Alien and Aliens: Horror and Sequels

I was rewatching Alien and Aliens, as I like to do from time to time, and a couple thoughts really stuck with me on this viewing.

First, people often like to distinguish the two films as horror versus action-adventure. Not only is that a tired distinction, but it doesn’t sit with me as very accurate. Aliens is in many ways just as much a horror film as the original, just of a different nature and with different themes. After all, our first view of Ripley’s perspective is a horrifying nightmare of a chestburster erupting from her as she recovers from prolonged “hypersleep” in her hospital bed, and we don’t actually know it’s a nightmare until Ripley does, when she wakes up. We see her startle awake, drenched in sweat, gripping at her chest, on a couple of occasions. Sure, the first act of the film has some less intense sequences, as we first navigate the corporate politics in the aftermath of the recovery of the only survivor of the Nostromo and then meet the colorful colonial marines who are sent on the rescue mission to Hadley’s Hope. But this is just a precursor of what is to come, and the gung-ho heroics end with the company of soldiers decimated and terrified. Newt’s repeated imperilment, Burke’s revolting scheme to smuggle xenomorph embryos, the picking off of the last squad members in the vents, the sheer tense dread of Ripley’s solo incursion into the alien hive, and the surprise maiming of Bishop are all at home in a horror film. Sure, you have the macho marines–for a third of the film, before the majority are ripped to shreds–and you have Ripley armed to the teeth, blowing up the nesting grounds and later growling, “Get away from her, you bitch” before fighting the alien queen in a mech-suit cargo hauler, but these are isolated moments. I won’t deny that there are definitely elements of an action-adventure film, as well as a Vietnam-era war film, baked into the movie, but there are plenty of moments that feel, for lack of a better word, horrific. Bruce Kawin defines horror in Horror and the Horror Film as “a compound of terror and revulsion” (p. 3), for instance. Additionally:

Above all, the horror film provides a way to conceptualize, give a shape to and deal with the evil and frightening . . . . As a genre, the horror film is defined by its recurring elements (such as undeath, witches, or gross, bloody violence), by its attitudes toward those elements (such as that transgressing limits is dangerous) and by its goal: to frighten and revolt the audience.

Kawin, p. 3-4.

Furthermore, “A film with a particular monster or threat usually is built around a particular fear or set of fears, including the outright fear of the monster and what it can do, as well as of what it represents, evokes, symbolizes, or implies” (p. 5). Certainly, Aliens capitalizes on many of the same fears as the original film: fears of death, of rape, of parasites. But it also seems fascinated with fears associated with pregnancy and parenthood. These include fears:

  1. of death on childbirth (after all, the characters take note that removing a facehugger resulted in both death of host and parasite, and we witness a couple different chestburster eruptions specifically killing women, once in dream and once in reality);
  2. of the rapid changes and pain and suffering of pregnancy itself (the use of “impregnate” or another variation to refer to the parasitic means of reproduction on display is used on more than one occasion, and Newt asks Ripley if the process is the same as childbirth);
  3. of somehow failing or abandoning a child (perhaps through premature parental death, as is the case with Newt’s parents, or letting them down in a time of need, as Ripley almost does when she goes to rescue Newt);
  4. of outliving a child out of order with the natural trend of events (as Ripley outlives her daughter through her prolonged hibernation); and
  5. of having a child kidnapped/molested (once more, see Newt, her third-act abduction, and the multiple efforts of facehuggers to latch onto her).

And, in channeling its inner war movie, it reflects cultural anxieties of what asymmetrical war can do, and did, to young soldiers. In fact, Kawin discusses many of these horror elements in his write-up of the Alien films in Horror and the Horror Film (p. 77-79). It’s not purely a horror movie, and by adding hordes of aliens the threat of the individual xenomorph is greatly diminished, but it certainly has a place within the horror genre.

Second, there’s a reason that I end with Aliens. My wife commented, as we finished rewatching Alien yet again, that she was fine with Alien by itself, that a sequel was never needed. Of course, with very few exceptions, a sequel is never needed. Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Fast and the Furious, Dr. No, and many, many other examples would have been fine without sequels, even though, in these cases, there were many good sequels (amidst many bad ones). But it’s especially true that at the end of Alien, the monster is contained, there is no immediate threat of further infestation, and we can choose to assume, if we so desire, that Ripley is eventually found and given a happy ever after. But what I like about Aliens is that it gives Ripley the chance to right the wrongs of the past, to face her fears, and to (hopefully) find peace. Whereas she lost everyone before, she manages to walk away with some survivors by the end of this film, and she has saved a young girl who would otherwise have been doomed. On top of all that, all those alien eggs on the derelict ship are presumably blown away in the massive explosion at the end. Hopefully Ripley and Newt will be free of night terrors for now on. Then Alien 3 undoes all that, killing off Hicks and Newt and dooming Ripley to die a horrible death by the end of the film. It is all for naught. There is something so bleakly fatalistic about it all; now, surviving is not the end goal, but rather simply destruction, including self-destruction. All is lost. Of course, the great thing about a fictional canon is that it’s all fiction, anyway. My personal headcanon is that Ripley and company arrive safely back on Earth, the alien threat eliminated, and this time Ripley is believed and vindicated because she has others, including an unerring android, to support her account; Ripley cares for Newt, and they wait for Hicks to heal, and the three become a family; the trio win generous compensation for the company’s negligence; the company can’t collect any biomaterials because the destruction of Hadley’s Hope wiped everything out; and we all live in a safer universe, at least for a while. There’s not a story there, there’s no needed sequel, but there doesn’t always have to be more to a story.

And that’s it, except for a third and final thought: damn, these remain great movies.