Industry Negligence

Industry Negligence
Woman, Mother, Space Marine

Ray Huling | 18 Nov 2008 12:27
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Who can blame the gamers? Cameron delivered the most compelling depiction of futuristic soldiers ever. Look how raw they are: stubbled, sleeveless and pumped. Look at their gear: a sort of neo-motocross body armor, personalized with graffiti and stickers; blunt, hard-nosed vehicles, overflowing with missiles and turrets; giant guns, whirring and phutting as they blow shit apart.

The marines themselves have charm, too. They express their contempt for civilians, joke about shore-leave sex with other species and force one of their own to serve as the dummy for a knife trick. What's not to like?

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Plenty, it seems. Indeed, Cameron meant us to sympathize with the Marines, but to see their weaknesses as well. The reason for this is that Ripley, the civilian woman, would prove to be strong precisely where the marines were weak.

Unfortunately, game developers and fans have missed out on this crucial point. To see why, we need to take a look at how Cameron developed the marines' fatal flaw, and to do that we need to examine the place he stole it from.

Lieutenant Dad
Paternalism weakens the marines. The soldiers sent to deal with the aliens lose their first battle - and most of their numbers - because their commander, Lieutenant Gorman, stinks. He's a greenhorn, incompetent. His subordinates groan when they learn that he's experienced combat only once before this mission. He fails to account for the battlefield where his squad will fight, and consequently gets most of them killed.

This failing, too, has a parallel in Vietnam, with its numerous incompetent lieutenants. But more than Vietnam, a science fiction novel from the 1950s holds sway here.

Cameron had the actors playing his marines read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers before filming. It is a terrible book. Starship Troopers is both a paean to fascist militarism and a didactic novel. Heinlein wrote it for young boys in order to instruct them in the ways of citizenship as he understood it, meaning unquestioning service of the state, ideally in a military capacity. He explores in great detail the passing of responsibility from father to son as a metaphor for the education of a citizen.

Here's how he describes the relationship between soldiers and their lieutenant: "The Lieutenant was father to us and loved us and spoiled us and was nevertheless rather remote from us." For Heinlein, the Lieutenant was "the head of our family from which we took our name, the father who made us what we were."

Heinlein takes this shit seriously; he believes in it; he advocates it. Cameron is serious, too, but he wants to offer us something different. In Heinlein's view, the death or failure of the father makes way for the son to take command responsibility, preserving the old order. In Aliens, Ripley steps up when Lieutenant Gorman proves himself incapable, but she doesn't exert authority in the military way. She's pretty much in charge, but she doesn't make the marines who they are; she doesn't give them her name. This difference is what has always been missing from depictions of space marines in games.

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