I saw Aliens in the theater the summer it came out. My friend Mart came up and whisked me away from Clarion, the live-in writing program where I was studying that summer, to see it. It’s fair to say the movie changed my life.
At that point, I don’t think I had ever seen a woman warrior like Private Vasquez. She wasn’t pretty. She didn’t flounce around in a floor-length dress with a tiara. She doesn’t use magic or a bow or any sort of girly weapon. Vasquez has a big-ass gun and is ready to kill her commanding officer with her elbow. She kills an alien at close range with a handgun.
The first time you see her, she’s doing pull-ups to wake herself up as everyone else shuffles out of their freezers to dress. She’s doing straight pull-ups, then switches to behind the back pull-ups for her most iconic line of dialog:
At 5-foot-2, tiny Jenette Vasquez is tiny compared with the other marines, but when she poses with her oversized smart gun, it’s all about her gleaming muscles. When the space marines hit the planet, she takes point, leaning back to brace the big gun on her hip. She’s the first into the abandoned compound, with no helmet to interfere with her tracking system. Her breast plate says, “El riesgo siempre vive,” a line from a poem that translates roughly as “The risk always lives.” It’s the same sentiment as Cicero’s “Fortune favors the bold.”
Each of the actors received a detailed dossier on their character before filming began. In a Starlog interview published in 1987, Jeanette Goldstein revealed, “It’s never mentioned in the film, but in the characters’ background, she and Drake are recruited from juvenile prison, where they’re under life sentences (for murder). Therefore, they were different from the others, who were on a time limit….That was Vasquez’ attitude: she had no one or nothing, so she was the logical choice for point. It made perfect sense to the commander. Who would you put in that suicidal position? Someone who couldn’t care less, and whether it’s a man or a woman doesn’t really matter.”
I’ve watched Aliens over and over, more than any of the other movies, because I was fascinated by the way James Cameron individualized and characterized all the members of the marines. (In fact, I usually turn the movie off after the last marines die.) The little moments that capture the camaraderie were hugely inspirational when I was juggling all the characters on the Veracity in Kill By Numbers, which comes out on Tuesday.
Raena Zacari, my reformed Imperial assassin, was never before part of a team the way Vasquez was, but I like the sense that the background characters continue to have lives of their own, no matter what’s going on in the foreground. I particularly like the way that Hicks mouths along with Vasquez’s dialog in the scene above, as if he’s heard this all before. There’s affection and amusement in that moment, which is easy to miss if you haven’t seen the movie a hundred million times.
Starlog interview with Jeanette Goldstein: https://alienseries.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/interview-with-jenette-goldstein-1987/
A behind-the-scenes Video about the training the space marines underwent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQXKJdjFPF4
Aliens vs. Predator wiki on Vasquez: http://avp.wikia.com/wiki/Jenette_Vasquez
A video on the kill counts in Aliens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZYkBbB9cEA
The Aliens trailer: This time it’s war: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKSQmYUaIyE