“Get Away From Her, You Bitch”: Mother vs. Mother in ALIENS
1 April 2012
While still at work on The Terminator, James Cameron proposed a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction film Alien. At first Cameron met with resistance about the project, as Alien’s success was not financially astounding enough to ensure a profitable sequel. Nevertheless, Cameron persisted and after the financial success of The Terminator (1984) was given the green light on his sequel, Aliens (1986).
To begin, Scott’s Alien (1979) follows a crew onboard Nostromo, a spacecraft which intercepts a strange signal from the planet LV-426 and sets out to investigate. While there, the crew encounters an alien life form that kills all but one, Ellen Ridley (Sigourney Weaver). The film ends with Ridley defeating the alien and entering hypersleep in an escape pod for her return flight home from space. Cameron’s Aliens (1986) pick up as Ripley awakes from that hypersleep. Nearly 60 years have passed while Ridley was sleeping and, surprisingly, the military officials in charge of the space program do not believe her account of the alien and all that happened on LV-426 and onboard Nostromo. In fact, while Ridley was in hypersleep, the military sent “colonists” to LV-426 to prepare the terrain and purify the air for future inhabitants. Overwhelmed, Ripley attempts to move on with her life and accepts the only job offered, a loader (a significant step down from her previous position). Yet, when communication with the colonists on LV-426 is mysteriously lost, the military offers Ripley career advancement if she agrees to travel back with the Marines to investigate LV-426. Ripley and crew arrive on LV-426 to find hundreds of aliens have taken over the planet, cocooned the colonists, and are using humans as hosts for certain breeding purposes. Once again, it is man vs. alien, and, as the number of Marines decreases, Ripley once again takes the forefront in the fight for survival.
However, before the action/adventure part of the film actually takes off, one of the first things the audience learns in Cameron’s sequel is that Ripley had a 10-year old daughter, Amy, when she set out on Nostromo for her original space expedition. Of course, Scott’s film does not mention that information; in fact, Scott’s film could not mention that information. If the audience knew Ripley was a mother in Alien, when onboard Nostromo, it would complicate their support and concern for her as the film’s heroine. On some level, the 1979 audience (and quite possibly even today’s audience) would view her as a mother who left her child behind, a child who was too young to care for herself, all to pursue personal interests in a dangerous career that forced a separation between mother and child. In leaving her daughter, Ripley would have committed some wrongdoing, thus deserving, on some level, the struggle she encountered with the alien. Ridley Scott did not make Ridley a mother in Alien because, theoretically, that would have affected the audience’s perception of her.
Yet, Cameron casually inserts this detail into Aliens during the opening scenes. Just after waking up, Burke (Paul Reiser) comes into Ripley’s room and tells her she has been in hypersleep for many years. He goes on to reveal Ripley’s daughter, who lived a long, full life while Ripley was in hypersleep, died three years before Ripley’s return. Naturally, Ripley is upset with Burke’s revelation, which allows the audience to process this new information about Ripley. By killing Amy, the film punishes Ripley for leaving her child, but also draws out from the audience sympathy for Ripley. Because cinema is a conveyor of social standards, yes, it is necessary for Ripley to be punished; she left her child, thus her child must be taken from her. However, leaving Amy for Nostromo was not a malicious, child-hating crime; thus, Ripley can gain the audience’s sympathy during her time of loss.
Just as the audience’s compassion kicks in for Ripley, cut to the colonists setting up LV-426, before loosing contact with the military at home. A tank drives over the harsh terrain, and inside are a mother, father, and two young children (a boy and girl). The tank comes upon an unidentified spaceship in a remote area. The parents decided not to call in the discovery, but to investigate it for themselves; they tell the children to stay in the tank. Ultimately, all but the little girl, named Newt (Carrie Henn), get killed and/or cocooned by the alien species.
This event leads to communication being lost with the colonists, progressing the narrative toward Ripley’s return to LV-426 as a military supervisor. Shortly after landing, Ripley finds Newt, and the two develop a strong bond. Ripley instinctively takes care of the scared girl: tucking her in to bed, carrying her, holding her hand, reassuring her, and even securing her in a seatbelt-like apparatus when driving in the tank. In essence, bringing Ripley and Newt together sutures the rip Aliens makes between mothers and daughters: Ripley left her daughter, thus her daughter was taken from her; Newt’s mother left her; thus Newt, like Ripley’s daughter, lives all alone. Symbolically, Newt is Ripley’s daughter, and Ripley is Newt’s mother. Therefore, when the two find each other the mother/daughter relationship is restored.
Yet, Aliens pulls the mother/daughter relationship apart and then sutures it back together relatively early in the film, even before the audience gets one glimpse at an alien, which begs the question, “How is this motherly subplot going to lead into a science fiction film about acid-for-blood aliens?”
Well, it seems as the though the mother/daughter set-up in beginning is all part of Aliens’ climax. Throughout the film, Ripley continues playing a maternal role for Newt, all the while battling killer aliens who are easily annihilating the Marines; yet, toward the end of the film, Newt slips and falls to a lower level of the spacecraft, separating her from Ripley. Of course, because Ripley’s devotion for Newt blinds her from all danger, she goes in search of the girl and finds her in the one place Ripley never realized existed.
Ripley locates Newt in the nest, a part of the spacecraft on LV-426 where the aliens are bred. As it turns out, the alien species is led by a Queen, and the Queen is the most powerful of all. Her job is to breed and protect her eggs in the nest while the other aliens on the spacecraft act on her behalf: bringing back hosts for cocooning, keeping intruders away from the nest, and, of course, helping the Queen guard the eggs.
Essentially, the Queen is mother, and when Ripley faces off with the Queen it is mother vs. mother. Not only is the Queen the largest and most powerful alien within a dangerous species, but the Queen is also the idolized model of the self-sacrificial, “perfect” mother. The reason Ripley—and by extension, the audience—never knew the Queen existed is because she never left the nest; unlike Ripley, the Queen never separated from her offspring. Therefore, one may interpret that the film spent a significant amount of time exploring mother/child relationships and showing Ripley’s increasing maternal side so she would be prepared to come face-to-face with this Queen.
The film’s climax is Ripley vs. Queen, and the two fight it out to the death, literally. Ultimately, Ripley emerges victorious: she saves Newt, vanquishes the Queen into space, and nukes the entire planet, killing all the aliens and eggs still remaining.
Reading messages the film puts out, Aliens has a lot to say about the role of mother; in fact, it would not be a stretch to say the film is about mothers and what it means to be maternal. In part, Aliens offers the “imperfect” mother a second chance, evident through Ripley finding Newt, and then Ripley’s defeat of the Queen. With Newt, Ripley’s maternal instincts reignite and become stronger, and so Ripley emerges victorious in her fight against the Queen. Yet, this brings about a series of questions: because the first thing the film does is identify Ripley as a mother, what would happen to Ripley if she did not have Newt to care for? Does the film offer a place for mothers not accessing maternal side? Also, what is Ripley’s purpose if not Newt? Knowing Ripley was a mother to Amy, a daughter who is now deceased, would it be enough for Ripley to simply fight for her own survival? Does she also have to fight for the survival of a child (Newt)? Lastly, could she be successful against the Queen, a ferociously maternal mother, had she not been ferociously maternal herself by that point in the film? When it comes to maternal instinct, is a mother’s biggest threat other mothers? To some extent, what Aliens seems to suggest is mothers are allowed to make mistakes (at least human mothers, who, by nature, will make mistakes); however, according to the conclusion presented in the film, mothers must be punished for their errors, repent, and reemerge with stronger maternal instincts to survive.