Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Express Elevator to Hell: Aliens as Apocalyptic Literature


An oblong skull beneath the texture of a cold, obsidian exoskeleton. Eyes enwrapped in a shroud of darkness that renders them invisible. A snake for a tail with metallic daggers. The vision of the alien beast is as fearsome as the images found in John’s Revelation. James Cameron’s Aliens is a modern apocalyptic film that warns against the world falling to the mercy of greed. The science-fiction film’s sense of hopelessness is weaved with the apocalyptic themes of menacing symbolism, pessimism, a cataclysmic end, and optimistic dualism. In place of material lust, Cameron promotes duty as a means of confronting the beast.

In a post-Vietnam world, Cameron wrote with great pessimism to illustrate a parable to a war he thought was about “protecting American business interests in South East Asia.”[1] In his day, Cameron saw major corporations filling global power gaps and the most technological nation in the world failing to defeat a far more primitive enemy. Cameron alludes to Vietnam when he pits a technologically-advanced force against a primal beast with only its numbers as a weapon. In the end, the Marines fail and Ripley must confront the monster herself.

Cameron sets up Ripley, the female protagonist, as a savior of the innocent, as she forges a maternal bond with an orphaned child named Newt that represents a vision of humanity uninfluenced by avarice. The opposite side of human potential, inclined towards malice and greed, is emulated by Burke, the corporate entity who observes the Marines. The outgrowth of such greed is the alien. This creature melds morbid mechanical imagery with the human figure to create a beast that serves as a 20th-century terror imbedded in any viewer’s conscience. This terror can only be wiped from existence in a cataclysmic explosion, which is a strong apocalyptic theme found in many of Cameron’s films.

Dualism is imbedded into the storyline: good versus evil, innocence opposed to corruption, and duty against survival. These conflicting ideas galvanize the conclusion of the film, as two maternal figures—one a destroyer and one a savior –battle over Newt. Cameron has no intention of creating an absolute dualism because in every situation, the good triumphs. The evil force that is smashed is the aliens, which are awoken by Weyland Yutani Corporation’s voracity.

Cameron’s Apocalypses:

Aliens was released in 1986 as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Alien was primarily a horror film, where the stakes of failure only resulted in the characters’ phenomenal destruction. Cameron escalates the risks by endangering all of humanity at the hands of a giant corporation, Weyland Yutani. The evil corporation’s scheme in the first film is to capture an alien organism at the expense of the crew. Their ploy is not only unsuccessful, but it is responsible for the deaths of the entire crew save Ripley. At the climax of the film, she shoots the alien beast into oblivion. Aliens begins where Alien ended, but it is no longer just a horror film. Cameron transforms his sequel into a “Vietnam metaphor,” filled with military power and war-like violence.[2] The reception of Aliens was outstanding, garnering two Oscars and seven nominations. The success of Aliens and its director could be because of the apocalyptic themes in his films. Being the director of the quintessential apocalypse series, the Terminator films, James Cameron has sealed himself as the powerhouse in the apocalyptic genre. In an analysis of apocalypse in popular culture, biblical scholar Jon Paulien says Cameron “has shown considerable interest in biblical scholarship and may” intend using “the themes of the Apocalypse.”[3] Even though Paulien is referring to the Terminator films, Cameron is sure to continue these themes in other films.

Cameron uses revelatory themes to create a story about Ellen Ripley--the sole survive of the first contact with the destructive and valueless alien species. After discovering that hundreds of people may have been in contact with the creature, Ripley must return to the dreaded planet, LV.426, to face her greatest fear, the alien. When on the planet, the motley squad of Marines realizes they are underequipped to handle the aliens. The stakes rise when Ripley takes Newt, a lone survivor on the colony, under her wings. The incorporation of Newt elevates the scope of the series to include those typically seen as safe from danger. Cameron made the alien threat real to all humans, not just Marines and space truckers. By putting a little girl in danger, Cameron stabs audiences in the gut with an attack on their protective nature over children, saying that this little girl could be anyone’s sister or daughter and she can be killed any second by an alien. The threat could not be any closer, as Newt is snatched by the alien, leaving only Ripley to rescue her. Cameron takes the guns from the Marines and gives them to Ripley, because he trusts her maternal duty more than the aimless power of the Marines. When rescuing Newt, Ripley runs into her antithesis, the queen alien. This is the mother of all the creatures who have haunted her dreams and killed her friends. The final conflict between the two mothers is the last thread Cameron knits in his extremely successful film, Aliens.

The Maternal Savior: Ripley

Aliens is filled with stark symbolism, which Cameron mends together into a master tapestry that warns against what the powers of greed can unleash. The symbol for a maternal prophetic archetype is Ripley. At the start of the film, she is encased in a hibernation pod floating through the void of space. A salvage crew finds her derelict ship and she is awoken from her slumber. While she is asleep, Ripley’s peaceful face is juxtaposed over the contour of Earth as it fades to a new scene. Cameron is not only establishing Ripley as the heroine, but as a last hope for Earth. Her awakening is like a call from God. As she tells her story of survival, she is unrelenting. Ripley foretells of a fall, predicting the destruction wrought by the beast she previously encountered in the first Alien film.

RIPLEY: Look, I can see where this is going. But I'm telling you those things exist. Back on that planetoid is an alien ship and on that ship are thousands of eggs. Thousands. Do you understand? I suggest you find it, using the flight recorder's data. Find it and deal with it –before one of your survey teams comes back with a little surprise...
VAN LEUWEN: Thank you, Officer Ripley. That will be...

RIPLEY: ...because just one of those things managed to kill my entire crew, within twelve hours of hatching...
VAN LEUWEN: Thank you, that will be all.
RIPLEY: That's not all, Goddamnit! If those things get back here, that will be all. Then you can just kiss it good-bye, Jack! Just kiss it goodbye.[4]

Her foretelling and insight into the dangers of the aliens is equivalent to apocalyptic writers using their narrative to forecast a fall of the current system as a result of its own sin and ignorance. Ripley tells them they need to “deal with” the alien planet or “you can kiss” everything goodbye, which purports that they will “experience the consequences of their own sinful actions.”[5] Ripley’s words fall on closed ears because the corporate gurus have already colonized the planet. Instead of recognizing her bravery and learning from her experience, she is demoralized with the revocation of her status as a flight officer. Comparable to the plight of ancient prophets, the powers in control are often threatened by prophetic messages and as a result, prophets are persecuted. When Ripley’s foretelling is later solidified and the company loses contact with the colony, she is asked to return to the planet as a technical advisor.

At the colony, Ripley expresses her full potential when she is converted into the maternal figure for Newt. Cameron uses Newt as a strong symbol of human innocence to show what is at risk if the aliens are ever let loose on all of humanity. The scars on Newt’s innocence are already seen as she stares off into nothingness, while Ripley tries to clean her smudged and worn face. The dirt is fully cleansed upon the conclusion of the film when the aliens are dead and the corporate influence is defeated. Innocence is no longer polluted by those evil forces. However, it is not by the force of the brash Marines that good conquers. It is by the courage of Ripley who faces the beast alone.

Survival and Duty:

Cameron creates two types of soldiers in this film: the Marines, who are there as violent force, and Ripley, who fights to save an innocent girl. The Marines symbolize a type of violence that is strictly for violence’s sake. They are sent in for one reason: to destroy anything that moves. This does not separate the Marines from the aliens. The aliens are an infestation; they need hosts to perpetuate their species and survive. To acquire hosts, they violently steal human beings and cocoon them until they can be impregnated with an alien. The Marines are not as infectious, but their survival depends on raw firepower to destroy enemies. These men do not fight for duty or valor, but because they thrive on aggression and military carnage. Ripley, on the other hand, is a reluctant soldier. Her maternal duty sends her into hell against an alien queen and numerous beasts in order to save Newt. Ripley succeeds because Cameron believes that violence for the sake of force is always going to result in failure. Yet, when the fight is for the good, success is sure to come.

Burke: The Great Whore of Weyland Yutani

If Newt is a symbol of human innocence, then Burke is a symbol of human pollution. Cameron renders Burke the “great whore of aliens.” The imagery of a “whore” was used by Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic writers as a “graphic [metaphor] for spiritual unfaithfulness,” because whores tempt those around them into sin.[6] In every situation, Burke tries to persuade others into wrongdoing. He tempts them not to destroy the aliens, because of his desire to profit from the discovery of the alien. When Ripley suggests nuking the entire colony to exterminate the alien, Burke can only say, “this installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it… this is clearly an important species we are dealing with and I don’t think that you, or I, or anybody has the right to arbitrarily exterminate them.” Burke’s true intentions come out when Ripley confronts him about trying to save alien specimens for the company. Burke argues, “[t]hose two specimens are worth millions to the bio-weapons division. Now if you’re smart, we can both come out of this as heroes and we will be set up for life.” Using the temptation of money, Burke cannot persuade Ripley because she understands the great threat of the alien falling into the hands of the Weyland Yutani Corporation. His treachery is revealed to be even deeper when the viewers find out he is responsible for purposely sending colonists to the derelict ship in order to be infected by the aliens. Burke defends his sins by claiming that he did not want to make a “security situation” out of dooming the colony, because when “administration steps in” there will be “no exclusive rights for anybody.” By acting out of greed to obtain the alien species for the “company,” he has unleashed a beast that is the potential downfall of all humanity. Simply put, greed unleashes an infestation upon humanity that takes people and turns them into a beast.

This beast is Burke’s demise. Just when he thinks he has escaped from the angry Marines, who have finally uncovered his sins, he meets his end. He runs away and locks everyone in a room with the aliens, only to put himself face to face with another alien. This parallels the demise of the great whore in Revelation, who is riding on a scarlet beast. The very scarlet beast she rides on “will strip her naked, eat her flesh, and burn her remains with fire.”[7] While Burke’s death is not as explicitly gruesome, the viewers are left to imagine his pain, learning that “evil has within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”[8]

A Beast for the 20th Century :

The fruits of Burke’s evil prove to be one of the most iconic horror images ever: the alien. The alien was designed by Swiss artist, H.R. Giger for the first film, and expanded on by Cameron in Aliens. Cameron wanted to maintain the creature that the director of the first film, Ridley Scott, described as“[c]radled between dead flesh and sexuality.”[9] The alien is a biomechanoid, which is a menacing blend of biology and machinery. By making a monster half biological and half mechanical, and by draping it in sexual imagery, Giger constructed an apocalyptic beast for the 20th century. The “Book of Daniel” explained one of four beasts “like a lion with eagles’ wings.”[10] Later, in John’s Revelation, he makes his beasts more menacing, because it “looked like a leopard, but had the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion.”[11] To attack the sensibility of the modern mind, alien designers fused a post-Vietnam sexual obsession with a mechanically dead monster.

Cameron utilizes the imagery created by Giger to terrify the audience. When he juxtaposes a horrified child with the ominous figure of the alien, he uses this beast as a threatening symbol of the rotten fruit of greed. The alien’s life cycle also provides insight into what the filmmakers thought to be the nature of greed. The alien must find a human host, which it impregnates through the mouth, with a Facehugger. The gestated alien grows until it rips its way out of the host’s chest cavity. Eventually, the alien develops in size and must collect hosts to infect and to propagate its species. Cameron sees the products of greed such as materialism, selfishness, and anything that perpetuates insatiable hunger, as a beast. This beast is viral. It will lay an egg in the innocent person’s chest and replace their heart with a growing monster that will soon destroy its incubator. Cameron’s tapestry of symbolism is not easy to watch. When viewers see an alien ripping out of a woman’s chest that is cocooned to the wall, it is a disturbing sight. Cameron’s use of the beast to explain the nature of greed coats the film in a pessimistic tone.

Pessimism runs rampant in Aliens, much in part due to the time in which Cameron was writing. As child of Vietnam Era politics and the age of corporate growth, Cameron’s outlook on the forces in power throughout the world was distrustful. He explains:

If you look at places of major corporate culpability, let say the Bhopal disaster in India, where 3000 people were killed because a major international corporation cut corners on safety. There’s many many instances through history just by kind of negligence corporations have been responsible for many many deaths, but always kind of off the radar always in distant remote places. If it’s gonna happen it’s gonna happen on a colony.[12] [sic]

This pessimism manifests into subtle symbols, such as the colony’s name. When the colony of LV. 426 is revealed, the viewers see a barren and ashen planet that seems to be in the belly of a storm. Soon the name of the colony, “Hadley’s Hope,” is revealed. Cameron illustrates that the only hope on the barren world is a small colony of terraformers. As the Marines enter the atmosphere, Private Hudson yells “[w]e're on an express elevator to hell; going down!” Cameron prepares the audience for the hellish planet that he introduces in his script as “godforsaken.”[13] Cameron is pointing out that a Godless environment invites the evil that soon ensues by the pens of corporate monsters and the claws of parasitic beasts.

A terraformer best explains how the aliens reached Hadley’s Hope: “[s]ome honch in a cushy office on Earth says go look at a grid reference in the middle of nowhere, we look. They don't say why, and I don't ask.” This “honch” is later revealed to be Burke. With the infestation of Hadley’s Hope, Cameron paints a desolate picture with two elements. The first element he sees as the destruction of the smallest strands of hope is greed, which is embodied by the Weyland Yutani Corporation. The corporation tries again to captures this nihilistic beast by destroying all hope on LV. 426. The second element that destroys hope is the byproduct of greed, the alien.

The cynical Marine, Lt. Hudson, embodies the pessimistic outrage of the audience. Gale Hurd, the film’s producer, says, “Hudson is the voice of the audience.”[14] Cameron wants the audience to be as outraged and pessimistic as Hudson. Every time a situation goes awry, Hudson’s glum comments make him the loudest of the Marines. When the drop ship crashes and the Marines are trapped, Hudson cries, “[t]hat's it man, game over man, game over!” This is not the end of Hudson’s ranting. He continues with famous one-liners such as, “[h]ey, maybe you haven't been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal,” and “[s]eventeen days?! Hey man, I don't wanna’ rain on your parade, but we're not gonna last seventeen hours.”[sic] The loudest voice among the Marines is the one of a coward. In fact, the only thing Hudson is optimistic about is nuking the planet and escaping.

Shaking the Foundations: “The only way to be sure”

In Aliens, most of the evil forces (save the queen) are destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion. The premise of shaking the foundations was used by apocalyptic writers, because they saw a world enveloped in evil. Cameron expressed a world where evil has infested and all hope is lost. Ripley draws the same conclusions that most people would, “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.” In fact, “It's the only way to be sure,” that the evil unleashed on LV. 426 is destroyed. As the colony is starting to explode, Cameron utilizes the film’s score as a countdown until the crescendos as the entire site erupts into flames. The scene not only shakes the foundation in the narrative but it leaves the viewer in a battle-fatigued state, asking “what just happened?” The film creates a climatic emotional catharsis for the audience, which leaves them wanting the experience to end. It does not end though; Ripley still must battle the queen.

Ripley’s function as a mother pitted against the queen’s motherly role is one of the many dualisms in Aliens. Dualism is a backbone of many apocalyptic stories, because it illustrates a storyline where good is an underdog and evil forces are in control. Ultimately, the good will overcome the evil. Cameron establishes the film’s dualisms without making them absolute. Human innocence overcomes human greed, when Burke is killed and Newt lives. Military violence fails against the aliens, but maternal duty defeats them. Ripley, the symbol of motherhood, fights the queen alien, who is the mother of all the beasts. In the end, Ripley prevails and saves Newt from one last peril. The epic battle concludes with Ripley tossing the queen alien into the endless black void of space. Cameron utilizes the dualistic storyline to show the audience that the forces of good are in constant peril, but in the end, they will overcome evil.


In Cameron’s Aliens, the forces of good are greater than those of evil. Because the piece is essentially pessimistic, the evil appears to dominate most of the film. It reflects upon an anti-military and anti-corporation sentiment that was held by many people during the decades after Vietnam. Cameron sees a world where a giant corporation can unleash a destructive force (aliens) so horrid that all of humanity (Newt) is at stake. LV. 426 is destroyed by this manifestation of evil and Cameron hints at Earth’s possible destruction as well. Cameron’s solution to the alien and the forces of greed is Ripley. Within the film’s framework of dualism, annihilation is Cameron’s choice of the method in which good overcomes evil. This can be seen when Ripley throws her antithesis, the queen alien, out of the ship’s airlock, successfully annihilating the entire alien race. Aliens proves to be an entertaining yet substantial film, filled with the apocalyptic themes that audiences have gravitated to since Biblical times.


Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. 1979.

Aliens Special Edition. Dir. James Cameron. 1991.

Aliens Special Edition: Commentary Track. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. James Cameron and Gale Hurd.

Cameron, James. "Aliens Script by James Cameron." 28 May 1985. Daily Script. 10 11 2008

Cameron, James. Interview with James Cameron Don Shay. 1986.

Farmer, Ronald L. Revelation. Chalice Commentaries for Today. St. Loius: Chalice Press, 2005.

Giger, H. R. Giger's Alien. Beverly Hills: Big O Publishing, 1979.

Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.

Paulien, Jon. "The Lion/Lamb King: Reading the Apocalypse from Popular Culture." Ed. Barr, David L.

Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. 151-161.

Scott, Ridley. Alien Evolution Mark Kermode. 2001.

[1]Aliens Special Edition: Commentary Track. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. James Cameron and Gale Hurd. 1991.

[2] Cameron, James. Interview with James Cameron Don Shay. 1986.

[3] Paulien, Jon. "The Lion/Lamb King: Reading the Apocalypse from Popular Culture." Barr, David L. Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. 151-161. Pg. 152.

[4] Cameron, James. "Aliens Script by James Cameron." 28 May 1985. Daily Script. 10 11 2008 .

[5] Farmer, Ronald L. Revelation. Danvers: Chalice Press, 2005. Pg 82.

[6] Farmer, Ronald L. Revelation. Danvers: Chalice Press, 2005. Pg. 112.

[7] Revelation 17:16.

[8] Farmer, Ronald L. Revelation. Danvers: Chalice Press, 2005. Pg. 116.

[9] Scott, Ridley. Alien Evolution Mark Kermode. 2001.

[10] Daniel 7:4.

[11] Revelation 13:2.

[12] Aliens Special Edition: Commentary Track. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. James Cameron and Gale Hurd. 1991.

[13] Cameron, James. "Alien Script by James Cameron." 28 May 1985. Daily Script. 10 11 2008 .

[14] Aliens Special Edition: Commentary Track. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. James Cameron and Gale Hurd. 1991.


  1. Excellent essay! That was an absolutely awesome post! You make some very strong points and insightful observations. What's funny is that Cameron's apocalyptic narrative is equally fitting for the War on Terror as it is with Vietnam. Both conflicts see modern, industrialized powers fighting enemies that are as technologically and strategically barbaric as they are plentiful. I'm not trying to make a political statement or anything, just making an observation.

    I also think you could make an argument that the first Alien was more reflective of the dangers of the Cold War, as it focuses on a single giant, unseen menace that threatens the survival and stability of the crew. Like the Cold War, much of Alien is a waiting game, with the characters working together to flush out the threat but, because they don't know where to look or remain ignorant of the danger, are largely infective (excepting Ripley, of course).

  2. Wow thanks for actually reading it! Damn you’re so right about Alien! I never thought of it that way. The war on terror is even closer, id say to Aliens then Nam, that was just Cameron’s view, its frankly gotten worse since nam, Weyland Yutanis exist all over the battle field now.

  3. Indeed, a masterful analysis. The Aliens films are fantastic sources for just about every thing you can imagine the study of film would entail. Thematic elements as well as great technical skill make them worth such observations.

    The overall pessimism and fear of technology (all while embracing it) is something we can continue to look back on for decades. Awesome stuff! Maybe I'll come back later, you are bugging me to go play Left 4 Dead with you now though...

  4. EXCELLENT Article! Aliens is one of my favorite films and now I will watch it again with a lot of these ideas in mind. I feel the Maternal aspects hit home even more if you've seen the director's cut.

  5. Cins: thank you. Yeah the directors cut is what i usually watch. I dont know how long its been since ive seen the theatrical cut... I should check it out again lol.

  6. Ack Im making a mad dash to get in all my nightly reading but I will have to come back to this one when I have a little more time to give it a full read! Looking forward to it Nick, thanks for posting man!