I first saw Aliens in 1986, a week or so before it was released in the theaters, in a press showing for the reviewers in Chicago. Remember, this is all long before the internet and entertainment-industry shows on cable. Promotional pre-viewing audience information was unknown. No one knew a thing about a movie except via the paper-based reviews bare days before its public release, and the reviewers themselves knew nothing until they saw it just before that. Before the showing began, I was fascinated by this specific audience, whom I’d never seen before: their short shiny leather jackets, their close-pulled ponytails, their shouting across the seats at one another (“Oh hiii!“), their mutual sneering at the film they were about to see, and their striking disregard for watching a movie as an experience.
During the initial nightmare scene, all their hipster snark fell dead silent. You could hear the audience collectively inhale sharply at certain points. By halfway through, people were literally screaming with fear. I want to talk about why, for which this rapid-fire outline & terms sheet is the foundation, and then beyond that, to ask a different why.
The alien adversary in the films is a shining example of prior plausibility in science fiction, based on a couple different strategies observed in arthropods, especially insects. I’ve already posted briefly about the film Alien (1979), especially this teaching sheet. All that creepy-crawly egg and chest-ripping stuff is real biology, and what we see of the alien matches it well. Now I’m talking about how this sequel comes along and matches it some more, by filling in more information about its reproductive features.
In most insects, sex (male or female) is cued by genetic content in a system called XY (similar to ours) or XO, and in eusocial insects, the non-reproductive individuals are XX females who’ve been developmentally “switched off,” so that’s what I’m using to fill out the diagram here with the darker shading. The only real-life part that’s not shown in either movie is the male role and mating step, here unshaded.
- The single female reproducer (“queen”) has multiple offspring, immensely so
- Most adult offspring are non-reproductive and entirely committed to their mother’s further maternal reproduction – they “reproduce” by facilitating siblings to be born
The alien species is also parasitoidal, meaning:
- Offspring gestate in a host animal’s body, feeding off it and killing it upon emergence.
- The mother contributes relatively little energy to offpsrings’ development, in this case not even seeking hosts for them
- The queen’s maximal sunk cost prior to any offspring’s ability to contribute to her (and their) reproductive effort is at the egg state
Then the eggs are threatened, and just as predicated with math, the non-reproductive individuals and in this fictional case, the queen, deploy to protect the nest with maximum force.
Ripley’s species, on the other hand, is ultrasocial, meaning:
- Nearly all adults are potentially reproductive, affected primarily by conflicting kin ties and social status
- Many behaviors typically associated with kinship are applied frequently on a community, non-related basis
Also, this species’ offspring are altricial with a long nurturing phase; a parent’s sunk cost prior to the offspring’s own reproductive activity (and hence the parent’s too) is maximum just before puberty.
In her case, she is of reproductive age with no living offspring (one dead), and she is socially marginalized. She meets Newt, who is orphaned at the precise age of maximum unmet sunk cost, i.e., the “most valuable.” When Newt is directly threatened, again, with predictable mathematical precision, Ripley responds with a highly personal, maximal nurturing protective behavior toward her.
When Ripley finds [Newt], her life means something again. [Sigourney Weaver, interview in Starburst 1987]
Really? Why? Sure, psychologically and sociobiologically, it means something to her. But “meaning” in a story or life sense? In a moral sense? Is Ripley’s internal experience to be generalized outward as part of her heroism?
Evidently, people think so. As I saw at the press showing, this film is notable for its astonishing emotional power and engaging qualities. It’s been almost thirty years since then, and Ripley is acknowledged as the first major female action hero and one of the most popular characters in cinema. The alien queen is frequently cited as an archetypal villain. To this day audiences leap to their feet, cheering, at Ripley’s line, “Get away from her, you bitch!”
Yet its most most central conflict completely lacks ethical content. Ripley’s actions are completely at odds with her personal safety, the lives of her comrades, and the assigned mission. Nor are her actions in any way different from those of the alien queen’s except insofar as they conform to our biology rather than the queen’s.
Why is what she does so overwhelming, viscerally perceived as right?
[Disclosure: I published a paper about using these concepts in the classroom in The Journal of Biological Science Teaching in 1997.]
Next: Same thing(s)