I rewatched Aliens the other night, for the first time in maybe a decade. That’s worth noting since Aliens is quite probably the film I’ve seen the most in my lifetime. I’ve seen it so much because it’s one of my favorite movies, of course, but also and especially because it came out on VHS when I was in high school in the 80s, and watching dubbed copies of beloved films until the tape warped is just what we did.
It’s interesting watching a film you know so well after a fairly long time — after 10 years in cryosleep if you will. You still know it backwards and forwards but there’s a layer of freshness that allows you to assess it anew. It’s not really a news flash, but Aliens deserves its reputation as possibly the greatest sequel ever made; in some respects it’s better than Alien, though it’s not as innovative and uncanny and beautifully weird as that film (no science fiction film is). There’s an elegance and an economy and a breathtaking punch to its action and horror that complements and expands on the original film wonderfully. And Aliens was so ahead of its time with its badass female lead, its creepily effective use of diagetic video camera, and Stan Winston’s astonishing creature creations. All this is especially amazing considering the time and money constraints it was made under — producer Gale Anne Hurd performed miracles with the budget.
I was a fan of James Cameron’s films from the moment I saw The Terminator at the age of 14 when it was new on cable. Setting aside the colossal letdown of Avatar, I’m so pleased at how well his handful of exquisite action/sci-fi classics continue to hold up and how much they speak to the 21st century.
But I’m not going to get into all that at length now; I’ll save it for another post.
What I wanted to get into now is something that drives me crazy about the Alien franchise, or more specifically, the way it’s discussed by fans and in the media. It’s something that, unfortunately, originated in this brilliant film — kind of like a monster spawning in an innocent host. I’m talking about the use of the word “xenomorphs” to refer to the alien creatures.
This is obviously, demonstrably incorrect, and I’m going to have to ask that you stop doing it. They are not “xenomorphs.” It’s a small thing, but it’s actually pretty important when it comes to interpreting the film’s story and its satirical elements. If you have any understanding of Aliens at all, usage of this term should really strike the wrong note for you.
The thing that sucks is how pervasive that usage is. It’s now standard for fans of the franchise to label the creatures thus — maddeningly standard, considering it’s wrong. It’s standard on fan sites and pop culture blogs and in memes. The most popular fan wiki is called Xenopedia. It’s even leaked its way into the mainstream; you can see a recent example of its usage in this otherwise heartening Pink News article about positive trans representation in Aliens. Even Hollywood Reporter, an industry standard for its thorough fact-checking, is guilty.
The Wikipedia page for the fictional monsters correctly states that “xenomorph” has been used “erroneously” by fans, but the term is also used in earnest elsewhere on the page; my guess is there’s disagreement or confusion among the page’s editors. I’m glad I’m not involved in those discussions!
Let’s start with the fact that the creatures were never called that in the screenplays of the foundational first two films — with one important exception which we’ll get to in a minute. Nor were they called that in the novelizations, or in any of the publicity materials, or in sci-fi magazines — all of which I devoured intently and as exhaustively as I could in that mid-80s moment when Aliens meant the world to me. For example, check out this archived version of the official Aliens movie magazine, published by Starlog in 1986 (see the cover above). I had a copy of this. The word doesn’t occur even once in that publication (yes, I just double checked). If “xenomorphs” was the proper name for these creatures, these sci-fi journalist geeks would have known it at the time.
In fact, the creatures were never called anything. They were just generically called “aliens” or “creatures” or sometimes “bugs” in all the publicity. In the screenplays themselves, they aren’t even called aliens; they are almost always called “they” or “it.” They don’t have a name — that’s the point. Within the story, no one knows what the creatures are or where they come from. This is the whole key to their mystery and horror. They represent the unknown, the alien. Everything about them is weird and horrible and inexplicable, from their biomechanical forms to the way they reproduce. We don’t even really see them clearly in the first two films — at least not until we see the queen in all her glory at the end of Aliens. They’re shrouded in darkness, both literal and narrative.
They don’t need names. Naming them takes away from what makes them so uniquely frightening, and the makers of the first two films understood this.
The origin of this misguided usage seems to be the screenplay of the terrible Alien 3 (1992). It surprised me to be reminded of that. I had always thought it was a more recent internet phenomenon; I’d forgotten that “xenomorph” was somewhat canonized by its usage in a couple of lines that film, far earlier than I thought it was. Perhaps I blocked it out of my mind.
Either way, it doesn’t convince me at all. It just shows that the screenwriters for Alien 3 were as wrong as everyone else who uses it. It’s just one more reason to hate that film.
Meanwhile, it seems certain that fan usage of the term on the internet in all the years since has been a major factor in cementing it as convention.
In the first two films in the series, the creatures are only called “xenomorphs” once, by Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) in Aliens. This happens in the first act of the film, when Gorman is briefing the colonial marines on the upcoming operation. For fans to assume that Gorman is using some proper scientific term when he calls them that is such a misreading of that scene.
Gorman is not a scientist or any kind of expert on aliens; he’s a stiff, untested young military officer, an officious putz. This is crucial to Cameron’s post-Vietnam satire of the U.S. military. It will soon become evident that Gorman doesn’t know what he’s talking about. As this amusingly rigorous (and 100% correct) Arstechnica article from 2014 takes pains to detail, “xenomorph” is not a technical term. Despite the academic ring to it, all it means is “alien lifeform” in pseudo-Greek. It doesn’t describe anything specific about the creatures; it’s vague and in fact rather unscientific.
What the use of “xenomorph” really represents is military jargon, like “collateral damage” or “asset.” No doubt Gorman got the term from reading reports from his superiors. Calling the creatures “xenomorphs” instead of using more plain language is his bureaucratic way of making the target more abstract, or deemphasizing the violence of the operation.
It also represents his effort to impose meaning on the unknown. Within the story, little is known of the creatures, after all, and what is known has been suppressed by the Company.
And it sets him apart from the common troops, who call the creatures “bugs.” It’s Gorman’s strained effort to appear more educated and highfalutin’ than the grunts.
So, in all ways, that line is a satire of the military mentality, not an indication of anything technical or conclusive about the aliens. It’s a joke about the hubris and the cluelessness of the military forces — who are soon to get their “asses kicked,” in the immortal words of Private Hudson. Understanding this incompetence and impotence — despite how tempting it is to see the marines, who are so well-written by Cameron, as sympathetic badasses — is vital to understanding the story’s Vietnam analogy.
All of this was readily apparent to me even when I was 16. It baffles me that there’s ever been any confusion over it.
Look, I realize why fans want names for things. I remember wishing I could know all the names of all the creatures in the background of Jabba the Hutt’s palace when I was a kid. And though fan investment and fan gatekeeping can sometimes be incredibly toxic (like it is with the Star Wars culture wars), it can also be really nice and wholesome for fans to care so much about a story or a series that they influence the storytelling or, in this case, the nomenclature.
In the (surprisingly civil and productive) comments section of that Arstechnica article I linked above, several people say something to the effect of “Fair enough, but we call them xenomorphs because we don’t know what else to call them.” Which is understandable.
The problem in this case is that calling the alien creatures “xenomorphs” contradicts the clear intent of the Aliens screenplay. It dampens the terror of these nameless creatures, and it’s a really dull misinterpretation of the satire and the political and social context that gives Aliens an edge over almost any other film of its ilk. It’s almost as dull as Lieutenant Gorman himself.
One thing that’s very interesting to me about Gorman’s line is that it makes you think of xenophobia. It draws a connection between alien creatures and “alien” people, and points to how the violence of the state is geared against both. Moments later, Hudson makes that connection even more explicit in his teasing of Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) as an “illegal alien.”
This adds a really interesting twist to Cameron’s post-Vietnam commentary. Are we meant to conclude that the colonial marines are the aggressors or even the invaders, and the aliens are the victims? I remember pondering that even as a kid. Think of how anguished the queen is when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) torches her eggs.
This dynamic — the gung-ho protagonists as fascist bad guys and the alien “bugs” as the victims — becomes very explicit in Paul Verhoeven’s much more directly satirical 1997 adaptation of Starship Troopers, one of the few worthy successors to Aliens. But Cameron leaves all that at a much more subtle level in Aliens. The marines are such loveable characters we can’t help but be on their side; and when Ripley says they should take off and nuke the site from orbit, we are completely on board for the annihilation of the enemy.
Though Cameron has some interesting leftist impulses on display in his films — especially making the villain of Terminator 2 a cop — his films are a mixed bag politically speaking. After all, he wrote Rambo: First Blood Part II — the film that did more than any other to legitimize reactionary revisionism of the Vietnam war during the Reagan era.
In the end, whether or not Aliens is a critique of U.S. imperialism, or actually promotes it, or tries to do a bit of both, depends mostly on what the viewer is willing to read into it. I know so many conservative fans of this movie (the soldiers I grew up around all loved it, especially for Cameron’s uncannily accurate depiction of the way soldiers talk to each other). But the fact remains that it’s a very intelligent and layered screenplay, and its Vietnam allegory and satire of militarism makes for a rich backdrop to its timeless suspense and action.