Analysis: Aliens – The Vietnam War Metaphor

WARNING: Contains spoilers throughout

Aliens1986 saw the release of Canadian-born director James Cameron’s sequel to the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. Aliens has been praised over the years by Science Fiction, Horror, and Action film fans alike, not to mention fans of the original film and cinephiles in general. It is considered by many to be superior to Ridley Scott’s horror in space; whether the film is or is not superior to its predecessor is a matter for debate (I personally do not believe it is). But one thing is for certain – Aliens is a more complex film than Alien. Aliens takes the traditional approach to any motion picture sequel – more blood, more bullets, more aliens, more explosions, more characters, more death scenes – more, more, more and then some more just for good measure. Luckily the films excesses when it comes to the overt delights of cinema are matched by an increase in the films interpretive possibilities.

The story begins fifty years after Alien concluded. Ellen Ripley (as played by Sigourney Weaver) has been in cryogenic sleep aboard the Nostromo escape pod; the pod has veered off course, but luckily a salvage team discovered the pod by accident otherwise Ripley would have been floating in space forever. After pleading with officials from The Company and trying to explain the circumstances of the Nostromo’s destruction, Ripley is put out to pasture. The planet the original crew discovered the alien ship on is now being terraformed into a habitable world - earth loses contact with the colonists and Ripley is convinced to return to planet with a team of colonial marines. Upon arriving all hell breaks lose as there are now over a hundred aliens roaming the main complex and the Marines are soon trapped fighting for their lives and against the clock as the reactor which powers the complex is building up for a thermal nuclear detonation, if that happens then it’s “adios muchachos”.

So already from the plot outline we can see complexities in terms of the story set-up, the situations the characters find themselves in and the enemy at large. This is a more sophisticated film than Alien (that’s not to immediately imply superiority though – as most of the first films strengths are derived from its deceptively simple premise).

Below the surface there is a fairly blatant thematic exploration in Aliens – maternity. Effectively the entire film is about two mothers having a great big fight. Ripley’s daughter has grown-up and died whilst she’s been lost in the escape pod, she projects her maternal instincts onto Newt, an orphaned colonist who is around the age of Ripley’s own daughter at the time she’d initially left Earth aboard the Nostromo. Newt even calls Ripley “mommy” at one stage when she is terrified about the impending threat of death. Ripley behaves like a mother does, protecting Newt and against all odds rescuing her from certain death on more than one occasion. When the marines are initially captured by the aliens for cocooning Ripley discourages the remaining marines from launching a rescue mission because they “can’t save them”, later when Newt is captured for cacooning Ripley hypocritically risks Bishop and Hick’s lives to save her – the rational side of Ripley is overwhelmed by the maternal instinct. Meanwhile an addition is made to the alien’s life cycle – The Queen Mother. The Queen effectively gives birth to every alien on the colony. She shows protective impulses at the end when Ripley threatens her eggs with a flame thrower and she is enraged into attack when Ripley decides to kill all of her young ones (where exactly this gigantic 20ft monster was hiding when the Nortomo arrived in the first film is never explained and we’re encouraged not ask such damaging questions). Maternity is a strong theme of Aliens and it also contributes to Ripley becoming a real woman in some senses. As is well known, in Alien, Ripley was originally written to be a man and the transition to female was as simple as changing “he” to “she” and “his” to “her” in the shooting script, even Ripley’s first name is not revealed until the sequel. Now as a mother as well as a hero we can truly see her as a female action hero – before she could have just as easily been a man.

AliensThere is also an argument that Aliens is a war movie with a pro-gun agenda, even the films tagline proudly proclaims “this time it’s war” indicating a switch in genre which extends as far as the films marketing. Cameron is evidently fascinated by guns, this fascination is almost fetishistic in places; marines Vasquez and Drake pose and thrust with their weapons in unison before going into battle. Gorman gives Ripley a point-by-point accurate description of the ammunition the weapons fire (Cameron provides zealous details of his futuristic weaponry at all points). Corporal Hicks takes a brief opportunity to teach Ripley how to use a rifle and a flame thrower, the scene is framed as a courting sequence; the handling of the weaponry becomes romantically arousing for both of them to the point of being twistedly erotic - an NRA wet dream if you will – the gun being an extension of Hick’s manhood and Ripley gladly learning how to “handle” it. Cameron’s obsession with weaponry led to Weaver’s insistence that Alien 3 had “no guns” if she were to return to the franchise, Weaver being an avid anti-gun activist – hence the radical change of direction that took place within Alien 3. If guns were treated in such a way by a film set in the present and based in a real conflict then the film have suffered much harsher scrutiny – as it is Aliens avoids these attacks for the most part because its gun lovin’ attitude is dismissed as merely a harmless boy-own fantasy.

Deeper than the films themes and extensions are the potential metaphorical interpretations. As with most Science Fiction films, there is room here to interpret the content in a number of ways; but the one interpretation we’re focusing on here is how Aliens can be read as a Vietnam War metaphor. Some points of this interpretation might seem transparent, most notably the concept of a high tech invading force attacking a low tech enemy and being overwhelmed and defeated in part due to underestimating and not understanding the enemy. It isn’t quite that simple though and there are a few holes in the theory. Firstly the location, as is stated quite clearly at the beginning of the film – the aliens are not indigenous – but then neither are the colonists. There is no indigenous form of life on LV-426, it is a lifeless rock. In the Vietnam War, America was attacking a sovereign nation with its own born and bred population, in Aliens we witness two forces attacking each other in a location that belongs to neither of them. If we ignore this factor as just a minor quibble then we run into additional problems, for instance who do the colonists represent? In The Vietnam War the Americans were not fighting to defend any American nationals who were to be found living in Vietnam, the war was an extension of the cold war, a battle on the ground between Capitalism and Communism - a battle of ideologies. There is no such ideological conflict in Aliens not even one that can be gleamed from the surrounding contexts. The aliens are intelligent but not to the point of having a political agenda and the marines are on a rescue mission first and foremost - destroying the Aliens is second on their agenda.

Where the Vietnam War interpretation does work is in terms of the basic differences between the sides of the conflict. The marines have all the latest and greatest technology on their side. They arrive in well equipped space ship, a battle cruiser not a mining vessel. They have body armour and as the marine Hudson (played by Bill Paxton) enthusiastically proclaims: “I'm ready, man, check it out. I am the ultimate badass! State of the badass art! You do NOT wanna fuck with me…Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you! Independently targeting particle beam phalanx. Fry half a city with this puppy. We got tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs, we got sonic electronic ball breakers! We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks...” The aliens by comparison are a no-tech highly versatile force of warriors who make the most of their environment and blend into the walls; they have no weapons, but are compensated by a ferocious predatory instincts and biological advantages such as acid for blood and razor sharp nails, teeth and tails. They may out number the marines, but as this is a “bug hunt” the marines should have no problem in taking them out as they are precieved as the technically superior force (although we as the audience might know better). In the first attack they all but wipe out the marines, in the climatic attack what is left of the marines are either killed or incapacitated; only the civilians Newt, Bishop and Ripley are left standing. Their solution to the problem is to nuke the site from orbit, a massive technological advantage the marines have over the aliens (if they can get to the ship to launch the attack). The nuclear attack is the equivilant to the napalm strikes the U.S. launched against the Vietnamese, a weapon they have no chance of combating which is ethically dubious to use, although in Aliens, Cameron presents the option as not just desirable, but in fact “the only way to be sure” as both Ripley and Hicks state. The death of just about everyone in the marine platoon is equivalent to the deaths of countless U.S soldiers in Vietnam; even if the marines kill ten aliens to every soldier the aliens cacoon or eviscerate - they lose the war. This ratio is about correct as in the Vietnam War 258,831 casulaties were taken by the south against a staggering 1,177,446 casulaties for the north. It’s a game of numbers and the aliens, like the North Vietnamiese, have more, at this level it doesn’t matter how many marines they send in – they’ll never win. The aliens simply breed more soldiers using the cocooned bodies of captured marines.

AliensIt is also possible to read Burke and The Company as the U.S administration. Their goal goes beyond combat and rescue, manufacturing conflict for their own ends so that they may bring back samples of the aliens for biological weapons research. Burke deliberately sends the colonists to the alien ship’s location and causes the conflict much in the same way as the U.S. administration went into Vietnam without real provocation to fight a continued battle of political ideologies. The motivations don’t match from Vietnam to Aliens, however the duplicitous nature of the motives do. These are not wars fought for defence, they’re wars fought for political gain disguised as defence. Or perhaps Burke and the company can be read as the Russians? In practice Burke and the company help the aliens at several points, Burke even going so far as to trap Ripley and Newt in a room with two face-huggers – he is attempting to feed the conflict as the Russian’s did when they supplied the Vietnamiese with weaponry.

So where do Ripley, Bishop and Newt fit in? Newt as a colonist can be read as a Vietnamese civilian (if we were to ignore her non-indigenous status). The innocent caught in the cross fire, as a young child she is an innocent in the conflict, but she’s also resourceful, surviving the attacks with no outside help or weapons, she is as resourceful as the aliens she’s evading. The Vietnamese civilian population often had to be resourceful to avoid death at the hands of either side of the conflict. Ripley and Bishop are different issues, as outsiders and observers with no other agenda they do not easily fit any of the different facets of the Vietnam War, and perhaps this is where the metaphor becomes compromised further. Other questions at this point emerge: Does the Queen represent the Russians? This works as she is the breeding ground for more alien troops in the same way that the Soviet Union was providing the Vietnamese fighters with AK47’s and thus fuelling the conflict.

The last act somewhat discounts all of these considerations as all that is left is the aforementioned battle between the two mothers aboard the Sullaco, it seems to have no connection to the Vietnam metaphor, especially as Ripley on her own seems to have no direct counterpart in the Vietnam war and if the Queen represents the Russians then a conflict like this never occurred. Vietnam the country is taken out of the equation as soon as the colony is destroyed by the nuclear explosion.

Whether or not it was Cameron’s intention to code a Vietnam War metaphor into the fabric of his Science Fiction sequel is up for speculation, however what is not debatable is that the film is littered with Vietnam-esque imagery. For example the make-up of the marine platoon which reminds of stereotypical Vietnam War platoons (discounting the female presence and romantic relationships). Gorman in particular is very similar to the character of Lt. Wolfe from Oliver Stone’s Vietnam film Platoon which was released in the same year as Aliens, both men are incompetent and have no idea how to handle the men below them; of course given the proximity of the two productions release dates means it’s highly unlikely that Wolfe inspired Gorman or vice versa. Sergeant Apone is the leader of the marines on the ground, often mid-ranking salt-of-the-earth officers are played by African-American actors as is the case here, it is an ethnic stereotype along the same lines as the African-American police commander in films and TV shows through the 1980’s and 1990’s. There are others to, Hudson’s loud mouth but ultimately cowardly marine; Frost, the reliable best friend for Hicks who is killed off to bring Hicks centre stage and to rid us of a personality-less character; Hicks himself conforms to several stereo-types – quiet and relaxed (able to sleep in the turbulent drop-ship) he is a leader waiting to take control as others fail or die – he is the high school jock ready to make the big touch down, the all-American white hero who has such an inoffensive and boring personality that no-one dislikes him – his type can be found in many a war movie. The flaw in this theory is that a number of aforementioned stereotypes extend to all war movies, not just those set during the Vietnam conflict. However the uniforms and armour remind of U.S. military uniforms worn during the Vietnam War (the colonial marines are an American force as indicated by the American flags on their sleeves). The environment is also comparable to Vietnam, in a short space of time the Marines go from stormy, rainy exteriors (like the torrential down-pours that are common in South-East Asia) to overwhelming heat as they approach the reactor and the alien nest (again like the kind of unbearable heat the U.S soldiers were not used to dealing with in Vietnam).

AliensSome of Cameron’s inspiration comes from the book Starship Troopers with terms like “bug hunt” and “drop-ship” coming directly from the novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Hence there are also major similarities with Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film of the same name. The uniforms the soldiers wear and the weaponry the soldiers mention could be inspired by Heinlein’s book, perhaps more so than the Vietnam War. Cameron also makes a few oblique references to his previous 1984 movie The Terminator, Hudson mentions the “phase-plasma pulse rifles” the futuristic weapon that the T800 asks a 1980’s gun store clerk for; “hey, just what you see pal” the clerk replied and once again in Aliens the phase-plasma pulse rifles are spoken about but are no where to be seen. Clearly Cameron has been influenced by literature and cinema - perhaps the make-up of the colonial marines is inspired by Vietnam War movies more than the Vietnam War itself.

Of course another question needs to be raised in relation to this theory. Why do it? Why make a film about Vietnam disguised as a Science Fiction horror sequel? By 1986 the Vietnam War had been over for eleven years and in that decade long period a number of seminal Vietnam War movies had been released which brutally criticised the war including most famously Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. So if Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino had been making great works of fiction about that most controversial of controversial wars with no allegories or metaphors in sight, why would Cameron chose to take a transluscent approach to the subject? Aliens as a Vietnam War metaphor would have been far more effective had it been released between 1959 and 1975 whilst the war was still going on. A hidden comment could be seen by the masses whilst avoiding the censors. Perhaps this dilemma leads us to conclude that Aliens is not a Vietnam War metaphor after all, but is merely influenced by the war and the films made about the war. Using modern situations and grafting them to the futuristic work of fiction to help create a wider sense of realism with the audience. Remember that Ridley Scott’s Alien was one of the first realistic Science Fiction films made, the Nostromo’s interior appeared more like an aging cargo tanker and Scott famously wanted the cast to appear like “mechanics in space”, an image which has influenced a number of science fiction films made since to greater or lesser extent. By including imagery that reminds of the Vietnam War, Cameron has extended the realism of Alien. He could have included the phase-plasma pulse rifles had he wanted to, he could have asked the designers to create a world that was wholly detached from our own experiences – after all Aliens is set fifty-years after Alien - anything goes. But Cameron instead chose to continue with Scott’s “mechanics in space” but this time its “Vietnam War soldiers in space”.