I’ve always preferred James Cameron’s version of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens to the Ripley of Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien. A lot has been said on the differences, especially as they relate to sexuality and the male gaze, between Scott’s version and Cameron’s. James Cameron himself has said quite a bit. I think both Ripleys are admirable but in different (and not necessarily contradictory) ways. That said, it doesn’t take a Pulitzer Prize in critical analysis to notice that Ripley is more well-sketched out in the sequel. Whereas the original Alien is a perfectly over-crafted and over-designed claustrophobic haunted house film, Aliens is a character- and thematically driven action masterclass in action filmmaking—a change that would have been impossible with the characteristically thinner 1979 Ripley.
Set in the far future from the original, Ripley’s awoken from cryosleep to find out her whole life passed while she was unconscious. In the director’s cut, she also learns that her daughter, who didn’t exist in the canonical version of Alien, has died of old age—a bit that makes her parental relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn) mean a bit more than in the theatrical version. But even in the theatrical cut, she’s just a richer character. She cares about more than the mere survival of herself and her crew—which is all that was needed for the near-perfect execution of the corridor thrills and kills in the first movie—but also about preserving the innocence of Newt, the lone child survivor from the colony on LV-426, and has to work through her own traumas from her first extraterrestrial encounter. As she’s basically forced onto a mission returning to the exomoon where her original crew first found the xenomorph as soon as she wakes, her traumas are too raw for her to revert to the same cold (and, according to Cameron, sexualized) action hero that she was in the original. She has no option but to grapple with her emotions before the audience.
The film’s politics rather famously make a mockery of American foreign policy and macho militarism.
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