Why ALIENS Is the Mother of Action Movies
And how a modern heroine was born.
Thirty years ago, Hollywood—well, an eager, young James Cameron—gave life to the most influential action movie of modern times. It was the sequel another modern classic, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), a groundbreaking sci-fi-horror-hybrid hit, creepy and creeping, its run-down “truckers in space” vibe thrust up against twisted sexual iconography (male ‘rape,’ that birth scene). Cameron’s follow-up, however, is anything but a clone. In fact, alongside The Godfather Part II (1974), it’s perhaps the single most exemplary model for following an iconic movie: exploring and expanding its predecessor’s mythology, while getting even further under the skin of an already fascinating protagonist. For all its patiently mounted tension and relentless adrenalized action, what makes Aliens so much more than just a thrillingly rendered, “purely visceral” sci-fi war movie, is what writer-director Cameron—and star Sigourney Weaver—do with ex-Warrant Officer Ripley. I remember at the time reading a review from long-defunct British film mag Photoplay, raving that, amid all the eighties-era weapon fetishization and macho heroics, Ripley remains “every inch a woman.” Only much later did I really think about what that might mean. Cameron has gone on to essay an admirable number of strong women across movies he’s both directed and written—think of the battle-hardened Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) or Angela Bassett’s fearsome, soulful "Mace" in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), among many others. And while modern cinema now bends over backwards (though, Jurassic World aside, seldom in heels) to deliver kick-ass female leads, few, if any, match Ripley’s iconic status. This video essay, then, is an attempt to decipher the DNA of what, for me, is the greatest—and mother—of all action movie heroines.