the unknown situation, then open the door and go for a stroll? Spunkmeyer, Ferro’s copilot, had zero reason to leave the dropship, and if he had an actual reason (and not just that he wanted to pee on a colony pylon instead of the head I’m certain was built into the dropship), why did he leave the (apparently unmonitored) door wide open? Why was there no code for “Wait, hold up, there’s something weird going on here” that he could have used when he put his hand in the sticky goo the xenomorphs apparently shed everywhere they go? These frigging Colonial Marines have supposedly been on other “bug hunts” which would likely have had at least biohazard protocols. They have presumably also dealt with raiders who might try to board their ship and steal it.

Fly the friendly skies.

I know, I know, this was a contrived situation designed to kill off Spunkmeyer and Ferro messily and deprive the remaining Marines of their transport. But… but… URGH. So infuriating!

Game Over, Man! Game Over!

Someone has got to have tried to track xenomorph body count through the movie — I know S did before the extended cut was released. We know that there is a maximum of 157 xenomorphs — 156 if we discount the Queen. We know that there were a few killed in the initial shitshow — we could generously say 5 or 6, including the chestburster they initially incinerated, which may have been the final hatching of the colonists.

I have to wonder how that colonist (“Mary”) survived and evaded the aliens such that the chestburster — which emerges in roughly 24 hours after the facehugger drops off — popped out when the Marines arrived. Possibly, she’d been cocooned for awhile and only had just been facehugged. But I think I prefer the idea that there were at least a few competent adult colonists who managed to hide and avoid the xenomorph patrols for awhile.

In any case, this takes us down to 150 or so xenomorphs. So what kind of body count can we attribute to the automated sentry scene? We could possibly assume about 15 rounds per xenomorph (which is generous, given how hard a time the humans had killing even facehuggers), without the emotional response of a human behind the trigger but with motion detection as the driver (the xenomorphs flail like crazy, possibly a reflex to spray acid around). 2000 rounds across the 4 sentries, blowing an average of 15 rounds per xenomorph suggests that they could have handled nearly 130 of them, which might have been the reason the xenomorphs withdrew, keeping ~20 to defend the queen and the hive.

You always were an asshole, Gorman.

Then, in the flight from Medical, we see the Marines (especially Vasquez) kill probably 5 or 6 more, possibly up to 10 more given Gorman and Vasquez going out in a massive explosion and the one Hicks kills in the elevator. This leaves a maximum of 10-15 xenomorphs, with Apone, Dietrich, Hudson, and Burke cocooned for the facehuggers. So it is unsurprising that when Ripley rescues Newt, there’s only 2 xenomorph guards left to confront her! Presumably the other remainders are cut off, probably trying to get back to the hive.

They Mostly Come At Night. Mostly. 

Speaking of Newt, she is probably the single least annoying child in cinema.

Newt, at the end of the film.

She’s smart, resourceful, snarky, knowledgeable, vulnerable, and can use her words. In addition to saving herself (and hoarding what little she could save of her old life, poor boo) in the face of a monstrous and deadly invasion, she saves Ripley and whichever adults are with her at the time with advice and knowledge.

Despite that amazing teakettle scream, she is not only full of personality, but also agency.

In the scene where Burke releases the facehuggers into the room with Newt and Ripley, not only is Ripley fast-thinking with the lighter trick, but Newt is just as fast-thinking, slamming the table back against the wall and pinning the facehugger that was coming for her. Newt guides them through the vents and out on the way to meeting up with Bishop and the second dropship. She saves herself repeatedly, and saves them as well.

That said, it’s infuriating (but predictable) when she falls and becomes the McGuffin that causes Ripley to head back into the hive after her for the final confrontation. But she’s relatively calm and rational — calling for Ripley and not panicking and running or flailing, waiting while they try to rescue her. And after that, again, she ends up saving herself, even if her reaction was pure fear. In what is arguably my favorite scene of the movie, Ripley has found the tracking watch and has folded under the crushing weight of grief. At that moment, Newt wakes up and sees the egg placed near her unfold, letting out her teakettle shriek. Ripley doesn’t hesitate even a fraction of a second, she hauls herself up and is running at the first step. It think it’s one of the best pieces of acting in the movie, one that I love watching again and again.

People don’t really talk about how revolutionary Newt’s depiction is in this movie — everyone talks about Ripley as a heroine, as the iconic strong female lead. But there aren’t many 6-year-old girls in movies or TV who kick nearly as much ass as Newt.

Minimum Safe Distance

Look, given Ripley’s copious PTSD and obsession with the xenomorphs, there’s one thing she didn’t do that she absolutely should have done in the final scene.

She should have nuked it from orbit.

Oh, no, not the colony. The colony had nuked itself. That hive was done for, and the Queen had been yeeted into space.*

No, she had the coordinates for the shipwreck containing HUNDREDS OF XENOMORPH EGGS. If she didn’t have them memorized from Alien, if she hadn’t committed them to memory subsequently, she had Bishop right the fuck there with it written to memory. If she was a little out of date with the equipment for flying the ship and engaging weapon systems… Bishop! Right! There! I think she could successfully talk him into participating in a little annihilation for the good of humankind, with his Asimov law brain.

Was she distracted by Newt and Hicks? Oh, sure, I’m sure she was. But Newt was a living reminder that the shipwreck was a risk to all humanity. Right there! In her face!

Of all the plot holes in the entire movie, I think that’s the most glaringly out of character mistake. I know why it was done — making room for sequels — but there were ways and ways around that.

Ripley should have thought to annihilate that shipwreck.The fact that she didn’t is a critical failure on the part of the writers.

I love the Alien fandom wiki entry about how the ship “somehow” survived the explosion of the colony (as shown in a non-canon videogame), when the freaking thing was so far from the colony they had to be sent to it to find it after 20 years.

*And the Queen absofuckinglutely did NOT HAVE TIME OR EQUIPMENT to drop an egg on the Sulaco, she had SHED her egg-laying apparatus and did not have one conveniently tucked under her ARM, not that even if she fucking HAD that the facehugger with its spindly little grippy legs could have broken into Ripley’s cryopod to rape facehug and impregnate her in her sleep as is postulated to have happened in the sequel that NEVER HAPPENED BECAUSE IT WOULD HAVE SUCKED HAD IT EXISTED. *ahem* I may have some opinions about it.

The Problem of Vasquez

I love Vasquez. I fucking love her. I had the world’s biggest crush on her. I watched Near Dark because her actress was a lead in it. The actress fucking knocked that role out of the park, turned the part from a bit that could fade into the background, like the other women Marines, into something that is fucking iconic.

But the actress, Jenette Goldstein, is Jewish and white-passing and was literally painted brown to play Vasquez. She was hired because she was a trained actress who was also a bodybuilder.

Jenette Goldstein, left. Vasquez, right.

I appreciate that Goldstein acknowledges that today she likely would not have been cast for the role. (She also notes that her family comes from Russia, Brazil, and Morocco, which means that she could be, perhaps, browner than white-passing, but not apparently Hispanic. She identifies as Jewish.) But that’s not a given, despite the fact that there are more Hispanic actresses visible in films and TV.

The brownface is probably one of the most problematic aspects of this movie, right next to the misogyny (including the misogyny of the xenomorph design and depiction). And I still love this movie, with all its problematics. I acknowledge that this movie is a product of the Reagan Era, chock full of white supremacy and gender issues. And it is probably the most problematic piece of media that I love and will not set down.

Conclusion

Aliens has informed my queerness, my relationships, my gaming, my writing, my fannishness. Quotations from the movie have invaded my everyday language (my household Darmok, as we call it) for 35 years. I would not be who I am without Aliens, and I wouldn’t feel nearly so affectionate toward military SF. Thank you for reading through my rambling thoughts about the movie, which have no neat conclusion, just a lot of fannish flailing.

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One thought on “Nuke It From Orbit: A Look Back at Aliens 35 Years Later

  • June 3, 2021 at 8:28 pm
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    Thanks! A movie that’s stuck with me, too, for an overlapping set of reasons.

    Reply

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