Why James Cameron’s Aliens is the best movie about technology

My friend Patrick has a joke. Maybe you’ve heard it.

Patrick was an engineer at Twitter when he wrote this, so I believe him.

It’s a great line, not least because it’s probably true. It also illustrates an important principle: most movies (and books, and maybe even companies) that make a big deal about how much they’re about technology are rarely if ever the best at actually being about technology.

In the case of movies, this is probably a good thing. If a movie with a lot of technology becomes a vehicle for lots of deep ideas about technology, there’s not much room for the human stories that you need to make a movie work. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (which being a dad with a heart, I like a lot) doesn’t have a lot to say about tech, other than that in a future where police officers literally have psychics, they also need really slick interfaces for managing endless amounts of paperwork. Spike Jonze’s Her (which being a thirtysomething tech writer, I loved) probably could have used as much time and thought spent on some of the more solipsistic ideas about divorce and gender as it put into the admittedly awesome video games. As for most movies about startups or media culture, you’re better off finding big ideas about them in a movie like Citizen Kane, which, spoilers, is absolutely as much about the weird interregnum of cheap mass newspapers and radio stations at the beginning of the century as it is about sleds and hubris.

There are not many films on any topic that pull off the trifecta of big ideas, great moviemaking, and deep human resonance, let alone manage to be about technology. For my purposes, there are three that matter: Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Aliens.

That’s right, not Alien; Aliens, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, which almost always manages to get left off of every shortlist of best sequels, let alone best science-fiction movies, or best technology movies. This despite the fact that it’s amazing. It’s fun, funny, scary, profound, and packs more excitement in any five minutes than 2001 gives you in any hour. 2001 and Blade Runner get pored over in high school and college classes year after year; Aliens gets shown on basic cable marathons. This has to change, and we have to change it. We have to do for James Cameron’s masterpiece what my friend Patrick did for Ghostbusters. It’s just going to take us a lot more characters is all.

Right now (if you’re still reading) you’re thinking, Tim, I love Aliens. But I don’t love it because it makes me think the thinky-thoughts. I love it because people blow shit up, get killed by aliens, then blow up more shit. There’s no way it carries a deep message about human beings and their relationship to technology. It’s not high art. It’s fun. And I say to you, it is both. You just haven’t noticed it until now.

Let’s start with the beginning. It’s my favorite part of James Cameron’s script.

FADE IN

SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE - SPACE
Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of
God...cold and remote. Against them drifts a tiny chip
of technology.

The chip/ship is the Narcissus, Ripley’s coffin/life-buoy, Ishmael-style, which is going to connect the threads between this movie and the previous picture. But even here, we already have the basic premise of the movie: space is hostile to life; human life is particularly fragile; technology is humanity’s bulwark against death.

What I love about Aliens is that it juxtaposes these massive, romantic themes with a much more prosaic view of tech, and of space. In Aliens’ future world, space is just a place where people work. There’s two borrowed phrases from Ridley Scott’s Alien that are important here: “truckers in space,” and “the used future.” The tech is sloppy, it’s everyday, it’s ugly, it’s pragmatic — it’s craven. What saves Ripley from drifting through space forever isn’t the love of the gods: it’s a deep salvage team, who are pissed off that they broke into the ship’s hull for nothing because there’s a live human inside.

It doesn’t matter that the tools are dumb. It doesn’t matter that working loading cargo, in the future as it is now, is a shitty job nobody wants. Those oversized pliers and that goddamn welding torch are going to save your life. And it won’t be the last time.

So that’s humanity: flimsy, selfish, broken, scheming. Users of tools out of both necessity and depravity. (Lessons of 2001 are well-learned here.) What about nonhumans? Well, we have two of them. We have AIs, and we have the aliens.

Now, the aliens are certainly intelligent enough to use tools — they just don’t need them. Evolution has given them everything they need to kill just about anything they want to. They can gestate inside any host, taking on whatever physical characteristics of that host are needed to survive in a new environment. Their bodies make their armor, their secretions make their architecture. Technology is irrelevant. Their biology is so perfect that they are technology. (I’m partial to the theory that the derelict spacecraft discovered in Alien and again in Aliens was carrying the alien’s eggs to use as bombs; Burke and the Weyland-Yutani corporation want to exploit their biology in much the same way. It’s all IP to humans!)

The aliens are as biologically perfect as the humans are deficient. We hear this over and over again, mostly from the AIs who examine them. In Alien, Ash, revealed as an android after trying to murder the Nostromo’s crew on orders from the company, has the best quote about the lifeform:

Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it.
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Ash is a fascinating character, an even mix of 2001's H.A.L. and Blade Runner’s more self-conscious, ambiguous androids. Computers could have orders to kill us; computers could be among us without our knowledge. But Bishop in Aliens doesn’t get enough credit as a step forward. He’s a very complex blend of self-interest and compassion: someone who is fully aware that he is an AI, aware that others don’t hold him in equal esteem, but holds a certain amount of dignity and pride in that. He prefers the term “artificial person.” He cracks jokes about being synthetic, but not stupid; he cracks jokes even when he’s covered in his own blood. He seems alternately indifferent to human beings and craving of their approval. He’s someone who, just like every other character in the movie, has motive and opportunity to do the wrong thing, but manages to come out all right.

In Superior Firepower (Aliens’ making-of documentary), the actor Lance Henriksen says that he played Bishop with the attitude he’d had as an abused child: treat me however you want. I’ll outlive you. At the end of the film, we can only wish, assuming he can survive being torn in half, Bishop has a longer allotted lifespan than Roy Batty did.

CLOSE ON DOOR: as it REVEALS an inhuman silhouette standing there. 
It is Ripley, WEARING TWO TONS OF HARDENED STEEL.  THE POWER LOADER.
She lifts the arms horizontally beside her and stomps out...the massive feet CRASH-CLANGING on the deck.  She stops midway to the Queen.
RIPLEY
Get away from her, you bitch!

The climactic scene in Aliens is obviously Ripley’s battle with the alien queen. Exoskeleton to carapace, blowtorch to hidden extra jaw, it’s literally a battle between a human plus technology and a biologically superior lifeform. Again, I love how low-tech Ripley’s suit actually is: it could easily have existed in 1986, but probably never will, if Amazon’s warehouse robots are any indication of our future. But I also love that Ripley wins not just because she can put on the suit and know how to use it, but because she can take it off.

Think about it: all Ripley is really doing inside the exoskeleton is holding off the queen while she is opening the airlock. Even with the benefit of a robotic prosthesis, a human being can’t kill the alien: only space can. Ripley and the queen tumble head over head into the bottom of the airlock. Ripley luckily lands on top, but is also able to ditch her techno-suit and climb out of harm’s way. The alien queen can’t even break off from her egg sac as quickly as Ripley scrambles out of her suit; she’s too tied to her own biology to let any of it go, to treat it as something other than herself.

In case this point is lost on you, Aliens hammers it home twice more, once just before the exoskeleton fight and once just after. In the elevator, Hicks, having convinced Ripley to leave Newt behind, shoots an alien warrior point-blank and is covered with acidic blood. Ripley pulls off his armor; otherwise the acid would completely burn through his flesh. (So much is made of the space marines’ vaunted equipment and training: their smartguns, centralized video surveillance, and explosive rounds turn out to be much less useful than Ripley’s quick thinking and improvisation.)

More significantly, as Ripley is on the verge of escaping the airlock, the alien queen grabs her by the ankle. Improbably, Ripley holds herself on the ladder, with an enormous alien pulling her through a near-vacuum. What finally gives isn’t her body or the queen’s, but the object that mediates them: Ripley’s shoe.

That’s what technology is. It’s the world of things, some impossibly stupid, some smarter than we are, we have assembled around ourselves to cover over our fundamental weaknesses as a species. The strength we have, the advantage this gives us, is our ability to stand apart from the things we’ve made: to use them and set them aside; to make them prosthetic extensions of ourselves and to let them go.

Does that make us assholes who “screw each other over for a percentage”? It absolutely does. But it’s also a form of strength. Our humanity is capacious enough to extend to other beings (including those we have made with our own hands). We also have perspective enough to nuke the things we’ve made from orbit when it’s necessary to save lives. We are craven beings, but that’s not all we are. Even an orphan, a marine, an android, and a badass warrant officer turned surrogate mom can become a kind of family.