Mother and the teeming hoardes

by Jim Naureckas

from Jump Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 1, 4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1987, 2006

Like the work of Hitchcock and Hawks, embraced by the New Wave critics for expressing personal themes through popular genres, Ridley Scott's ALIEN communicated powerfully through its images and structure. But Scott also made a political statement as well as an effective shocker. His 1979 movie offered a strong critique of corporate domination and women's submissive roles.

It's no wonder that some of ALIEN's fans were skeptical about the prospect of a sequel, especially one directed by James Cameron, co-author of RAMBO and auteur of THE TERMINATOR. However, since ALIENS makes its feminist subtext more central and obvious than the original, Cameron has largely been forgiven his berserker past. (He's been trying to distance himself from RAMBO in recent interviews.[1])[open notes in new window] But we need a closer look at both films before evaluating the pluralization of ALIEN.

Each film begins and ends with sleep, like a dream. And the Aliens seem amalgams of dimly remembered nightmares, invaders from the outlands of the subconscious. (They were designed by H. R. Giger, whose art is so disturbing that obscenity charges were brought against the Dead Kennedys punk bank when they included one of his posters in their album Frankenchrist.)

In the first film, all the creature's forms — impregnating octopus/crab, neo-natal snake thing, full-grown monster with extrudable teeth — were iconographically male. This is acknowledged in the second movie, though for all people know, the things could be hermaphrodites. When speculating about the source of Alien eggs, one character muses, "It must be something we haven't seen yet." In ALIEN, the creature must be male, because the subtext of ALIEN is rape. Rape tension is not unusual for a horror film, but this film is perhaps unique in not secretly cheering on the assailant.

The metaphor is continued with the starships that the Alien invades. Both the biomorphic, extraterrestrial vessel, pregnant with Alien eggs, and the humans' Nostromo, full of dark, damp tunnels and run by a computer called Mother, stand as analogs to the female body. One of the first notable contrasts we see in the sequel ALIENS is that the spaceship, a Marine cruiser bristling with weapons, easily represents the most phallic vessel in the galaxy.

But a more important difference in ALIENS becomes the enemy's gender. To be sure, the film has plenty of iconographically male forms around, but the true horror in Cameron's film is his own Queen Alien. Huge, bloated, and spawning, she represents a grotesque parody of maternity. Furthermore, the creature's goal is not nutritive (or possibly erotic), as in the first film, but rather to use humans as incubators for baby Aliens. The primal terror here is becoming a mother.

Yet ALIENS also valorizes, even canonizes, motherhood. Ripley, the hero of both films, originally seemed a very independent, professional woman. Rather than displaying stereotypical feminine traits, she had an aggressively rational, even ruthless character. For example, she wanted to sacrifice a contaminated individual for the good of the whole crew. True, she did risk her life to save a rather unlikable cat, but one could argue that she saw the aloof Jones as a kindred spirit, sharing the self-preservation instinct that allowed her to be the lone human survivor.

In the sequel, by contrast, she has a deep maternal relationship with an orphan girl named Newt. She jeopardizes everyone to save Newt from being implanted with an Alien embryo, though the film wrote off its other characters as they were taken away to the egg chambers. Presumably Ripley's "maternal instinct" must override other considerations.

But Ripley, too, feels ambivalent about motherhood. She continually suffers from dreams about an Alien erupting from her chest and would seek death before becoming an incubator. Thematically, we can read this as fear of pregnancy. The moment when she saves Newt from the Queen stands as an emotional high point in the ALIENS. Ripley's cry, "Get away from her, you bitch," never fails to draw a cheer from the audience.

This is the puzzle of ALIENS. How can a film both support and fear mothering? To decipher a movie so steeped in Freudian imagery, one can easily turn to psychoanalytic theory. When women perform most childcare, the Mother becomes the baby's original Other, that which the infant first realizes is not itself — the Alien. The infant's utter helplessness turns this recognition into a traumatic event, which makes the relationship between mother and child inevitably ambiguous.[2]

Cameron would consciously separate out this threatening aspect of motherhood, leaving only the warm and nurturing aspect. But the positive side of motherhood itself, all-encompassing care and protection, is what makes the mother such a powerful, sometimes terrifying figure. The film offers a momentary recognition of Ripley and the Queen Alien's equivalence. Ripley identifies with the Queen's need to protect her spawn, but that moment quickly leads to Ripley's attempt to napalm the Queen and her eggs. We must destroy the alien, especially when we realize it is close to ourselves.

Mother is only one of the "aliens" of the film's title. To discover the other "aliens," one has to look at the political milieu each movie is set in. In Scott's film, an unseen extra character, the Company, represents a monolithic entity encompassing both public and private sectors. The form of government is corporate totalitarianism; one gains citizenship only through becoming a shareholder. The Company, acting through the ship's computer — "Mother" — and an android named Ash, brings the Alien to the ship and frustrates efforts to kill it. It directed the crew to return the Alien alive, because the Company's weapons division wants exotic organisms to play with. Ash even tries to kill Ripley by shoving a rolled-up magazine down her throat. In ALIEN, the Company's exploitation becomes enforced by symbolic rape.

In the 57 years supposedly passed between the two movies, things have become much more like they are now. The United States still exists. In fact, it has become an empire again, complete with "United States Colonial Marine Corps." And the Company has become just a company, albeit an anonymous one.

Whereas for Scott the Company's corruption stands as a critique of capitalism, the evil in ALIENS becomes personalized in the figure of Carter Burke, a sleazy Company executive who breaks the rules for his own personal gain.[3] Burke acts independently when he causes the slaughter of a group of colonists and later when he wants to smuggle Aliens through a government quarantine. He's like the evil U.S. commander in RAMBO, a bad individual whose presence explains problems ALIEN formerly attributed to the whole system.

Ripley's extended hibernation seems to have dulled her political consciousness. She wakes up thinking not about destroying the Company but about bad androids. Her attitude is presented as a kind of racism. A beatific Bishop, a gentle artificial person, tells Ridley that Ash malfunctioned. This ridiculous interpretation becomes vindicated when Bishop turns out to be a hero and helps humanity in general, not just the Company. In ALIEN, technology serves those who own it. In ALIENS, technology seems benign, whether it be an android or a combination submachine gun/grenade launcher.

ALIENS has as pronounced a gun fetish as RAMBO or THE TERMINATOR. The closet thing to a love scene comes when Ripley's romantic interest teaches her how to use her weapon. Cameron's admiration extends to people who use guns and he shows deep sympathy to the soldiers (who wear U.S. flag patches), at least to those who conform to the military code of honor. While we saw the men who tried to use their own phallic weapons against the first Alien mowed down, now we see the Marines fight quite successfully before succumbing to overwhelming odds. Like the boys at the Alamo, they die heroes.

In an emotional scene, Newt tells Ripley, "My mommy always said there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are." A touching speech, until one wonders who Cameron thinks the real monsters are, the ones that can be dealt with by "nuking," which all the intelligent characters agree must be the final solution to the Alien problem.

The RAMBO analogy points the way to compare the structure of the two movies. Clearly the Aliens play exactly the same role as Stallone's Vietnamese. They offer the film an unlimited supply of evil to slaughter without qualms.[4] We even see a scene where a spineless commander sends in troops — without the weapons they need — we don't get to win this time, either. The original Alien seemed like a capitalist, looking out for number one. Its successors play the part of communist hordes, living for the collective welfare and willing to die for the sake of a good special effect.

In the Us vs. Them framework, Us stands as the United States military and, by implication, the capitalist system it protects. Them stands for anything un-American, unfamiliar, alien. One Marine makes the connection explicit when he anachronistically jokes about "illegal aliens." As propaganda symbols, the Aliens do even better than Rambo's Asians, because the Aliens are generic, applicable to any foreign policy need.

Viewers may forgive these militaristic aspects of ALIENS because the film presents strong female characters. We do see some positive portrayals, though they do not challenge male ideology. Ripley acts heroically mainly in the service of Her Baby. The gung-ho female Marine, Vasquez, is pejoratively typed as lesbian: "Ever been mistaken for a man, Vasquez?" Still, I find the portrayal of women with guns positive — in the same way that including women in a draft would be — because it helps to demystify the macho ethic that makes going to war the ultimate act of manliness. And this ethic strongly pervades ALIEN's remake.


1. See The Village Voice, July 22, 1986, "Lovers and Other Aliens," by David Edelstein, p. 56; Time, July 28, 1986, "Help! They're Here," by Richard Schickel, p. 58.

2. For a feminist, though somewhat problematic, psychoanalysis of the mother-child relation, see The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise, by Dorothy Dinnerstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), or The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, by Nancy Chodorow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

3. His unusual first name may be taken as a swipe at detente — he wants to profit from the Aliens, not destroy them.

4. Cameron acknowledges the connection in the Time cover-story, saying of the Marines: "Their training and technology are inappropriate for the specifics, and that can be seen as analogous to the inability of superior American fire-power to conquer the enemy in Vietnam." Schickel, p. 57.