It’s hard to overestimate the effect of the Vietnam War on the American collective consciousness. James Cameron was 26 when the DSM-III was released, formalizing the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that had previously been termed Post Vietnam Syndrome and applied to the waves of young men returning from overseas bearing the physical and mental scars of battle. Characterized by the persistent intrusion of stressful memories on daily life in a way that seriously impairs one’s ability to function, women are both more likely to experience traumatic events and to develop PTSD as a result.
Two of film’s most famous heroines have gone on vastly different journeys to cope with the aftereffects of trauma, finding themselves in positions where they must relive the worst day of their lives. Coincidentally they were both put there by the same man: James Cameron. The reason for Cameron’s preoccupation with the Vietnam War and veteran’s affairs are probably better left to somebody who went to school for five years on purpose, but these films succeed where imitators don’t because the psychological profiles of its heroes are deep and identifiable.
The Return To ‘Nam: Ellen Ripley
The original DSM-III definition went so far as to say that the triggering crisis should be one “outside the the range of normal human experience,” a perfect descriptor for the traumatic event in Ellen Ripley’s life in Ripley Scott’s Alien (1977). After responding to a distress signal on an alien planet the executive officer of her shipping vessel became host to a murderous alien life form called a Xenomorph whose life cycle involves sexually abusing the victim’s mouth and then gestating in his stomach until exploding in a geyser of entrails. After losing every other crew mate to the xenomorph, Ripley managed to blow it out the (God Damn) airlock and then safely stow herself and her cat Jonesy in hypersleep.
Waking from a 64-year-long hypersleep when James Cameron took the reins on Aliens (1986) and re-acclimating to normal life, Ripley exhibits every symptom of a PTSD sufferer including recurring dreams about her ordeal and emotional detachment from her work. All of this is compounded by her daughter aging and dying while she was adrift in space. The silent question left at the end of every horror movie is “How does the survivor return to normal life after being put through hell?” Aliens sternly answers that you don’t. In a situation paralleling returning veterans who found themselves coming home to a country that didn’t want them, Ripley is disenfranchised by the same all-consuming corporation that ordered the fateful stop on LV-426 in the first place. She’s been left adrift once again with nothing to keep her company but Jonesy and the sweating night terrors that always end in blood.
The most common treatment for PTSD is Exposure Therapy, where the patient is exposed to the feared object or context without any danger, gradually helping them overcome their anxiety. This is ostensibly what a company stooge named Carter Burke offers when he comes knocking on her door months later with the promise that Ripley’s role on a return trip to LV-426 to check on a civilian colony will be 100% safe. Surrounded by heavily armed marines, with foreknowledge of what kind of threat she could be facing, plus the overwhelming chance that it’s just a communications hiccup – What could go wrong? Why not take a vacation to Vietnam after the war is over? Ripley maintains a persistent and negative belief about the world (if you’re following along in your pocket-copy of the current DSM-V), forcing Burke to promise that the Company purportedly acting in the interests of its employees isn’t actually attempting to gain a Xenomorph specimen no matter the cost of human life, as it had during the incident on the Nostromo.
I don’t think I’m spoiling the movie Aliens for anyone when I say that the marines find Aliens. Scads of them, a king’s ransom of Aliens. Ripley finds a kindred spirit in Newt, a young girl who appears to be the last survivor of the colony. In the director’s cut we’re given a much clearer view of how living through the slaughter of her family and friends has changed Newt, seeing her first as a rambunctious daughter of two blue-collar parents with an annoying older brother who makes fun of her for being small enough to play in the vents. The next time we see Newt she’s a mute feral child living in the ventilation system of a deserted colony. Ripley immediately recognizes her pain and is able to break through and talk to her in a way that the other members of the team couldn’t manage.
After one of the best action sequences in movie history, a tantric 40 minute climax of false endings and comeuppances not to be replicated until The Dark Knight in 2008, Ripley emerges triumphant. There’s more certainty to the end of Aliens, as Ripley’s stark closing monologue from Alien is replaced with the assurance to Newt that it’s safe to dream. There’s therapeutic value in fighting a battle again and winning, but when the door closes again on Ripley’s pod there is also a sense that her fight is never really over.
The Circle Closes: Sarah Connor
While being pursued by a murderous cyborg from the future (Arnold Schwarzenegger) programmed to keep her from procreating in Terminator (1984), Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) procreated super-hard with her human protector from the future and then became the Mother of Dragons she was meant to be when she terminated the mysteriously Austrian robot in a hydraulic press. The first Terminator movie is as much Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn)’s story as it is Sarah’s. As he searches for and then protects the woman whose photograph he’s fallen in love with, he demonstrates exactly the kind of symptoms of PTSD that you’d expect of a refugee from a time where seeing chrome SkyNet skeletons crush piles of skulls is a fact of life. He’s constantly flashing back to his time in the war against the machines, always sleeping with one eye open. Sarah learns a lot in their one night together.
Before we even see Sarah Connor for the first time in Terminator 2 (1991), the effects of her ordeal are felt through the actions of her son John (Edward Furlong). Living with a foster family while his mother is kept in a high-security psychiatric facility, John’s ATM-hacking dirtbike-riding delinquency is the result of a childhood rife with high-pressure emotional abuse. We know better because we’re the audience, but if you knew a kid whose mom taught him to use plastique explosive and dragged him from weapon cache to weapon cache while waxing poetic about his future dad that she only knew for a night, would you be super surprised if he was kind of maladjusted? “Make sure you get into a good school” is a way different pressure from your parents than “Strip and reassemble this gun in 30 seconds or everyone is getting crushed under a chrome foot, pronto.”
Sarah, meanwhile, has hardened into something new. She’s unrecognizable from the fresh-faced waitress driving a Vespa in Terminator. Apprehended after attempting to bomb a computer factory, she’s in much the same position as Ripley at the beginning of Aliens. Being condescended to, disenfranchised and labeled as delusional by authority figures, we see no evidence that any actual psychological rehabilitation has occurred during her time in custody. Her problems are minimized and dismissed by her psychiatrist and despite mountains of evidence that the future is so bright all the robots are wearing shades (for the nuclear war,) she’s left to do hella pull-ups on a flipped-over bedframe and faking a recovery to try and see John.
After escaping and being vindicated to her estranged son by the Good Terminator, Sarah’s mental instability doesn’t suddenly find a coaster jammed up under it. If anything her irresponsible behavior is reinforced by the reappearance of cyborgs in her life, culminating in abandoning her son and attempting to assassinate one of the men who will invent SkyNet. The cost of this moment is visually underlined when Sarah’s laser sight finds its way onto Miles Dyson (Joe Morton). In the first movie The Terminator’s red laser dot was a futuristic extension of his unceasing crimson eye, and now, as Sarah prepares to murder a man for a crime he hasn’t committed yet, it becomes clear that she has appropriated this imagery and herself become a Terminator.
There’s a desperate edge to Linda Hamilton’s performance in T2. While she claims her actions to keep her son safe come from a place of love, her mechanical execution of this task is so rote and emotionless that he bonds more with his “pet” robot than with he does with her after their reunion. In Aliens, Ripley and Newt are able to help each other recover and make sense of their shared trauma by bonding. Contrast this with the way Sarah immediately attempts to sequester John in the desert to keep him safe while she goes to kill Dyson alone. Her emotional detachment has turned her son into a flour baby, a precious Object to be put away instead of empowered to use his own potential. Without care and compassion, Sarah has reduced one of the defining human experiences to a game of keep-away.
How do you come back from seeing the inevitability of global nuclear war turn into Capri Sun (Robert Patrick) and try to murder you with a helicopter? The theatrical cut of T2 leaves the question open ended. The future is a dark road. As in the end of Aliens, Cameron demonstrates that robots and monster can be blown up, but the demons in us are often right in the rear view mirror.