Perhaps you already know this, but it’s nearly a full hour into Aliens before the first appearance by any, you know, aliens. It’s a pretty ballsy move, and one that helps make the action sequences in the second half really sing.
But there’s an even more important late introduction, at the 45 minute mark. It looks like it’s going to be the aliens. The motion tracker bleeps promisingly, teasingly. Guns are raised. That blip turns into a blur streaking across the foreground. Of course, it’s a fakeout. It was a little girl. Newt.
Newt changes the film. Putting kids and dogs in danger is a cliché; it’s an easy way to up the stakes, but it works. (Alien had a cat, which has nearly the same effect except that cats are rubbish). Part of this is the execution – Newt’s never overplayed, she’s not a cutesy or annoying character, Cameron can build tension like an absolute melonfarmer – but more important is that the Ripley/Newt relationship is the key to the film’s main theme.
If Alien was about the fear of pregnancy, Aliens is about something much more terrifying: what happens next. You survived the body horror of giving birth to something red and fleshy; now you’ve got a small vulnerable creature to care for. When I occasionally wonder about parenthood, I’m paralysed by two terrifying realisations: A) it’s very easy, to paraphrase that filthy-mouthed Philip Larkin, screw your child up; B) you’ve got something extra to be scared of, all the time. You know how much more worried you are about being mugged when you’ve got a couple of hundred quid in your pocket? But, like, times a million.
This is the feeling Aliens works on, and then builds a constant plot-based tension around it. The survivors get narrowed down, and maybe you’ll jump a couple of times, but it’s only when it comes to Ripley and Newt that it really hits bone. People remember the ‘cool’ stuff of Aliens: the firing of plasma rifles and the casually-dropped quotables. But as is usually the case, that’s not very accurate. While the two hours zip past, the film’s light on set-pieces or any extended action.
Instead, it practically rubs the motherhood stuff in your face. It felt weird, watching the Theatrical Release, not having the scene where we – and Ripley – discover her daughter grew old and died while Ripley enjoyed her 57 years of hypersleep. It foregrounds her relationship with Newt even more, but the film still hardly goes light on the theme stuff. After all, Aliens is a film that climaxes with a fight between a queen alien protecting her brood of eggs and the woman whose surrogate child she stole. And afterwards Newt clutches the victorious Ripley tight and calls her “mommy”. Was there really ever any doubt what it was all about?