Alien is a fantastic movie — one of the great horror achievements in cinema history. This is indisputable, although I appreciate Aliens more. But notice I didn't write that it was a better movie, or that it deserves more recognition. I just said I appreciate it more. For starters, it's a more entertaining movie all around; it's funnier, more kinetically exciting, and even went so far as to set up its first major action sequence in the atmosphere processor with an entire action sequence in the colony that didn't happen, just to further ratchet up the tension for the one that did. Moreover, I've never really ever gotten over the unbridled stones it took for both James Cameron and 20th Century Fox to change the entire genre of this sequel from horror to sci-fi action. Can you seriously imagine any studio doing something that gutsy with any of their franchise properties nowadays? (e.g. You think anybody at Universal ever walked into a Fast 5 production meeting with the hope of turning that chapter into a gritty urban crime drama?)
But if I had to pick my number one reason for appreciating Aliens more than its original, it would have to be Alien Queen herself. More specifically, in the incredible fight she has with that other badass, Ellen Ripley.
A Battle Of Equals
Now don't get me wrong, Ripley and the Queen are not equals in terms of raw power or deadliness — this should be obvious to anyone, even after Ripley starts rocking that power loader. They are rather equals in terms of intention and motivation for the entirety of their battle, which stems from one very important commonality they come to share: They are both mothers.
Did you ever notice that? The two first meet just after Ripley has decided to risk everything to save Newt, like any good (surrogate) mother would. This committed attachment to Newt's well-being is actually the driving force behind Ripley's arc, as she goes from terrified at the outset to empowered by the end, the more she realizes that it's on her to protect this young girl. (Her extended space hibernation caused her to unintentionally bail on her own daughter; she's not bailing on this one.)
Oh, and what's the Queen doing when Ripley shows up in her lair with Newt in her arms? That would be this:
You might be looking at a gross set up for what will surely become inescapable panic and suffering for everyone involved, but that's not what the Queen is experiencing here at all. She's experiencing the wonder of childbirth. These eggs are her babies, her entire reason for being here on this planet. Just like Newt is Ripley's entire reason for being there in that moment as well. This is how these two women meet.
And what does Ripley do? She slaughters the Queen's infants with fire, right in front of her, and then high-tails it out of there with her own adopted child in tow — before a massive explosion wipes out the entire hive; that is, completely eradicates every single child this mother has birthed over a span of years.
And here you might be thinking, But Robbie, the Queen is just a sinister killing machine who was probably unaware of or indifferent to the complex emotional stakes happening around her. Not true. When they first meet, the Queen is about to sic her alien soldiers on both Ripley and Newt, until Ripley threatens to bathe the Queen's eggs in the light of her flamethrower. And you remember what the Queen did then?
She backed off. She decided that she would rather let Ripley and Newt go than endanger her babies. She called off her soldiers, and was ready to let these two walk right out unharmed if it meant her eggs would remain that way as well. Just like with Ripley, the well-being of her children was most important to her, over everything else.
Then Ripley killed them all anyway.
So, let's cut to the ship. Ripley thinks they're out of harm's way. She feels like Newt is finally safe. She believes it's all over. And then Bishop takes a giant razor-sharp tail through his abdomen, before getting literally split in half.
The Queen stowed away. She's on the ship. And she's fixing to unleash white hot rage on both Ripley and Newt, the likes of which we have never seen before. And you know what?
You get it. You totally understand where she's coming from. At that moment, she's there for her vengeance, to not only kill Ripley but also to take from her what she herself just had taken away by Ripley. She's in pain — genuine, legitimate pain that you can pick up solely through the puppet work and sound effects.
On that ship, in that moment, the Alien Queen becomes the Bride from Kill Bill right before our very eyes, and you're relating to her for it; you're identifying with her. Sure, you're still hoping Ripley manages to pull the victory out anyway and all, but the ability to connect emotionally with the character you aren't rooting for is actually a much more difficult accomplishment in storytelling. And doing so without the benefit of words, facial reactions, or human body language? My god, the degree of difficulty is just about off the charts.
Beneath the snapping tongues, acid blood, power lifters, and blowtorches, what's really happening in that scene is one mother who's lost everything coming after — with everything she's got — another mother who's only got one thing left to lose, and so will fight tooth and nail to keep it. That's it. That's the whole fight. Underneath everything else, it's those emotional stakes that make their clash so damn awesome.
James Cameron took one of the most horrifying harbingers of movie death in history, introduced you to what birthed it, and then made you fully empathize with her — just before flushing her out an airlock. That is freaking incredible.
And yeah, I appreciate it a little more than an exceptionally written, toned, and paced slasher film in space. Sue me.