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This Time It's War!
Alasdair Spark, History, King Alfred's College
"This time it's War!" So reads the poster for James Cameron's 1987 film Aliens . Perhaps because it was a sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien (1980), little has been written about the film, least of all in the context of Vietnam most discussions dwell upon feminist implications. However, Vietnam was clearly a major influence on the movie, and I would recommend Aliens as a text to anyone teaching a course on the war. At the close of my own course students view it as an example of how the war has become mythologised within a popular genre, viz science fiction, and consider what that might say about such mythologization. Initially, most students are surprised at the choice of a popular film they have seen before, but never connected with Vietnam. Most come away convinced. So, what are the connections?
Aliens is a difficult film to summarize, but for those who have not seen it, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the sole survivor of a spaceship whose crew, after landfall on a distant planet, were killed by a creature which lays its eggs inside human hosts. Having escaped in the ship's lifeboat, at the opening of Aliens Ripley is rescued after years in suspended animation, only to find her story disbelieved, and the planet now colonized by the all-powerful Company. After contact with the colony is lost, Ripley reluctantly returns with a platoon of Colonial Marines (male and female), to discover that most of the settlers have been impregnated by a horde of aliens. A fierce battle ensues in which the platoon loses its dropship shuttle and is stranded on the planet, the colony's fusion reactor is damaged and about to detonate, and the Marines are picked off one by one until only Ripley, Marine Corporal Hicks, an android (Bishop), and a young girl survivor (Newt) are left alive. Newt is captured, and rescuing her, Ripley discovers and destroys the lair of the egg-laying Alien Queen. Escaping in another dropship with a wounded Bishop and Hicks, Ripley finds that the Queen has stowed away, and alien and human females fight a final battle.
Science Fiction confronted the Vietnam war from the beginning, drawing upon its remarkable ability as a genre to isolate and intensify elements of the war experience (see essays by H. Bruce Franklin and myself cited earlier in this column, in previous issues). A favorite allegorical structure has been to describe "future reruns" of Vietnam, and Aliens falls into this category. Cameron's film was derived from Alien (itself derived from a 1943 short story by AE Van Vogt) and Alien like other SF/horror films of the 1980s, has links with Vietnam in the evocation of a claustrophobic jungle fear of the lurking other that can strike without warning. Unlike most others, its female protagonist is no mere victim, leading many feminist critics to praise the film, and therefore to fault Aliens for betraying this, by suggesting that women can only fight to protect children. However, this interpretation must be balanced against Vietnam elements in the film, both literal, and subtle. Some literal transferences give Aliens an "authentic" mise en scene , with details of behavior, rank, slang, weaponry, uniforms, and equipment which convince precisely because of a familiarity with images of Vietnam. Indeed, during production the crew gave the film the nickname Grunts in Space. Immediately before, Cameron had co-scripted Rambo: First Blood 2 . Plot situations and characters derive from Vietnam, and put together all these items constitute a semiosis best expressed in the following diagrams:
Viet Cong Aliens
hide in dark
jungle and tunnels air-conditioning ducts
unknown country. unknown base/planet.
2. They kill
US Marines Colonial Marines
who land by, and are rescued by
helicopter. drop ship.
3. The troops are led by
incompetent officers incompetent officers
and betrayed by civilian
4. Soldiers learn
not to trust their ally, to trust their ally,
the South Vietnamese. the android.
5. The conflict is a
struggle between males struggle between females
for territory. for children.
6. Physical violation threatens
by booby trap by alien claw
and bodies are penetrated by
bullet and shrapnel. alien creatures.
7. Weapons are
high-tech ultra high-tech
but the firepower
An atomic explosion
does not occur occurs
a defeat. a victory of sorts.
The source and manner of these references is significant. Aliens is a film about Vietnam in that it successfully taps into and exploits the codified mythology about the war which emerged and solidified in the 1980s, via the avalanche of film, novel, memoir, and oral history (most of it subsequent to the first film). Aliens therefore is not so much about the Vietnam war, as about America's perception and understanding of the war with a decade-plus of hindsight it is a film about films about Vietnam. To give an example, the platoon is led by a cigar-chewing hard-as-nails black sergeant, a figure of Vietnam iconography established via portrayals such as Louis Gosset, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman , which represent honorable and professional soldiers in the ranks. Notably the officer in Aliens is the inexperienced and incompetent figure of legend, who causes the deaths of several of the platoon. All this reflects the general sympathy for Vietnam veterans provoked by the discourse of the 1980s, and contrastingly the Company bureaucrat Gorman is a negative figure; he tells Hicks that he isn't qualified to lead because he is a mere "grunt." This civilian, like the CIA agent in Rambo , betrays the grunt, and frustrates his use of full force against the enemy, a device surely rooted in a 1980s perception of the war, and the grunt as its victim.
Aliens presents interesting reversals of Vietnam situations, for instance, if the android Bishop represents the South Vietnamese (e.g., can he be trusted, is he our ally?), the answer is contra-mythologic--Bishop sacrifices himself. Most signally, the alien hordes are a pure enemy, to be slaughtered with impunity, since they are non-human (although one can read this as a direct parallel with "mere gook-ism"). John Rambo asked, "Do we get to win this time?" and Aliens replies, "This time it's war," promising the mother of all battles, but who wins? Throughout the film the aliens are superior; a few humans escape, and destroy the aliens, but only at the cost of incinerating the colony (using the means denied in Vietnam, an atomic explosion), provoking memories of the infamous phrase "it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it. Ripley fights a private war to rescue Newt, parallel to the Alien Queen's own fight to save her children--female against female, mother against mother. This struggle can be read as antifeminist, suggesting that motherhood is the central motivation for all females, regardless of species, but it does come after a film full of macho bravado met by ineptitude, and in which Ripley, supported by other female characters, constitutes a strong anchor. When Vietnam referentialities are appreciated, surely this indicates the establishment of the need for good reasons to fight, and for a proper, unswaggering realism about it. What Ripley's war represents is a judgment about what is, and isn't worth dying for, and ultimately one that steps outside gender. To conclude, it's only a movie, but there is an irony: Vietnam provokes fears of a repeat for America, while what guarantees that the movie war isn't over is the certainty of a sequel Alien 3 will be in your cinemas next year.