Henry V. O’Neil is the name under which award-winning novelist Vincent H. O’Neil writes his military science fiction. A graduate of West Point who served for nine years in the US Army Infantry, O’Neil is currently releasing his Sim War series with Harper Voyager. The series currently consists of Glory Main and Orphan Brigade, and the third book, Dire Steps, was published at the end of September. His website is www.vincenthoneil.com.
When I saw the military science fiction movie Edge of Tomorrow, I didn’t realize that Bill Paxton was part of the cast until he appeared onscreen in the role of Master Sergeant Farell. I’ve enjoyed his acting ever since seeing him in films such as Terminator and Weird Science, and of course one of my favorite Bill Paxton roles is the wisecracking Private Hudson of the Colonial Marines in Aliens. I’ve heard his doomed, “Game over, man! Game over!” line in many places over the years, and so it was quite a thrill to see him in another military science fiction film. For a brief moment I wondered if Hudson and Farell might be similar, but of course I was quickly disabused of that notion.
Master Sergeant Farell and Private Hudson
Farell and Hudson have almost nothing in common, as Farell is a career soldier of steely resolve regardless of the circumstances. Hudson was getting ready to leave the military (“Oh, maaaaaan and I was getting short. Four more weeks and out.”) when he was sent to LV-426 and displays scant resolve through much of Aliens, although he does fight effectively when necessary. This is not to say that there aren’t some interesting similarities; in both films, Paxton’s characters move around the troop-carrying airships freely, offering words of encouragement to comrades who are strapped into various restraints. Both Hudson and Farell appear in close-up during critical moments, shouting into the camera, and, as in Aliens with the “game over” line, Paxton has one of the funniest responses in Edge of Tomorrow: When asked if he is an American, his Master Sergeant Farell character responds, “No sir, I’m from Kentucky.”
Private Hudson and Major Cage
Oddly enough, both Hudson and Farell do find comparable characters in the opposing movies. Paxton’s Hudson in Aliens and Tom Cruise’s Major Cage in Edge of Tomorrow both demonstrate many of the same tendencies, and follow similar character arcs. The two men initially display an outward confidence that does not survive a direct challenge, Hudson when the platoon is ambushed and Cage when he is ordered to accompany the assault troops during the next day’s invasion. After a period of stunned confusion bordering on outright cowardice, Hudson and Cage do manage to rise to the occasion.
The two men also share a dangerous inability to interact with authority, Hudson by choice and Cage by chance. Hudson seems to court insubordination deliberately, asking his platoon leader “How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?” and frequently fencing with his platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Apone. Hudson’s barbs come to mind during one scene in Edge of Tomorrow, when Paxton’s Farell tells the platoon to “knock off the grabassing” and Cruise’s Cage, trying to arrange a diversion so he can slip away, shouts, “Grab THIS, Sarge!”
Cage’s first misjudgment of an authority figure occurs when General Brigham orders him to cover the next day’s invasion in his role as a public relations officer. At first Cage tries to joke his way out of the assignment, admitting that he took his current job in order to avoid the fighting. When that fails, Cage threatens the general with bad press—which gets him busted down to the rank of private and added to the invasion as a last-minute, untrained combat replacement. Later, Cage’s attempts to manipulate Master Sergeant Farell only succeed in convincing his new superior that Cage is a con artist who needs to be controlled with force (“If he tries to run, feel free to dissuade him until he can’t piss standing up”) or gagged with duct tape.
The unexpected disasters in both films (the ambush that kills most of the Colonial Marine platoon in Aliens and the doomed beach assault in Edge of Tomorrow) stuns both Hudson (“This isn’t happening, man! This can’t be happening!”) and Cage, who is leaving the fight in a stupor when Farell stops him with the almost-joyful words, “Private Cage! You’re goin’ the wrong way! You’re gonna miss your moment!”
Although Hudson and Cage eventually make strong contributions in the fights to come, they don’t measure up to two other characters from their respective movies, the senior-most NCOs.
Master Sergeant Farell and Gunnery Sergeant Apone
These two characters share a great deal in common, in that they are both professionals tasked with leading troops in combat. Farell and Apone are fond of giving prepared speeches to their charges, to instill discipline as well as courage.
Farell teaches his people to recite the line “Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate.” while also opining that “Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.”
Apone likewise rattles off gems such as, “A day in the Marine Corps is like a day on the farm. Every meal’s a banquet! Every paycheck a fortune! Every formation a parade! I LOVE the Corps!” to rouse his people from hyper-sleep. To psych them up for their mission, he offers, “All right, sweethearts, you’re a team and there’s nothin’ to worry about. We come here, and we gonna conquer, and we gonna kick some, is that understood?”
The two NCOs place heavy emphasis on teamwork, and Farell warns the newly-arrived Cage that his squad mates will not be happy when they realize “You’re a coward and a liar putting your life above theirs.” Apone, after receiving the platoon leader’s aggressive timeline for mission prep, informs the platoon that they will have to accomplish the task by working together: “All right, sweethearts, you heard the man and you know the drill. Assholes and elbows!”
Despite this hardcore approach, Farell and Apone do show signs of a genuine humanity beyond their dark humor. Apone apologizes to Ellen Ripley in a roundabout fashion when she shows great skill operating a cargo-loading rig. Having initially questioned if Ripley could be of any help at all, Apone laughs out loud to signify that he sees he was wrong, and then pointedly says “please” when giving Ripley further directions. Farell also displays modest sympathy once or twice, asking “What the hell were you thinking?” when Cage rolls under the tires of a passing truck while attempting to slip away from the platoon. He also sounds downright empathetic when Cage can’t say for sure what transgression got him busted. Lowering his voice, Farell responds with an acknowledgment of the human capacity for error that could also sum up the fog of war: “It happens.”
Ellen Ripley and Sergeant Rita Vrataski
Although these characters are not played by Bill Paxton, Ripley and Vrataski show so many similarities that I have to include them.
Both of these strong women display a low tolerance for nonsense. Rita flattens a support soldier who was about to call her the “Full Metal Bitch” from the war propaganda posters, and her scorn for Cage’s naiveté manifests itself numerous times. Ripley begins the movie Aliens by accusing her corporate interrogators of having low IQs, and later confronts the overconfident Colonial Marines by saying, “I hope you’re right. I really do. Because just one of those things managed to wipe out my entire crew in less than twenty-four hours.” Ripley also braces Hudson when he needs it most (“Hudson, just deal with it because we need you and I’m sick of your bullshit.”) and is probably the reason Hudson managed to pull himself together.
The similarities between Ripley and Vrataski manifest themselves most clearly when the two characters are in combat with their respective alien adversaries. For both women the conflict has become deeply personal, and neither one holds back once battle is joined. From Vrataski swinging a sword made from a helicopter blade, to Ripley running over one of the aliens with the platoon’s armored car, these two characters strip away all the words and the facades to reveal the true brutality of a fight for survival. In Edge of Tomorrow the soldiers go into combat wearing mechanical exoskeletons very similar to the cargo loader Ripley uses to fight the alien Queen, and it’s hard not to see Ripley when watching Vrataski.
Although Paxton’s characters in Aliens and Edge of Tomorrow are very different, it was fun to look for other similarities in both movies. At first I didn’t think I’d find too many of them, but in the end I was reminded of Master Sergeant Farell’s prediction: “You might call that notion ironic, but trust me—you’ll come around.”