It is hard to know what the future of warfare will truly look like, but there are patterns and recurring trends. Advancements in weapons will no doubt change the ways in which wars are fought, as will many other political and social factors. It seems to have been a long-standing trend that there are those who try to profit from war. It is becoming more common to see privatized military organizations, mercenary groups, and businesses that thrive on fighting wars for money. The actions of Donald Trump have also opened a door for businesses and corporate interests to begin dominating political and social developments.
These are issues brought to the forefront in Aliens. On the surface, it seems like a straight forward science fiction action film with some strong female characters, but it may have a much deeper significance than most would recognize. It is a movie about the changing nature of war, the introductions of new weapons, the need to adapt, the role of corporate interest in the military, and ultimately asks one very important question: who is the real enemy? In the film, we follow a group of marines on what seems a routine mission, only for everything to go wrong thanks to corporate greed while fighting a war in which conventional tactics do not work.
Even before we are introduced to the marines, Aliens hardly presents an optimistic vision of the future. We are introduced to the main protagonist, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), herself a veteran of sorts who has already had one traumatic experience fighting an alien, an extra-terrestrial organism likely bred as a bio-weapon. Upon being found, she is treated very much like a returning soldier. Ripley struggles to adapt to a regular life. She is shown to be dealing with nightmares about her experiences, and it is also suggested that she may have survivor's guilt. The most she can do is try to keep herself occupied by finding the one job that will accept her.
Adding to this is Ripley's apparent "hearing," which is more or less a kangaroo court designed to make her look bad. The film does not offer much information on the political structure of this universe, but it appears to be an environment dominated by business interests. The people questioning Ripley are all company representatives who are obviously covering up her experiences. They keep referring to "unknown reasons" for what happened even when Ripley explains multiple times what really went on.
These themes of a corporation-driven society are largely represented through the introduction of Carter J. Burke (Paul Reiser). Burke is introduced at the film's beginning, when he introduces himself to Ripley and claims to be a nice guy. His full agenda is not revealed until late in the film, but there are plenty of small lines of dialogue which show early on that he is only working for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. We see this first when he tries to talk Ripley into investigating the colony on LV-426, and quotes his company's advertisements as though he believes them. He later offers what amounts to product placement when discussing the equipment used by the colonists, and refers to financial interests in an effort to keep the colony from being destroyed. When asked about Ripley's experiences with an android, he dismisses it as a "malfunction."
Burke's presence throughout the film sets up the important question of who the real enemy is. Most of the film is spent fighting aliens but are they the real threat? Or is it something much closer and more subtle? The aliens prove to be a danger, but corporate greed may just prove to be a far worse enemy. Ripley herself basically states this when she calls out Burke. "I don't know which species is worse," she mutters, noting that the aliens don't try to screw each other over for profits.
The first introduction to the marines consists of Burke introducing them in what amounts to a flimsy attempt at propaganda (one which Ripley sees through). He introduces Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), a man who looks impressive in his uniform and seems at first like a capable soldier. Both Gorman and Burke speak at length of the marines' apparent capabilities. Burke claims that nothing can stop them. Gorman maintains that Ripley will be safe accompanying him, that it will be impossible for her to face any danger at all. Ripley still refuses, seeing through the obvious attempts. She only agrees in the hopes of destroying the aliens (or at least making sure nobody tries to bring any back).
From here, we move into the spaceship carrying the military for the operation. The film quickly establishes the time that has passed through a series of brief shots of empty rooms. The places remain quiet, fittingly as like all wars, this one requires a lot of waiting. So much, in fact, that the entire crew is in hibernation during the trip. All we get to see are the dim corridors and unused facilities before finally being shown the cry pods with the crew aboard. It is here that we are introduced to most of the cast and start to see the problems with this military expedition.
When the crew awake, we are introduced to several of the marines. Yet for people as tough as Gorman claimed, they start off feeling sick as they are woken. Matters are not made easier by the orders shouted by the ruthless Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). This is followed by a scene taking place in the mess hall which quickly breaks the cast up into two main groups by placing different members of the cast at different tables. One small table is used for the "brass" which includes Gorman along with Ripley and Burke.
This is contrasted with the much larger and busier table containing the "grunts," as the cast likes to call them. The grunts' table is shown to be much livelier than that of the brass, with the marines talking and joking among themselves. This includes a moment when the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) performs a stunt that involves swinging a knife between the fingers of a nervous Private Hudson (Bill Paxton). Paxton's reaction to the knife swinging is also important, as it sets up the direction his character will take later on in the film.
This division between the two groups is reinforced when the marines board the dropship to investigate the colonies. Inside, the cast is once again arranged according to their apparent group. Gorman, Ripley, and Burke are seated near the front with space of their own. Meanwhile, the "grunts" are all crowded together in the back. At the same time, we also see contrasting reactions to the turbulence that is affecting the dropship. Gorman, for all the confidence he displayed in his introduction, struggles to adjust. The grunts are more or less unaffected. Hudson spends the whole time bragging about killing aliens, and in an amusing touch Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) actually falls asleep.
We see this division come up once again upon landing, this time by isolating the different groups into different locations. The marines are shown to be the ones doing the dirty work, actually getting out and sweeping the different buildings while Gorman, Burke, and Ripley remain in an armored vehicle watching the whole thing on a screen. The apparent protection of the armored vehicle contrasts the exposed marines, who are more exposed as they sweep the tunnels. This becomes crucial. This act of dividing the cast provides an early clue to the problems in the operation: disorganization. It is only as the different groups come together, and the established hierarchy is dissolved, that anything can be accomplished.
Much as Gorman likes to brag in his first appearance, he is quickly shown to be ineffective in dealing with this type of mission. Upon landing, he orders a quick sweep of one building, and declares it to be clear even after Ripley questions his instructions. This becomes especially evident when the marines enter their second sweep. Gorman obviously lacks any understanding of the environment, as his instructions completely fail to take into account the potential danger to firing under a reactor. Even when Gorman finally gives the order, the marines show an extreme reluctance to follow orders. Drake and Vazquez (Jeanette Goldstein) outright defy orders and smuggle ammo back into their guns. Adding to this is Gorman's refusal to withdraw after being instructed to do so by Ripley.
When the aliens do show up, the marines end up being ineffective at dealing with them. Earlier in the film, Burke claimed that nothing could touch the marines, but they are insufficiently equipped to deal with the aliens. The first to attack does so through camouflage before ambushing Corporal Dietrich (Cynthia Dale Scott). She is followed immediately after by Apone, taking away their command. The result is total chaos in what becomes a struggle to survive. Amidst all the confusion, half the division is wiped out and at least one person is accidentally set on fire by a fellow marine.
During this sequence, Gorman remains unable to take any action or show any leadership. It is only because Ripley kicks him out the driver's seat that any of the marines are able to get out. Even then, their weapons prove to have limited effect on the aliens, especially up close. Gorman's ineffectiveness is finally reinforced when he is knocked unconscious in the middle of the action, and remains out of action until near the end. By the time it is all over, a large portion of the marines have been killed. The loss of both Apone and Gorman throw the structure of command out of balance. Hicks, previously a "grunt," ends up taking charge. By the time Gorman regains consciousness, he is practically useless and reduced to a background role until he dies, ironically, trying to save one of his grunts.
It is this development, as well as the failed attempt to nuke the planet from orbit, that forces what is left of the cast to rethink their strategies. Standard military protocol has proven ineffective for dealing with creatures like the aliens, and the marines have proven themselves unable to fight them. It is likely that most of them, if they had any combat experience at all, were accustomed to fighting other humans and unaccustomed to the changes presented by the aliens. The only person who ends up being qualified to lead is Ripley, who has actual experience dealing with the aliens.
The two groups that had previously been established are slowly coming together. This is visually conveyed when Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl who survived the colony massacre, is shown wearing marine headgear, as well as Hicks taking the time to show Ripley how to use a grenade launcher. With the team broken down and military protocol out the window, the mission becomes one of survival. This, unfortunately, proves difficult with the aliens, a species that proves good at adapting. The sentry guns the marines try to provide are quickly rendered useless.
It is fitting therefore that it is Ripley, not any of the marines, who finally confronts the Alien queen. She is the one member of the team not bound by protocol and of all the cast the best at adapting. The aliens are a weapon the marines are not used to facing and lack the sufficient equipment to deal with. Ripley's solution is ultimately to construct new weapons in an effort to deal with the queen. We see this first when she duct-tapes a flamethrower to a shotgun, and later when she manages to find re-purpose a docking loader, a machine designed for lifting crates, as a means of fighting off the queen and throwing it out the airlock.