For reasons unknown, I found myself thinking about James Cameron’s Aliens earlier today. For the record, this is one of my favourite movies. In terms of visual effects, I think it holds up remarkably well for a film from the late 80s. In terms of story, I want it to hold up better than it does. Note here that I am talking about the 1990 director’s cut, which James Cameron recommends as his preferred version of the film.
Every time I watch Aliens I marvel at how much the movie terrified me as a child. At the same time, it grows more and more evident that the movie’s tension is built upon the dumb-smart people trope e.g. Ripley doesn’t bring a spare magazine for her pulse rifle when she goes to rescue Newt; or the USCM has a policy of sending starships into combat zones without a dedicated crew. However, I’d like to steer clear of fussiness of that nature for this post, focusing instead on something a little more interesting but similarly dissapointing.
Recall the first act when the colonial marines are having breakfast aboard the Sulaco. Consider the following dialogue. NB: I wrote the scene directions myself.
Hudson sits down at a table with his fellow marines.
Hey top, what’s the op?
It’s a rescue mission. You’ll love it. We have to rescue some juicy colonists’ daughters from their virginity.
The marines laugh and high five each other.
Sure wouldn’t mind getting some more of that Arcturian poontang.
Yeah, but the one you had was a male.
Doesn’t matter when it’s Arcturian, baby.
The marines continue to laugh and carry on before Bishop plays the knife game with Hudson’s hand.
This is an interesting bit of world building. There are, I think, four possible ways to interpret this seemingly innocuous set piece.
1 – It’s a meaningless throwaway to cheaply and quickly establish a futuristic tone to the soldier’s banter. Moreover, the charge that Frost’s partner was a male could be commentary on the fact that he picked an ugly girl to go home with. Rather than argue it, Frost embraces the pot shot with good cheer.
2 – The othering of the Arcturians in juxtaposition to the innately human “farmers’ daughters” implies that they are extraterrestrials whose biological construction is inherently attractive to humans such that they create a pansexual desire in Frost and most other hetnorm humans.
3 – The othering of the Arcturians in juxtaposition to the innately human “farmers’ daughters” suggests that they are humans who have undergone some level of genetic/physical modification to survive on an alien world, once again producing a pansexual response in Frost et al.
4 – The Arcturians are sexually liberated beings who live in a progressive society (think Captain Jack Harkness), as reflected by Frost’s “Doesn’t matter when it’s Arcturian” comment.
Cool as it would be to explore the third option, I don’t think it really works. First, the idea of modifying human bodies on a fundamental level – probably as a means of exploring the human condition – is well outside of Cameron’s typical wheelhouse. Second, we know this vision of the future is managed through public/private partnerships e.g. Burke talking about the colony at LV-426 being a joint venture between Yutani-Weyland and the Colonial Administration. Therefore, it’s safe to assume the powers that be are interested in exploring space in a cost-effective way. To that end, I would assume that gene modding humans is either impossible within this fictional universe, or the costs/ethics of said modifications outweigh those of terraforming an entire planet over the course of fifty years. Thus the very existence of the colony at LV-426 tends to undermine the feasibility of the third option.
Option number two could work, but the evidence supporting it isn’t really convincing. During Ripley’s inquest on Gateway Station, one of the company’s officers says that the Xenomorphs are something never before seen in 300 surveyed worlds. This doesn’t preclude alien life, just innately hostile alien life.
Private Hudson proves to be the most useful source of intelligence regarding the role of aliens in the Alien universe. When the marines emerge from cryo, Vasquez asks “what’s with sleeping beauty?” Corporal Deitrich answers, “Apparently she saw an alien once.” To which Hudson answers, “Well whoopie fucking do,” implying that seeing an alien is de rigueur for the marines.
Following that interchange, Hudson asks Lt. Gorman if their mission to LV-426 is going to be a bug hunt or a stand up fight. My suspicion is that the United States Colonial Marines have two purposes in the Alien universe: the first is suppressing revolts and riots from human colonists (a blog post for another day); the second is clearing out non-sapient indigenous life forms i.e. bug hunting. For want of better evidence, I think it would be dubious to presume that the Arcturians are sexually compatible, non-human life forms. Furthermore, I’m also reticent to jump to that conclusion because it takes us to a rather transgressive place for James Cameron. Interspecies relationships as seen in Avatar are as heteronormative and tedious as any sort of Hollywood schlock. In that example, Jake Sully becomes a full on cat person, and his exotic, bordering on Orientalized girlfriend bonds with him for life as a cat person. Much as I want to believe that this scene is about pansexual, gender fluid, interspecies relationships, that’s probably a bit rich for the 80s.
This leaves us with option one or option four. However, there’s one more variable I want to introduce into this mess. Even though the marines’ breakfast is something of a wholesale machismo session, it’s worth noting that the two characters who bring up sex are the only two African Americans in the squad. Perhaps this isn’t a big deal, but Hollywood has a history of framing African American male characters as caricatures of sexual aggression. So this is potentially problematic in and of itself. Also, the two black guys are among the first to die in the movie. Sarcastic slow clap for James Cameron.
Putting that discussion aside for now, let us consider this breakfast as our primary introduction to the marines as people. Apone presents as the tough as nails career military type from the way he rouses the troops out of cryo. Yet in the very next scene he’s talking about their mission in terms of banging farm girls. Frost follows up with his comment on Arcturian poontang, which setting aside allegations of his banging a male Arcturian, implies some level of male with female sexual interaction for the language alone. All things being equal, it’s pretty aggressive and mildly unsettling to see these two marines, arguably co-protagonists, evoking the worst sort of stereotypes one expects from a conquering soldier.
Simply treating the language as it is, and without getting into a discussion on the Drake/Vasquez relationship, is there anything in the discussion preceding and immediately following the Arcturian poontang that suggests a progressive world view from these marines? I don’t think so.
This leaves us with option number one. Frost’s dialogue is a piece of world building that represents an intentional tonal choice in the screen play. My suspicion is that Arcturian poontang is likely meant to evoke a specific reaction from the audience in terms of how film depicted American soldiers in the aftermath of Vietnam. Attempts at a deeper reading probably aren’t going to end in a place where Cameron was attempting to push boundaries or explore inter-species relationships beyond the fetish level of Humans/Orion Slave Girls.
As much as I want to view Aliens through the lens of something like Old Man’s War, it’s probably a little disingenuous to the intention of what Cameron wrote nearly thirty years ago.