Aliens: the pods that failed
I tried. I really did. I tried to like Aliens, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, and watched it again when it was on tv this week, to give it another chance. Because it’s always felt like a much lesser film than Alien to me. I know some folk like it, prefer it to the first film even. But for me, where Alien wields the scalpel, Aliens wields the bludgeon. Where Alien is about interiors, tension, horror, Aliens is about spectacle, action, excitement. Alien is sharp, economical, surprising, and quite British; Aliens is forceful, long, unwinds to a fairly predictable conclusion, and is Hollywood spectacle sf.
That’s not to say that I don’t find things to admire in Cameron’s film. I like the audacity of hiding the aliens away for almost 90 minutes. The last hour is gripping, well-paced, and has some iconic scenes, particularly Ripley’s fight against the Queen. But the bad guy, company man Burke, is cartoonish in his yuppie malevolence; the Marines are straight out of central casting (weak, inexperienced but ultimately redeemed Lieutenant; cigar- and scenery-chomping veteran Sarge; a few expendable red-tops mixed in with blowhard Hudson, good man Hicks, and Chicano warrior-woman Vasquez); the film painfully under-uses Lance Henrikson as Bishop, who is off-stage for the majority of the film; the set-up, with Ripley’s ‘trial’, revelation about her daughter and kids/ families-in-peril schtick is all too mechanical; and, as ever in Cameron films, he loves him some hardware, a fetishism revealed in the opening pan around the empty hangar of the Sulaco which reprises the wandering camera at the beginning of Alien, but this time showing racks of assault rifles, missiles awaiting loading and the military drop-ship.
And yes, I know it’s meant to be a Vietnam allegory, but that doesn’t pay off either, above a toy-town political message that grunts are ill-disciplined, officers are useless, the system is bent, and the Others (Vietnamese/ aliens) are unknowable and implacably hostile. For all Cameron’s wish to introject an emotional arc into the film (Newt’s role, Ripley as mother and her lost daughter, Bishop’s ‘redemption’) I also think this is really where the film is at its weakest. The characters, their emotions and their motivations are one-dimensional.
The most powerful moment, I found, was when Ripley stands, not quite knowing what to do next, before the Queen in a chamber full of eggs. She wants to destroy, to revenge, but there’s a moment of stillness before the fighting-and-destruction of the last 20 minutes. It’s almost a moment of decision: do I become a destroyer? And, of course, she does choose this, having backed herself and Newt out of the chamber first. One of the things that Cameron does introduce is the sense that the conflict between human and alien is one between communities, not just a lone predator stalking and picking off the flock (in a sheep-fold named Nostromo). The storing of injured Marines in cocoons for later consumption introduces a conceptually different reading of the aliens’ social and biological organisation, as does the implied hierarchical relationship between Queen and drone aliens. The egg-chamber is mirrored by the cocoon-larder. Ripley wants to destroy both.
This leads me to something that struck me while watching the beginning of Aliens: the opening shots of Ripley’s lifeboat drifting through space, and the music over the end-titles when Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Ash are in hyper-sleep pods, is taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the beginning of the Jupiter mission section when we see Bowman and Poole at their daily routines, running the circumference of the Discovery’s spherical command module or sketching colleagues in cryogenic hyper-sleep. I have since read that production over-runs meant scoring the film proved very difficult for James Horner, but the use of the 2001 score twice is significant, particularly as the sequences in both films concern the hyper-sleep pods. Interesting, I thought at the start of the film; maybe I’ve misjudged it. In point of fact, I don’t think Aliens is elsewhere capable of that kind of intertextual sophistication, or making you think: the film is designed to be much more visceral, a ‘ride’. But what did Cameron mean by using this piece of music?
It’s as well to remember the fate of those astronauts and scientists ‘sleeping’ within the pods at the beginning of 2001: HAL, of course, fearing for the mission and slipping into a kind of AI psychopathology, kills them as they sleep, turning off their life-support systems. This scene is perhaps more horrifying than the ‘murder’ of Poole: the intercut shots of the sleeping humans flat-lining, and HAL’s unblinking red ocular camera, indicates a lack of affect that is chilly even by the standards of Kubrick’s usual blank ‘human’ characters. 2001’s pods are no cocoons, places of transformation and life: they are technological coffins.
In Alien, the emergence from the pods at the beginning of the film is clearly a kind of re-birth, part of the continuum of ‘monstrous’ other(ed) forms of reproduction found throughout the film. The crew of the Nostromo even awake wearing a kind of diaper. At the end of the film, the pod is sanctuary for Ripley and the cat Jones, finally rid of the alien predator. In Aliens, this sanctuary is itself marked with death; awoken like Sleeping Beauty in the tower, Ripley finds that she has ‘slept’ for 57 years, and her 11-year-old daughter has lived until her mid-60s, then died prior to Ripley’s revival.
The emergence of human forms from pods uncannily calls forth images from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). There, the ‘pod people’ are ‘taken over’ by alien life, which extinguishes both individuality and emotions. A classic text of paranoia, famous for Kevin McCarthy screaming at the camera at the end of the film ‘They’re here already! You’re next!’, Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents ‘pod’ life as one of an emergent conformity and totalization. Pod people are like us, but uncannily other; they might be your next-door-neighbour; they might be me (or you). This erasure of difference between self and other, markers that are deeply significant in the Alien films and are highly visible in the forms as well as behaviour of the ‘xenomorph’, suggests that the 1956 Invasion may have its finger on the political pulse much more acutely than any of the Alien films. Even if one reads Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a Reds-under-the-bed allegory, its blurring of the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is very disruptive. (There’s a great scene in the film where Kevin McCarthy’s wife makes him breakfast, and there is much visual play with eggs. Eggs/ pods: Don Siegel was there first. In the mid-Fifties.)
If there were no Alien3, the ending of Aliens, with the music from 2001 suggesting the cold deaths of hyper-sleeping crew members, is an interestingly dark note for the film to finish on. While the Nostromo’s life-boat might drift through the ‘core worlds’ for 57 years and be found by a ‘one in a thousand’ chance, there’s not much likelihood that the Sulaco will be overlooked. What menaces these sleeping pod people, then? I think it’s genre itself, the space sf of ‘discovery’ traded on by Prometheus, where human beings in the vast vacuum of interstellar space are themselves vulnerable, organic air-breathing bodies inside metal shells. Pods inside pods inside pods. (In Alien, a human being is another kind of pod: a womb.) Little wonder that both 2001 and Aliens have scenes where the protagonist has to battle the violent danger of hard vacuum without a full environment suit: Ripley opens the hangar airlock, while Bowman has the blow the hatch of the Discovery’s own perambulatory ‘pod’ and get back inside the ship without his helmet. Out there, in space, no-one can hear you scream, because sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum. Human beings can, of course, but leaving their fragile ‘pods’ (usually) entails death: ‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come’, dreams of aliens, and of what might become of us.