Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Get Away From Her, You Bitch!" part 2

The first two movies of the Aliens series, or, as I like to think of them, the ONLY two movies of the Aliens series, are both modern sci-fi masterpieces as they explore themes of corporate greed, humanity, and motherhood. I love these movies, and I'm helpless not to re-watch them anytime they're in front of me. In yesterday's column I summarized the plots of both films. Today, I'd like to explore some key themes.

Both films had a heaping helping of corporate malfeasance. In the first film, some of the crew were constantly concerned about getting screwed out of their shares for the trip. We learned partway through that the Nostromo's regular science officer had been replaced at the last minute with a a human-looking android named Ash (Ian Holm). And a lot of what went wrong with the alien is directly attributable to Ash - he's the one who let the wounded man back onto the ship when Ripley would have kept him out, and he does his best to befuddle their efforts to kill it. We even learn that The Company (which is the euphemism for Weyland Yutani in that film) sent the Nostromo to capture an alien from the outset and had designated the crew as expendable. The Company wanted to be certain that any opportunities for profit weren't lost because the crew was too scared or inept or "human" to capitalize on them. They take advantage of the crew in every way, because they're a soulless force of business.

The second film is even more overt. Weyland Yutani abandons Ripley despite her heroic efforts in the first film, because her actions lost them a very valuable spaceship. Their agent, Burke, manipulates the action of the film specifically to get an alien specimen back to Earth for study, and he does it with complete indifference to the incredible loss of life he precipitates. After both films, we're very much left to conclude that corporations are at worst evil, and at best uncaring about the lives of mere humans. It's profit that drives them, and consequences be damned.

The films also explore the theme of humanity. The alien is, of course, inhuman and it's utterly deadly in a way humans can barely comprehend. Their representative in the second film, Burke, is inhuman in his greed and lust for power, and his refusal to compromise when people are at risk. But we also have a pair of androids in the film - men who look human, but are actually machines. In the first film, Ash is a surprise - we don't actually find out he's an android until near the end, but his secret programming causes no end of trouble for his shipmates. In many ways, he's an anthropomorphic version of the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. By contrast, Bishop from Aliens is Ash's complete opposite - he takes care of the crew and never hesitates to sacrifice himself to help save them. He rescues Ripley and Newt twice at the end of the film. And then we've got Lt. Ellen Ripley herself. She's super-human.

In fact, she's the epitome of motherhood. That's the final theme of the films. Or, at least, the last of the ones I'll discuss here - I have no doubt that a careful analysis could uncover many more. It's no coincidence that 'Mother' is the name of the computer in Alien. It's supposed to care for the crew and operate the ship for years while they're in suspended animation. Sadly, it's a co-conspirator in their deaths, because it's subject to the will of The Company. In the second movie, we encounter the Alien Queen, truly the mother of a whole race (or, at least, of one generation of the species). But it's Ripley who's the great mother. She's the one who tries to take care of her crew on the Nostromo, though she's badly outmatched by the Alien and deceived by Ash's perfidy. She even goes back for her cat, Jonesy, despite the danger, because she's the Mother. Again, Aliens is more overt in most respects, including this particular theme. She literally becomes the mother-figure for the abandoned Newt, who's seen her family and all of her fellow colonists brutally killed and cocooned by the aliens. In the end, it's mother vs. mother as Ripley faces off, twice, against the Alien Queen. And because of her humanity, because of her nobility, because of her superior motherness, Ripley is able to save her child, herself, and Dwayne Hicks (Beihn), the film's father-figure as much as there is one.

As an aside, it's funny to me that at the apex of both movies, Ripley calls somebody a bitch. It's the computer, Mother, in the first movie (when Ripley doesn't manage to turn off the ship's self-destruct in time and it continues on anyway) and it's the Alien Queen in the second movie. Ripley's a bitch, too, of course, but she's a tougher, smarter, badder bitch than any of her enemies.

These movies shine for a lot of reasons - their production values were good for the times, the acting was very good, and the pacing was terrific. But as stories, part of what makes them so enduring is that they deal with basic elements that are likely to ring true for a very long time. Soulless corporations - whether business, governmental or military - have been running roughshod over peoples' lives for thousands of years, all in the name of "the greater good" or whatever they used to justify themselves. Also common to our experience is the question of what it means to be human. We've explored this through myth and legend, through stories told across hearthfires and across the Internet. And most basic of all to the human condition is motherhood. Every person must have a mother, and she's (hopefully) the nurturing force that helps us to become who we are. The two Alien films build terrific stories around these themes, which is what makes them true classics.

No comments:

Post a Comment