RogerBW's Blog

Aliens 25 December 2021

1986 science fiction, dir. James Cameron, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn: IMDb / allmovie. Game over man, game over.

This is a hard film for me to write about dispassionately. I saw it at just the right moment in my life, and for several years it was a universal reference for the role-playing groups I knew in the way that Monty Python had been for a previous generation. Also, I had read the novelisation of Alien, but not seen it – so I had a fair idea of what had gone before, but I wasn't familiar with the look of the thing, so I had no expectations for that.

Which was good, because this is very much not a New Wave film. Cameron is not a subtle director: he pushes the "motherhood" button so hard that it's in danger of wearing out, and everything must get its foreshadowing, even if those foreshadowing scenes serve other purposes too (for example, Ripley showing that she can drive the powerloader both causes the Marines to start thinking that she might be some actual use and sets up the loader for the ending). This isn't a bad thing – a hypothetical Scott version that just suddenly brought the loader in at the end might have distracted the viewer from the fight itself – but watching the two films in quick succession there's a very evident contrast in styles.

This was a much more troubled production than Alien: in particular, Cameron expected the crews to work themselves to death for him, as American crews would have been required to do, and threw a tantrum at every tea-break. But there was more to it than just the filming: for example, the actors playing the Marines got several days of training in how to move like soldiers and not point their guns at each other (helped by Al Matthews (Sgt Apone), who'd seen service with the USMC in Vietnam), but William Hope (Lt Gorman) was deliberately excluded from this team-building experience.

On this viewing, I found myself particularly impressed by Paul Reiser as Burke the company man: a minor obsession of mine is the worldview of people (for example most modern politicians) whose entire experience has been of problems that go away by talking to them enough, meeting real impersonal problems that can't be blandished or bribed, and Reiser plays this to perfection. As Burke realises that not only can he not negotiate away the aliens, he can't even negotiate away Ripley, he comes apart and starts doing stupid things…

(One might wonder what happened to the original bioweapons team that diverted the Nostromo back in Alien, and clearly knew that there was something up with the planet. My theory is that when the ship vanished without trace they wrote it off as a bad job and buried their files to stop themselves from being associated with what would on the face of it appear to be a random ship loss; by fifty-seven years later they've all retired.)

And of course there's Bill Paxton, always excellent, as the mouthy comic relief – but unlike most comic reliefs, he doesn't just annoy the audience, he annoys characters in the film too. Which makes the whole thing better, because rather than being the guy the scriptwriter put in to defuse the tension, he becomes the guy who's trying to cope with his own fears by being loud.

And Carrie Henn plays one of the few child roles that doesn't irk me – perhaps because she's a survivor first, and a child second. (Just as Ripley here is the survivor who takes things seriously first, and female second. Being "the girl" was never enough characterisation to convince, and nobody here suffers from that.)

But really, all the acting is good here. Some of the cast have pretty tiny roles, but nobody's a weak spot. Meanwhile Cameron is of course making a Vietnam film: at this point that was the most recent experience of America going to war on a large scale, but it's interesting just how much he draws on the language and tactics of the day rather than trying to get more conventionally science-fictional. It's a very small degree of technical advance (compared with antigravity and FTL travel), which makes the whole thing much more relatable.

There's plenty of fridge logic: why is there no ship crew? Even if the ship can run itself, what happens if the mission goes as planned, but when they want to get back aboard the remote control for the dropship bay doesn't work? Given the implicit expense in sending a ship in the first place, and that there are two full squads' worth of hardware on board, why not send two actual squads? When and why, after the fuss of getting the APC out quickly, did they land the dropship? And leave the ramp open? And so on. But these are things one thinks of later, which while not as good as actually having them got right in the film is at least better than their popping up to distract one while it's going on.

All right, that sequence from dropship launch to landing is quite possibly my favourite bit of film ever: it's not just exciting things happening with people doing their jobs well, it's also characters being established with glorious economy. All it needs to make it perfect is the male voice choir from Dr Strangelove humming When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

If you still have at least ninety-eight minutes to reach minimum safe distance and you want more of my witterings, you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.


  1. Posted by John P at 08:31pm on 25 December 2021

    Like you, I enjoyed the film and it WAS a reference point & a rich source of quotes. The Colonial Marines Tech Manual is also a really good read. But there was a downside ...

    A few years later we played a Traveller campaign where I was the company rep on an exploration mission funded by the company. But one of the more influential players typecast him as Burke and proceeded to treat him as a "hate" character - with the rest of them playing along. I struggled for a year to change that before eventually giving up and quitting. Which was a shame because I love playing Traveller.

  2. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 12:54pm on 26 December 2021

    RQ: "There's plenty of fridge logic: why is there no ship crew?"

    Because the society has artificial persons, and by extension generalized artificial intelligence. It says something about the confidence they have in their technology.

    RQ: "Even if the ship can run itself, what happens if the mission goes as planned, but when they want to get back aboard the remote control for the dropship bay doesn't work?"

    This again tells the viewer a lot about the reliability of their technology.

    RQ "Given the implicit expense in sending a ship in the first place, and that there are two full squads' worth of hardware on board, why not send two actual squads?"

    A good question, and one that takes a bit of thought, but even so it has a plausible answer.

    They were the equivalent of an Army Special Forces Alpha Detachment. Though I would agree that this is a bit of a stretch.

    After all the US Army sent a twelve man ODA into Afghanistan back in the day. Though that was an unknown consideration for the era the movie was made. But it makes much sense in light of military operations since Vietnam.

    RQ: "When and why, after the fuss of getting the APC out quickly, did they land the dropship? And leave the ramp open?"

    Now this is both easy and harder to explain. I blame Burke and the Weyland Yutani. Gorman was a green lieutenant, and no real life ODA would go out with a captain and warrant officer with a lot of experience to not make rookie mistakes.

    Once he declared the area secure why wouldn't one land? Why waste fuel loitering over the colony?

    Besides, we the audience know more than every character other than Ripley and Newt.

    RQ: "And so on."

    And yet, it is arguably still one of the best, f not the best Marines in space movie ever made.

    RQ: "But these are things one thinks of later, which while not as good as actually having them got right in the film is at least better than their popping up to distract one while it's going on."

    I think that a lot of wargamers have thought of these things too. John Treadaway springs to mind for his vociferous comments of the stupidities of the Marines, but I think that both him and your good-self have overlooked the assumptions that underpin your opinions.

    That namely the Marines were going to warzone. And as such one would sent a platoon. But if the story is framed as an operation other than war, then a Special Forces ODA is a reasonable choice.

    But, as always YMMV, and clearly does.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 07:23pm on 26 December 2021

    Ashley, I'll answer you point by point because it's fun; but the bigger point is that if there is in fact an answer, it ought to be given in the film. (Ideally, of course, without slowing things down for an infodump. Yeah, I want the moon on a stick.)

    The reliability of their technology includes Drake's helmet cam.

    I was thinking of helicopter vs dropship lift capacity, but a Pave Low III can haul 37 troops, so that's not it. The thing is, though, an alpha det isn't expected to go 17 days without contact. And there's so much space in that ship… sure, they have AIs, but people must still be cheaper or they'd be sending AIs out to fight and die. (And the ship AI can't talk to them, can't send the other dropship down to them…)

    I'd have been happy with one line from Gorman saying "meh, there's no problem here, land the dropship so we stop stirring up dust". I know there's material that isn't even in the director's cut (because the novel was written from the shooting script) – it was originally going to be said explicitly that driving a powerloader was the only job Ripley could get, and that was why she'd learned how to do it.

    But all these points aside I will still agree with you: this is a damn' fine representation of SF small unit tactics on film.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:58am on 27 December 2021

    The director's cut of Aliens does say it was the only job Ripley could get, I believe it was Burke that said it when he was first trying to get her to go on the mission.

    If I knew what an ODA is I might understand Ashley better.

    And this film was also very influential on my early role playing just like Roger. "It won't make any difference" was a common response to making good or bad dice rolls. "I say we take off a nuke the site from orbit" was a sign things were going really badly, etc.

  5. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:47am on 27 December 2021

    Owen: Sorry I assumed people would know what ODA meant. Didn't mean to confuse anyone.

    ODA is an Operational Detachment Alpha. A twelve man team of Green Berets, Special Forces troops.

    And for Roger; you are correct an ODA wouldn't go without contact for 17 days. However, that might just be a poor shorthand for when we don't report in, it will take 17 days for the relief to get here. Yeah, you're right on that one.

    As for the Sulacco, interior space etc. Tricky. My handwave is that empty is less mass, and the ship is filled to the gunnels with the necessities and the rest is fuel.

    Fun discussion. I should add that we rewatched this over Xmas. It still a great movie.

  6. Posted by David Malcolm at 03:25pm on 27 December 2021

    In case you haven't seen it, you might appreciate "Far Away From LV426": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Noe95IxpsiQ (purportedly "from Aliens: The Musical")

  7. Posted by RogerBW at 04:00pm on 27 December 2021

    Great stuff; thanks!

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