Thus far, the big Hollywood movies of 1986 are Top Gun and Aliens. Since both are silly, I feel a bit awkward about wanting to dwell on them. Furthermore: isn't the contrast already obvious? We suffer a right-wing fantasy about strong men in their airplanes saving America from terrorists—and then, just when we thought it was safe to go back to the movies, we have to sit through a left-wing fantasy of the strong woman with her machine-gun saving the nuclear family from bad corporations and monsters who are worse yet. Choose your favorite wish-fulfillment: popular culture provides it for you, price no object.
The moral is drawn. Now I plan to enjoy myself. As Ferdinand Braudel once remarked, "Le ban dieu est dans le detail." What will interest me is the quality of eclecticism in these films, and—by a corollary—the kinds of silliness they commit, the ways in which they struggle with their own political and social assumptions. By attempting this anatomy I accomplish two goals. I help save my brain, and possibly yours, from turning into oatmeal. Moreover, I have the pleasure of discerning some surprises where all might have seemed foreordained.
We attend Top Gun for shots of big planes zooming through the sky, doing dangerous stunts while thematically appropriate rock music plays. Military action is taken to be an improved form of sex: "Ah think ah'm a-gettin' a hard-on!" cries one pilot ecstatically as he accelerates. The producers provide lots of these sequences; in between we have Tom Cruise trying to bed a woman taller than he is (his instructor at the Top Gun institute for fighter pilots). This difficult but worthy project is finally brought to a successful conclusion in a low-rent cottage along a stunning bit of southern coast. Why is the low-rent cottage still there? Why have condos not gone up? The question remains unanswered as a national emergency occurs and Tom, back in his plane, helps subdue threatening MIGs containing pilots quite a bit more competent than Ghadaffi's.
The important word is "helps." Heroes of this sort are supposed to triumph all by themselves. We remember—nostalgically, some of us—how James Caan killed the entire opposing team during the last, great game of Rollerball, mostly by smashing their brains out with his roller-put (or whatever it was called). Caan wasn't supposed to do that. His corporate sponsors had insisted that the team function as a team, that no individual stand out from the social unit even during the excitement of the Superderby (or whatever it was called). Against all odds, Caan proved that heroes are still heroes.
Even in The Right Stuff-—a more thoughtful depiction of athletic-military heroism—we had Sam Shepherd, playing test pilot Chuck Yeager, to keep the old lore alive. Stuff emphasized the story of the first astronauts, but it frequently cut to scenes of Yeager—their immediate predecessor—doing crazy, spectacular, or just lonesome cowboy things (like sitting on his favorite horse, watching his favorite plane).
Grissom, Glenn and the rest may have been part of a vast machine for public relations and scientific research—not Chuck, it was implied. He was out there by himself, doing what he had to do. This point was somewhat obscured when Stuff had its first TV showings and the real Chuck Yeager kept coming on in motor oil commercials. Nonetheless the Yeager legend thrives—and with it a longstanding model for American heroism.
Thus the peculiarity of Top Gun. It starts out in traditional fashion, with the protagonist demonstrating his cool, his ability to think under pressure, etc. It also sets up the usual conflict. How can somebody like this function within the system? Don't the qualities that make him a good pilot make him an improbable member of a team? (Yeager knew he didn't want to be an astronaut.) The (initially) surprising part is that this conflict is resolved without any of Rollerball's jangling glorification of violence or Stuffs pseudo-poetic maundering.
Tom simply learns to conform, which in this case means to work with the other guys. There are events along the way. His partner dies, he finds out new things about his father, who was also a fighter-pilot, he has his little romance. None of this is convincingly connected to his sudden integration into his fighting unit. Nor—it seems in retrospect—does it need to be. Tom Cruise has never played the kind of guy who would stand out from a crowd.
True, in Risky Business he did outrageous things like turning his parent's home into a brothel, but his real goal was to be admitted to Princeton. Risks worked for him as a means to an end, i.e., the most conventional sort of respectability. We might, then, say that the conclusion of Top Gun rings true while the rest is held in memory as a particularly improbable fiction. In effect, we have just witnessed the death, the last rites, and the interment of John Wayne . . .
. . . until he is reborn in the person of Sigourney Weaver. Alien (1979) lays the groundwork for this odd transmigration of souls. After he has been inseminated by a slimy pod on an unpleasant planet, a crew member returns to the spaceship Nostromo. Weaver, called Ripley, is against admitting him; she argues that he should remain in quarantine. Somehow he is allowed to enter, a determined crab-thing clinging, now, to his face. The crab-thing drops off and dies but a spiky-toothed monster bursts from the unfortunate crew-member's stomach.
The Nostromo's computer, Mother, tries to ensure that the monster is transported back to an organization named, simply, The Company. Here it will find some sort of horrible military use. With the help of Parker, a black worker on board the Nostromo, Ripley saves the ship's cat from destruction and shoots the alien itself out of the craft. Mother is "Mother, you bitch," the alien "you son of a bitch." Ripley defeats them both.
As has been observed by numerous viewers, Alien has one seemingly gratuitous weak point. Why would Ripley risk everything going back for the cat when it was she who had argued against letting in a desperately-ill crew member? Surely she hadn't softened up; she got tougher and thought more as the film went on, rather than vice-versa. A striking Marxist polemic of the time had it that Alien booted old-fashioned sentimental humanism out the front door only to let it in the back (James Kavanaugh, October, Summer, 1980).
I suppose this is true, more or less. All the same, the gesture was half-hearted, vague, no matter how faithfully one tried to clarify it or pin it down with clever theoretical analyses. It really wasn't clear how Alien's liberal clichés (the strong woman, the sacrificial black man, the sinister corporation) hung together ... if indeed they did. It took a sequel, Aliens, to draw out the sillier possibilities of this material—which proved to harmonize wonderfully with the obsessions of its director, James Cameron.
Cameron wrote an early draft of Rambo, which was later revised by Sylvester Stallone. After that he directed The Terminator, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is a ruthless robot-assassin: Schwarzenegger tries to kill the future mother of the man who will lead the ultimate human resistance in the coming war of humans against machines.
Aliens synthesizes these motifs. Ripley returns to the nasty planet of the alien with a group of Vietnam-veteran-type marines. This time, instead of fighting against the Mother computer, she fights against the Mother alien (also a "bitch"); instead of going back for kitty, she goes back for a little girl who has brought out her maternal instincts; instead of remaining fundamentally cool and rational (her character in the original film) she becomes a good, i.e., feminist and maternal, Rambo— Cameron's penance for the bad male Rambo shaped from his original script by Stallone. To fight one bitch, she has to become another.
It's possible to see why Aliens got so much attention in certain critical quarters. Occasionally one can spot a liberal on, let's say, the McLaughlin Group (PBS), squeaking that he's rougher and more ruthless than Pat Buchanan and Caspar Weinberger put together. Aliens gives liberals a chance to prove that they're not wimps, that they can outtough even Sylvester Stallone if necessary. The paper falling most spectacularly for this line was the Village Voice, which ran a long and generally admiring feature emphasizing the Rambo connection almost to the exclusion of everything else. However, this sort of admiration assumes a lot—rather too much I would think.
The best that can be said for Cameron is that he knows how to cook up a plot gripping to any audience, no matter how limited its attention-span. The worst is that he writes and directs as though he had never read anything but Marvel comic books. There's a lot to be said for Marvel comic books—and arguably Cameron's ignorance gives him a kind of invincibility. He has the strength of ten because his heart is pure. On the other hand, thoughtless ignorance seldom permits the emergence of a good storyteller, especially if his story is designed along argumentative lines.
The moment we inquire into the argument behind Aliens' plot, things get murky fast. The basic claim would have to go as follows: "Ripley kills the aliens ruthlessly—in fact she embarks on a self-announced program of genocide, but good genocide." And how can you tell good genocide? "First, when it's committed on behalf of motherhood; second, when it is balanced by toleration for creatures who are different but friendly—like the robot whom Ripley learns to trust, despite her justified fear of human-like machines, even while she is mowing down the bad mother and her abominable offspring."
To put the point another way, this movie works very hard to establish a set of circumstances where anyone, no matter how dewy-eyed, can approve of behavior that out-Rambos Rambo. But our guilt in approving of such actions is gone: as Mr. Hyde cries when he bursts from Jekyll's office, " 'Free! Free at last!' "
I eliminated all suspense from this essay by drawing a moral at the beginning. The moral can be refined. Conservatives out of power tend to be a bloodthirsty lot. Since they've arrived in vogue and office, they have started to become somewhat civilized. The desire for military action has been satisfied by largely symbolic gestures (see William Pfaff, The New Yorker, September 15).
And the charms of even these gestures are starting to wear thin. The most telling critiques of the Libyan escapade last spring came from within the Reagan administration, not from useless sods like Tip O'Neill. The journey towards reality is reflected in a piece of fluff like Top Gun, where the typically corporate character of American achievement is admitted. Wayne, not to mention Ayn Rand, must be stirring uneasily in the tomb. The fact remains, "Top Gun" refers not to a person but an institution. And an educational institution at that. Tom Cruise is going to end up as a tenured professor, helping other promising young warriors get their start. However virile, he is in fact going soft.
Meantime, what does Sigourney Weaver's future look like? Within the world of the movie her fate is unclear. Back in America she would make a great running-mate for Mario Cuomo: maybe together they can revive the nuclear family, though I'm not quite sure what I mean here by the term "nuclear."
Speaking more generally, beware of liberals on the warpath. Especially when in competition with conservatives, they have a lot to prove. And sometimes (witness the Bay of Pigs) they're willing to go about proving it in the oddest ways. Anyone concerned with the future of the Democratic Party could do worse than take a second look at Aliens. This story is about more than fear of crab salad.