"My mother was a housewife, but she was also an artist. My father was an electrical engineer."
But when it comes to Aliens, James Cameron's 1986 actionized sequel, that symbolism has been taken to its next logical stage (biologically speaking, anyway): Parenthood. In particular, motherhood. Aliens is preoccupied with maternalism, and I would go so far as to say that it is far and away the central theme of the movie.
To be sure, motherhood plays a certain role in Scott's film, as well. After all, the Nostromo's central computer is called "MOTHER"--it doesn't get any more blatant than that. And the manner in which the main characters rebel and rail against their cold, unfeeling, even treacherous "Mother" throughout the film has "mommy issues" written all over it. This culminates, of course, in Ripley's desperate attempts to escape before Mother destroys the ship, as she refers to the disembodied ship's voice as "You bitch!"
However, it's in the second film that this theme, merely touched on in the first, comes to full fruition. And it all centers on Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo. In the first film, Ripley is a decidedly asexual character. In fact, she isn't even feminized with the first name Ellen until the sequel. The fact that the character was originally written to be a man, and that not a single word of the script was changed following the decision to cast a woman, speaks volumes. In short, Ripley's womanhood is irrelevant to the plot. She is a protagonist who just happens to be a woman--albeit a very strong and resourceful one who's more fit for command than any of the men on the ship. But that part could've been played--as it was originally intended--by a man, and no one would've batted an eye.
Cameron's genius here is in giving us a character who is not a strong protagonist despite her femininity--as in Scott's film--but rather because of her femininity. Cameron grafts all the tropes of the action movie hero--particularly the 1980s action movie hero--onto the image of the woman in her most traditional social role, that of the mother. And it works--because Cameron knows something most of us instinctively know, that mothers, as positively characterized, can be among the most determined, strong-willed, and powerful forces in all of fiction (as well as real life). Driven to protect their young, as well shaping who they grow up to become, the limits of their heroism are nearly boundless, and it could only be in a heavily paternalized culture as our own that this role would ever be demoted into something lesser than.
If you've only seen the theatrical version, you're missing a big piece of the puzzle. In one of the worst examples of a movie being somewhat hamstrung in the editing process and much better served by the director's cut, there is a scene--included in the latter but missing from the former--in which we learn that Ripley was a mother. Tragically, because she was trapped in hypersleep for nearly 60 years, she has missed out on her daughter's entire adult life, and learned that she lived to a ripe old age and died just a couple of years before Ripley was recovered in deep space. It's a shocking moment for her and for us, and informs the character so greatly for the rest of the film. It's mind-boggling to me why it would've been removed, thus removing an important part of the movie's impact.
Knowing that Ripley was a mother who lost her child changes the way we look at Ripley's relationship with Newt, the little girl who is the only survivor of the ill-advised colony on planet LV-426. It is that loss which colors the rest of the movie, and their interaction in particular. Ripley has suffered the greatest trauma an adult can suffer--the loss of a child--and she'll be damned if she's about to let it happen again. For her, Newt represents not just a surrogate for her own biological daughter, but a second chance to indirectly "make up" for what happened the first time. Ripley was powerless to change anything about what happened to her own child, but she has the power to make a difference in this little girl's life, to substitute for her lost parents, and protect her from harm in a way she couldn't do for her daughter.
In the process, she becomes cinema's first bona fide feminine action hero. She's not a woman posing in a traditionally "masculine" way, as a character who could either be a male or female, but just so happens to be a woman. Rather, her womanhood is tied directly into her action role. This is not to say that womanhood is only defined by motherhood; but rather, it is to say that, as written, the Ripley of Aliens must be a woman.
|Make room for Mommy!|
The Alien Queen represents the negative side of the mother--whereas we think of mothers bringing life, this mother, in a sense, brings death. Her offspring are killing machines, and her purpose for existing is solely to destroy and to breed others to destroy. She is the poisonous, cancerous mother. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that despite her ugly traits, she still retains that primal aspect of motherhood--the desperate need to protect her young. We can palpably feel her horror when Ripley torches the eggs in her chamber.
Yes, this maternal triumph is heart-breakingly nullified by the opening scenes of the next film, David Fincher's Alien 3, when we learn that Newt dies when her hypersleep chamber malfunctions. In my opinion, this creative decision was destructive from a storytelling point of view. However, this need not diminish Cameron's achievement in Aliens, and when taken as a film on its own, as it should be, it remains one of the most impressive accomplishments of '80s cinema. Disguised as a traditional action sci-fi flick, James Cameron gave us one of film's most enduring odes to the nurturing power of motherhood.