Directed by James Cameron, Aliens is the sequel to the Alienfilm of 1979 under Ridley Scott’s direction. The story continues fifty-seven years after the events of the first film and follows officer Ellen Ripley as she returns with marines to the Alien-inhabited planet. Aliensprovides insight into a previously unanswered question about the origin of the Alien eggs by introducing an Alien Queen. Thus, the Queen in turn introduces two perspectives of the reproductive body, the Alien body and the human body, and allows the audience to draw comparisons between them. The maternal body in particular has long been regarded with both fear and fascination in response to both its maternal and abject natures (Hanson 96). In relation to conception and pregnancy, some theorists view the feminine body as a shaped territory comprised of various areas and orifices where the distinction between clean and dirty, proper and improper, and possible and impossible can be impressed and expressed (Kristeva 72). Thus, the maternal body can be conceptualized as a junction of sorts where nature can confront culture, or nurture as the unresolved debate would name it (Hanson 95). In Aliens, this junction is personified by both the Queen and Ripley – the Queen as primal nature in opposition to Ripley as learned culture. Moreover, by including a character such as the Queen and creating instances of interaction between her and Ripley, Cameron facilitates some debate concerning the accompanying associations of motherly instinct and nature.
Cameron does not create a unique Alien reproductive body, but instead closely models it after that of the human. It is important to note that all scenes depicting the procreative functions of the Alien body are quite literal – not much is left to be implied by the audience’s imagination. Rather than interpreting the meaning from the symbols of primal human nature, it is simply a matter of recognizing them. Introduction of the Alien Queen clarifies the reproductive cycle of the Aliens as a three-part process: first, the Queen lays eggs carrying the Facehuggers; second, the Facehuggers live up to their namesakes, implant an Alien embryo into an (unlucky) human host, then detach and die; finally, the embryo matures into the also aptly named Chestburster and exits the host (Aliens 00:34:21). Each stage of the cycle cinematically alludes to the human female reproductive cycle, often through quite obvious visual similarities. The egg-laying stage is shown at the same time as the Queen is revealed, and the audience can easily identify this scene as an external depiction of the womb. While hurrying to find an escape from the station, Ripley and Newt discover a dark, wet, slimy room filled with hundreds of eggs (2:13:28-2:14:50). The camera follows Ripley as she surveys the room, eventually seeing an egg being deposited onto the floor from a large, membranous tube that immediately calls to mind the look of fallopian tubes.
Continuing its path upwards, the camera discovers an enormous egg sac holding more eggs and this can be taken as a symbol of ovaries. Finally, the egg sac is shown to be attached to the Alien Queen and even she is coated in mucous, solidifying her place as an integral aspect of womb. Furthermore, the eggs themselves follow the pattern of organ representation, as do the physical features and release of the Facehuggers. The eggs have the typical round, elongated shape with four flaps covering an opening at the top. The flaps unfold outwards from the center, giving it a vaginal appearance, and the Facehugger forcibly ejects itself from the egg in a visceral display of childbirth. The undersides of the Facehuggers are much more accurate in their vaginal appearance than the eggs, as is their phallic protrusion that inserts the embryo into the human’s chest (00:55:40). The Alien gestation cycle comes to completion in another violent spectacle of childbirth as the Chestburster emerges.
Unlike their Alien counterparts, some depictions of the human reproductive body in the film are entirely figurative. For example, the crew discovers Ripley in the shuttle by using a robotic arm reminiscent of a phallic symbol, or perhaps surgical implements, to explore the wreckage (00:04:02). Indeed, the medical connotations are supported by Ripley’s nightmare while in the infirmary, which stands in stark contrast to the Queen’s birthing room. Ripley lies on a clean, white hospital bed surrounded by similarly clean staff and equipment and thus more closely resembles normal human labor than the darkened, dirty room of the Queen (00:07:35). The scene intensifies as Ripley lifts her hospital gown to expose her stomach and Alien movement is visible within her abdomen (00:08:12). Ripley’s body is analogous to hostile place here, and Cameron’s decision to place this scene much earlier in the movie than the Alien nest scene ultimately establishes an element of equality between the human body and the Alien body and by extension the arguably hostile room of eggs. Thus, he effectively links nature and culture by reminding the audience of the maternal body’s dual portrayal in Ripley and the Queen. Again, the discovery of the Queen cinematically emphasizes this equality by positing her at Ripley’s eye-level. But this scene simultaneously identifies the Queen as the monstrous opposition or other by alternating close-ups her massive body with the faces of Ripley and Newt, the lone survivor of an Alien attack (02:14:22).
Issues of maternal instinct come into play when Ripley learns of the loss of her daughter but finds a surrogate in Newt. The two form a close bond as they fill a need in the other: a child for Ripley and a parent for Newt. Several scenes depict Ripley’s maternal instinct, such as her acts of care when Newt initially comes on board (01:01:46), tucking her into bed (01:33:12), and finally rescuing her from being an embryonic host (02:12:23). The Queen’s maternal instincts also come to light after the pair stumble upon her nest. The Queen summons fully mature Alien warriors to the nest and Ripley, realizing the danger of the situation, warns the Queen by waving a flamethrower over her precious eggs (02:15:06). Immediately the Alien warriors are called off, and Ripley and Newt are allowed to leave on the understanding that they will not be hurt if they do not cause hurt. Noticing an egg beginning to open, Ripley is unable to just walk away from an entire room full of the spawn, so she sets fire to all the eggs and harms the Queen upon their departure (02:15:57). Ripley shifts from her role as a mother to her role as an officer, thus allowing the Queen’s role to similarly shift from monster to vengeful mother. The juxtaposition of these roles culminates in the climax of the film where Ripley and the Queen face off one-on-one and is further emphasized by Ripley’s use of war machinery (02:25:57).
At this point, the maternal bodies of both species have called into question the strictly biological nature of reproduction and the emotionally-attached nature of child-rearing. The destruction of the Facehugger eggs followed by the Queen’s revenge should make the audience re-evaluate all conceptions of a good mother and consider it from an Alien perspective. In this way, James Cameron is deliberately ambiguous so as to facilitate a debate of the real monster of the film and perhaps a winner of the nature versus culture conflict. The audience must decide if the Queen is justified in seeking vengeance or if Ripley is pardoned from killing numerous young, though both did so only in the interest of the continued survival of their respective species. Of course, in terms of the film the only answer to give would be in support of Ripley for protecting the human race. Nonetheless, several questions are raised when considering the representations of the maternal body and habits of motherhood in all its capacities, whether alien or human.
Aliens. Directed by James Cameron, 20th Century Fox, 1986.
Hanson, Clare. “The Maternal Body.” The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature, edited by David Hillman and Ulrika Maude, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 87-100.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982.