In the dying days of 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien introduced a brand new mythos to the world of cinema. The alien creature soon became an icon of the relatively new (for 1979) sci-fi horror genre, spawning movie sequels, countless imitations, games, books, and a whole bunch of movie memorabilia.
Alien’s premise is simple enough. A Weyland-Yutani- (the ‘Company’) owned commercial freighter called Nostromo (a nod to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness) is on its way back to Earth after a deep-space mining expedition (to the fictional, resources-rich planet of Thedus, for those who love their facts). Somewhere along the way, the ship’s central computer, Mother, intercepts a transmission, and in accordance with Yutani’s standard operating directives to investigate any transmission with a possible intelligent origin, wakes the crew up from hypersleep.
After setting down on the planetoid where the transmission came from, the crew discovers what appears to be a derelict spaceship with a cargo of thousands of egg-like objects. A crew member, Kane (John Hurt) touches one of these eggs and something leaps out from within, attaching itself to his face.
What follows is movie history. The alien life-cycle, the derelict spaceship, the Engineers, all entered the popular psyche and culture.
Alien is certainly notable for many things, and besides creating the whole mythology surrounding the alien creature, it also introduced the character of Lieutenant First Class Ellen Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver.
Weaver was barely 30 years of age when she accepted the part that would turn a largely unknown and struggling actress into a household name. Alien was, in fact, Weaver’s first major role, as she had only had a minor part in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall two years prior.
The character of Ripley as we know it today almost never existed, however, as Ripley was indeed a male character in early drafts of the screenplay. It only switched genders after a personal request by Scott.
Alien surprised pretty much everyone by having the seemingly lead male role, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), killed off early in the movie. This is a masterstroke, as it throws both the Nostromo’s crew and the audience into disarray. From that point on, anything is possible, and as the Alien picks off crew members one by one, Ripley emerges as the last survivor.
Ripley’s Journey: Alone in space, from surrogate motherhood to hardened warrior
Much has been written about Ripley’s endurance and resourcefulness while facing a superior foe. Our protagonist finds herself in a rather unenviable plight: Last one standing, alone inside a gigantic spaceship in the far reaches of the Outer Veil, with a monstrous alien creature stalking her. Where most women would have crumbled and broken down waiting for their inevitable fate, Ripley makes use of her cunning and will to survive, first by setting up the detonation of the spaceship and finally outwitting the heinous menace.
Ripley’s character stands out for many reasons, not least because a female lead was almost unheard of at the time of the movie’s release. Ripley contravenes all the rules of what a woman is supposed to be. She stands strong and determined in the face of adversity, facing off against a dark enemy. She refuses to give into despair by rising up to the challenge, on her own, and against all odds.
The character of Ellen Ripley would be further developed in the powerful sequel Aliens (1986). Under the expert direction of James Cameron, Ripley would evolve into a matriarchal role to the last survivor of Hadley Hope’s colony, 12 year old Rebecca “Newt” Jordan (Carrie Henn).
The relationship between Ripley and Newt is interesting. As both females grow closer throughout the events of the movie, Ripley becomes an accidental mother to the child, and there is a key element that explains this dynamic, though it is absent from the version of Aliens released in theatres.
It wouldn’t be until the release of Aliens: The Director’s Cut that we learned about Ripley’s own daughter, Amanda. After the events depicted in Alien, Ripley spent 57 years drifting through space on board the Nostromo’s lifeboat. She’s eventually picked up and taken to the Gateway Station, orbiting Earth. It is at Gateway that she learns of Amanda’s death in the intervening years.
This fact explains Ripley’s bonding with Newt, as Ripley perhaps attempts to redeem herself from the guilt of ‘abandoning’ her own biological daughter.
Get away from her, you bitch
Besides being a savior for Newt, Ripley’s character becomes a warrior of superior caliber, a fact that it’s perfectly epitomized in her final confrontation against the Alien Queen at the end of Aliens.
Using a Power Loader, Ripley takes on the Queen on her own terms, pummelling the monster into submission for attempting to take Newt from her. Once again, Ripley is the last one standing, empowered by her own resolution to save the child from the clutches of the cruellest of fates.
Once again, Ripley succeeds where a whole platoon of tough Marines failed. It is clear that a point is being made here. She represents the power of a female, the embodiment and pinnacle of Second Wave Feminism. Ripley may be armed and dangerous, using man-made technology to defeat a cunning adversary. Yet, it is a woman using a flamethrower to burn the Queen’s carefully laid eggs. And it’s also a woman emptying her weapons on all of the Queen’s unborn children, and later squaring off against Her in the Hangar Bay on board the Sulaco.
Conclusion: Ripley, icon of power and victory over male superiority
Early in Aliens, Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) asks Ripley to accompany himself and a platoon of Colonial Marines on their mission to find out why all communications have been lost with Hadley’s Hope. He refers to the Marines as ‘tough hombres’, adding that they’re ‘packing state-of-the-art firepower.’ But Ripley is not fooled by this. She has seen what just one alien creature can do, and initially refuses, perhaps believing that wars cannot be won by firepower alone, a fact painfully learned by the American army in a well known conflict in South East Asia.
But more significantly, Ripley stands up against a man’s world. Earlier on, while being grilled by a Company committee about her role in the detonation of the Nostromo, the almost all-male commission implicitly accuses her of blowing up the ship in a reckless act, dismissing her accounts of the alien creature. And when the only female member of the committee appears to back up the Company’s opinion that such creature is nothing but an invention (‘LV-426 is a rock. No indigenous life’), Ripley quips “I told you, it wasn’t indigenous. There was an alien spacecraft there. A derelict ship. We homed on its beacon…”
Later on, as the Colonial Marines platoon is decimated, largely because of its inexperienced commanding officer, Lt. Gorman, Ripley once again kicks into action and takes control. She turns the tables around and is chastised by it, but at least manages to save some of the Marines.
Ellen Ripley stands as an icon of female empowerment, both as a woman, a mother, a hero, and a kick-ass warrior.