A good movie is one you enjoy the first time you watch it. A great movie is one you find joy in dozens of viewings later. For me, James Cameron’s Aliens is not just a great movie, it’s an incredible movie, and though I’ve seen it so many times over the years, I sat down to watch it again for its upcoming 35th anniversary to see if, or how, it could reward me yet again. Not only did it do that, it spoke to me in a way I never expected, and it has to do with my late mum.
My first memories of Aliens are all about my mum, Nancy. A few years after the film was released, I’d of course heard about it and wanted to see it. When it finally came on HBO, probably eight or nine-year-old me told my mum I wanted to watch it and she said she wasn’t sure it was appropriate. So, she said, she’d watch it first and let me know if I could see it. I think it was on at 9 or 10 p.m. one night and as I went to bed, I anxiously awaited the morning to get the verdict.
“Can I see Aliens?” was the first thing I asked when I woke up and my mum said “Absolutely not. That was way too scary.” She hated it, was terrified by it, but watched it anyway because she knew it was important to me. She caved eventually, and I probably saw it soon after, but having that maternal instinct hovering over my first memories of the film is why, to me, Aliens, resonated much more this time around.
The film is way more than an entertaining, smart way to make a sequel from a classic, which is what one urban myth would like you to believe is what happened. The myth goes like this: before he made the film, writer/director James Cameron walked into a conference room at 20th Century Fox, wrote the word “Alien” on a whiteboard, gave it a second, then added an “S.” Then he put two lines through it making it a dollar sign. Whether or not that story is true, a) I’d like to believe it is, and b) it’s an excellent surface reading of Aliens.
In its most basic form, Aliens is the perfect, quintessential sequel. It takes everything you knew and loved about the first movie, flips it on its head, and makes it bigger. (For years, I thought it made it better too, but these days, I think the original holds that title.) And yet, besides the fact the film has more aliens, more humans, more guns, and bigger stakes, Aliens sits in that pantheon of perfect sequels because of its humanity and its portrayal of the strongest of human bonds.
As the film begins, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is dealing with a lot. She’s been in hyper sleep for almost six decades and hasn’t really had the time to process that. Plus, she’s still grappling with the fact that what seems like just days ago for her, a mysterious alien killed her entire crew and she was forced to destroy it and the ship she was on. She has nightmares about it every night and the corporate executives who owned that ship don’t actually believe her.
She also finds out dozens of families are now on LV-426, the planet where she and her crew found that alien, which fills her with dread and guilt. She may have defeated one alien, but it seems very likely there could be more. Basically, she’s deeply, psychologically traumatized. (Side note: I rewatched the theatrical version because that’s what was released 35 years ago but it’s worth noting the extended Special Edition adds in the revelation that during Ripley’s extended hypersleep her daughter back on Earth had passed away, which only bolsters this characterization.)
Eventually — with the promise of a new job — Ripley begrudgingly decides to go back to LV-426, save the families in danger, and destroy all the aliens. This time though she’s not going with just a few crew members. She’s going with the Colonial Marines, an elite team of space soldiers who, over the course of the film, become a new family for Ripley.
She fosters relationships with them and, ultimately, mutual respect which makes the fact that very quickly upon landing the majority of the Marines are wiped out even more devastating. There’s also the later revelation that all of the promises made to Ripley before the trip were lies and the only reason everyone went is to bring an alien home for experimentation, just like in the original movie.
But then something changes. Ripley and the Marines find Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who seems to be the lone survivor of the apparent massacre that happened on the planet. Finding survivors isn’t what the Marines are there for but it’s Ripley’s reason for living. She’s a protector at heart and very quickly her maternal instincts, which we’d previously seen directed at Jonesy the cat, come out.
Aliens goes from being a movie about Marines destroying monsters to about a mother protecting a young girl who she begins to see as a daughter. Beyond just the anti-corporate subtext and blossoming familial relationship, basically everything about the movie is excellent: the cast of supporting characters (Al Matthews as Apone! Bill Paxton as Hudson! Jenette Goldstein as Vasquez! Michael Biehn as Hicks!), the surprising evil mastermind (Paul Reiser as Burke), the huge action set pieces, the constant humour, quotable dialogue, all of it. But it’s Ripley and Newt who make the film work so well all these years later.
As the film reaches its climax and Ripley can get off the planet, she decides to stay and risk everything for Newt — which is also the point where Ripley discovers the Alien Queen, a character who, like Ripley, wants to protect her children. That means the film’s final battle between Ripley and the Queen is really the fight between two mothers who will stop at nothing to protect their families.
Ripley wins, of course, and if you weren’t quite convinced this thread was the beating heart of the film, Newt calls Ripley “Mummy” for the first time. It’s a beautifully touching moment in the midst of all the goo and gore. The film then ends with both Newt and Ripley agreeing they can dream again, a signifier they’re beginning to deal with the trauma. As they go to (hyper) sleep, what has previously been such a bombastic, militaristic score by James Horner plays out like a lullaby, letting the mother and daughter finally sleep. And dream.
Some of you might be reading this and thinking that Cameron’s “$” is a fairly obvious reading of Aliens. And you’d be right. I’m not pretending like I’m the one who finally cracked the code after 35 years. In that time though I’d usually key more into anticipation for the action, humour, and violence instead of the mother/child relationship. Which brings me back to Nancy.
Last year, I lost my mum to a long battle with breast cancer. Though I don’t remember exactly when I first saw Aliens, I do remember when I didn’t see it, and it was the day after she watched it. My mum was protecting me from the nightmares a young child definitely would have had watching the film at that age.
Now, 35 years later, I realise my late mum was trying to shelter me from it. To protect me from any potential trauma watching this intense, scary movie might have caused. It’s that personal subtext, 16 months removed from my mum’s passing, that really helped punctuate the emotion Cameron put into the film in a way it hasn’t before. She was my Ripley. I was her Newt.
My mum never protected me from any killer aliens (that I know of) but always wanted the best for me and fostered everything I am today. From always taking me to the movies as a kid, to helping me get a job at a video store in high school, to supporting a college education where I primarily studied film — she always supported me on my road ahead, toward a future where I write about movies every day. Like Ripley and Newt, we too dreamed together.
When I sat down to rewatch Aliens last week, I didn’t expect it to turn into this. But, ultimately, that’s what the great movies do. They forge personal relationships with you and evolve in different ways every time you watch them — and Aliens is certainly a great movie, one that might be best known for its action, but is truly unforgettable because of how much it’s concerned with a mother’s relationship with a child. Aliens was first released July 18, 1986, which means it’s celebrating its 35th anniversary on Sunday.