Aliens represents the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theater. I’ve seen it well over a hundred times, including at least 50 times in the theater when it was released in the summer of 1986. I used to be able to say everybody‘s lines to myself as I watched, sort of like the fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show can do at all those midnight showings of that film. Almost everything I’ve ever learned about the making of movies, from the use of sound effects to the editing of a picture, I learned from watching Ellen Ripley and her squad of beleaguered Marines try to escape those “peachy little creatures” on LV-426.
But now, almost thirty years later, I have a question about the plot: toward the end, after Newt is captured, everybody knows that the human settlement, Hadley’s Hope, is about to blow up–Ripley knows it, the Marines know it, and the aliens know it. So why aren’t the aliens trying to get the hell out of Dodge just like the humans?
It’s clear enough why Ripley destroys the nest before running away with the rescued Newt: any one of the hatching parasites (the “face-huggers”) could latch on to both of them and impregnate them or kill them outright before they reach safety. Better to destroy the whole nest, so that none of the aliens can escape.
What’s not so clear is why the alien queen is continuing to lay her eggs even while the colony is falling down around them, and even though she must know that the the whole complex is about to be blown to bits. It’s possible that the act of birthing leaves the queen no choice; once started, the process can’t be stopped. Still, the idea that you’d give birth knowing that, one way or another, not only your nest but everything else around you was about to be destroyed makes little sense to me. Crocodiles give birth to their young knowing that most of them won’t survive the first year, but the mother at least picks a spot that increases the odds that some of her young will survive.
The aliens did that, too, nesting under the primary heat exchangers of the complex’s reactor, knowing that neither the colonists nor any potential rescuers, like the Marines, were likely to do anything that would rupture the cooling system and cause a blast. Still, the willingness of the aliens to sacrifice every one of their kind on the station when the crunch does come amazes me and it puzzles me.
Well, perhaps not every one of the aliens. One of them survives on the Marines’ mother ship, the Sulaco, and travels with Ripley, killing Hicks and Newt at the beginning of Alien3, before crash landing with her in an escape pod on the prison planet, Fury 161. If just one survives–just one–perhaps that makes the sacrifice of the others, including the queen, worthwhile.
These are the kinds of things a writer immersed in a plot of his own will think about. For good or ill, the willingness to be a writer changes the way we read, and it changes the way we think about how something is written. I began by thinking last night that I had found a hole, however tiny, in the story of one of my favorite films. Now, I’m not so sure. The Marines don’t understand the aliens at all. But Ripley seems to grasp something fundamental about them as the last third of the movie begins. She tells the traitor Carter Burke, “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamm percentage.”
Strange as it may sound to say, there’s a kind of nobility in what the aliens do in James Cameron’s sequel. Whether that nobility was plotted from the outset or is just accidental, I’m not sure. We may not be able to understand that nobility, but we can sense it, and give it its proper place right alongside the heroism of Ripley, Newt, and those poor, doomed Marines.