Why It's Not so Bad That Gravity Went the Way of Aliens Extended Addition

by - Monday, October 21, 2013

from observer.com/2012/02/tonight-in-dvr/alien-1979-20-g

from www.people.com/people/article/0,,20742397,00.html

A few weeks ago, I happened to watch Aliens and Gravity in the same 24 hours, which I think is a very serendipitous combination. Not often you can enjoy a ladies in space weekend that doesn't make you feel sad inside. The whole Aliens franchise has been brought up more than once in the glowing reviews of Gravity (which really is beautiful to look at, though my janky eye keeps me from the 3-D glory), and for good reasons. Both have badass heroines (they even look a bit alike). Both deal with missions that quickly become disasters. Both balance a narrative thrust about extreme survival with images of rebirth and fertility (more on this later). Gravity is incredibly thin on plot and character (especially considering how lauded the whole shebang is... but really, why are things only exploding once she gets there?), so to have it resonate with these earlier films (which are as much about genre as anything else) is pretty remarkable on its own.

Two weeks ago, Chris Klimek wrote an essay on this very phenomenon on Slate. Specifically, he felt that Alfonso Cuaron could have learned one important lesson from James Cameron's final theatrical cut of Aliens- cut the lost baby business. Klimek felt that Ryan's minute of backstory (that she had a four year old who died in a freak accident) should have been left of the cutting room floor, allowing the narrative's exigence to come purely from present events. He noted that Sigourney Weaver was furious when she realized that Cameron cut the scene in which Ripley finds out that her baby girl (which she suspiciously never mentioned in the first film) had lived out her life and died as an old woman as Ripley napped away in hyper-sleep. Klimek, among others (PAG), felt that Cameron was right to leave this shred of backstory unsaid.

I should admit, before I go any further, that by no fault of my own, I didn't know there was a dead daughter-less version of Aliens. I know! Shock and horror! I may have gotten a director's cut DVD, so I did not know we weren't supposed to know. I knew. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to know. But now that I know I wasn't supposed to know, I am not sorry.

For the same reasons, I am so glad that we know about Ryan's dead toddler (good lord, there would literally be no character back story at all for her otherwise). Not only do I think it makes much of Cuaron's rebirth imagery more explicit AND interesting, but I kind of want to call misogyny on the whole suggestion that these character's role as mothers (even failed ones) is not important.

from greatglenbandb.blogspot.com/

from uhmaguhma.blogspot.com/2013/10/watching-gravity.html

If you take away this really compelling part of these narratives, you rob your narrative of most of its most interesting parts. I mean, if you really just want people to shut up and blow up shit (because really, the rest of Gravity is just pretty explosions, right?) go watch Transformers. Or one of those Victoria Secret commercials where shit blows up.

Part of what makes these movies so great, so refreshingly different, is that our heroes are women. And not just women who could easily be boys (hello, movies where Angelina Jolie blows up shit), but females who move through problems we generally expect to see men grappling with to resolve issues within themselves which are wholly and entirely feminine. Ryan's loss doesn't just explain her pessimism about the situation (as Klimek suggests, it pretty much demands that pessimism all on its own) it is what makes her heroicism matter. It is one thing to be heroic when you have someone to save or live for, it is another thing to decide that your life matters, that it still has value, that you still have a chance to be loving.

 When she hears the baby on the radio, or takes the position of a fetus (umbilical cord and all), or emerges from the water like a freaking water birth, her own status as a mother, who has given life from her own body, informs the importance of this. This movie continually returns to the idea of reproduction (for goodness sake, George Clooney swims in, gives her a chance at life, and swims away... he is playing sperm!). A womb is one of the only places where we experience gravity in a completely different way, and we don't remember it. In one of Bullock's (overlong) monologues, she mentions that she will have a great story to tell if she makes it to Earth. The simple Freudian reading of the film is that she is experiencing her own birth. She is mother and baby in one. It is a narrative position that only women could have.

 It is this connection that is more easily illustrated in Aliens (the non-theatrical version). Ripley came back to earth to see that the natural life she created had run its natural course. Her biggest fear, especially in the beginning of the film, is of unnatural reproduction with an alien baby.  Numerous film theorists (Adrian Mackinder, Dan O'Brannon) and at least one cracked article have claimed that the original Alien is about rape or men's fear of penetration. It could be added they are afraid of being the ones that reproduce. Aliens returns to the same trope, and it is interesting that in the end she claims a child she didn't birth as her own. For goodness sakes, the final showdown is mom to mom!

Ok, so you (and Klimek) could be thinking that with so much maternal imagery, you don't need the background information to get the point across. I disagree. Both of these stories are so much about rebirth, about giving life after suffering probably the worst loss anyone can go through, that by taking that away it diminishes the emotional stakes for these women. There are so few stories about mothers in film. Mildred Pierce and other old weepies talked about what it is to be a mom and a woman, but can you name any other science fiction that takes on this issue in the same way?

I am not fully resolved about these movies, and I am not sure I even totally buy into Gravity's symbolic narrative, but I think that it matters if the movie is anything more than a simple survival story. I am also just happy that a story like this can exist, and I would hate for the only detail which distinguishes her reactions as female or feminine to be treated as extraneous.

Being a woman and heroic seems important, but giving herself life after incredible loss and fear and crazy satellite explosions gives the film its exigence. Klimek claims the change over the last 20 years is that characters now have to be more relatable. I hope that isn't true. I don't particularly relate to either of them, and it is unclear to me why so many women spend their time in space in their underpants. I think it is more notable that over the 20 years, a woman went from experiencing redemption by finding another child to mother to a woman experiencing rebirth by simply deciding her own life matters. I am not convinced that Gravity is a feminist film (Aliens really is, no matter how you feel about James Cameron), but I commend Cuaron for going with the director's cut, for deciding her loss, and even more so her status as a mother, mattered to his story.

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1 comments

  1. Okay, I get your point. And it's possible I'll never be able to see the cut scenes from Aliens as anything but intrusive, since I'd long since internalized every shot of the theatrical version by the time I finally saw the deleted scenes. But I still think it's better without.

    I think offering Ripley's lost daughter as motivation for her adoption of Newt diminishes that choice by explaining it. Ripley is damaged, beaten and broken. Non-Mom Ripley has only ever encountered one version of impregnation and birth, and that's the twisted one presented by the Alien, plus she is just hard-assed and broken, shut off from the people around her who basically are aliens themselves. So for her to adopt Newt is to take a step forward, to grow, the engage with a world that so far she she has carefully avoided engaging with.

    To me that is all so much richer than explaining it away as she just wants to move back and recapture the mothering that she was robbed of before. If Newt is a replacement daughter, then that whole relationship is a step backward for Ripley instead of growth. It can even be seen as implying that the reason that a woman would show that sort of empathy for a child is because she had a child of her own, that actual motherhood is needed as an explanation for that kind of empathy/sympathy/nurturing in a woman, while NMR is simply unveiling something natural to her character. I find something off about the original scriptwriter's notion that Ripley's attachment to Newt needs some explanation beyond itself. Even more so if we accept the rape-impregnation reading of the Alien stuff, since NMR would be embracing a sort of motherhood without ever seeing anything but the terrifying Alien example and that, to me, makes it a stronger choice.

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