Forty years after Alien was released, Suzanne Harrington pays tribute to Lieutenant Ellen Ripley — one of the greatest female protagonists in cinema history.
Its initial pitch was ‘Jaws in space’, conceived to ride the Seventies Star Wars craze, with added monster. The gender of Ripley, its main character, was to be male.
Forty years on, Lieutenant Ellen Ripley remains one of the greatest female protagonists of 20th century cinema, creating a new feminist archetype within the horror genre – because Alien is not so much sci-fi as pure haunted house horror, locked inside the Nostromo, a clanking, claustrophobic space freighter far out in space, where nobody can hear you scream. And Ripley, played by an unknown 29 year old, Sigourney Weaver, evolved into a timeless heroine – credible, flawed, real. The Alien trilogy became Star Wars for grown ups.
Within the action-horror genre, female characters are either scream queens, sidekicks, damsels, eye candy, bloodied corpses, or so unfeasibly kickass that they resemble weapons-wielding fembots rather than flesh and blood women. Ripley is none of the above – she is real, or as realistic as a character can be while being relentlessly pursued through ventilation shafts by an acid blooded extraterrestrial.
In Ridley Scott’s Alien, released in 1979 (in the USA it was May; in Ireland it was September), nothing much happens for the first 45 minutes of the film, until that unforgettable moment when a baby alien bursts out of John Hurt’s chest. (Check out his debunking of the chest-bursting scene on YouTube – it’s bloody funny).
Back on the Nostromo, cinematic legend is made as Ripley steps up, emerging as a gold standard heroine amid the sinister murk, the story unfolding inside a dark, viscous, womblike nightmare created by the late Swiss artist HR Giger. Giger’s inspiration for the Alien queen came directly from Francis Bacon’s 1944 paintings, Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion. These were in turn drawn from the Furies, the three Greek goddesses of vengeance; the Alien queen has a terrifyingly regal lineage.
Academia has long been fascinated by Alien. In May a two-day symposium at the University of Bangor to mark the film’s 40th anniversary examined the Alien franchise in relation to race, ethnicity and otherness; psychoanalysis; and neoliberalism, post-industrialism and the rise of global corporations.
The film’s depiction of faceless corporate amorality was eerily prescient; remember that scene in 1992’s Alien 3, when a masked representative of The Company come to ‘rescue’ Ripley, so that the alien gestating inside her could be removed, cloned and weaponised for profit? And the ship’s employees chillingly dismissed as ‘crew expendable’? In the 21st century, this seems not so much allegorical as prophetic.
But it is the theme of motherhood which sets this creature feature apart. Or as author David McIntee writes in Beautiful Monsters, his book about the films,
All the power is female – from the facehugger implanting future aliens into male abdomens to the relationship between Ripley and the alien, which, as the story progresses, becomes more psychologically and biologically intertwined.
Alien, its original script by Dan O’Bannon, is Freudian in its depiction of birth trauma, and Nietzschean in its will to power, the alien’s sole purpose to survive and reproduce. It is terrifying, visceral girl power in outer space, leaving audiences screaming for more.
They got more. James Cameron directed the cracking, gut wrenching action of the sequel Aliens in 1986, followed by David Fincher’s almost Shakespearian Alien 3, set on a male only penal colony planet “in the ass end of space”. Ripley, impregnated by the alien, ultimately sacrifices herself to kill it before it is captured and harvested by The Company. It is a perfect ending, somewhat undermined by Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection in 1997, although its themes of post humanism were again disturbingly visionary; Winona Ryder plays an irritating humanoid, Call, while Ripley is by now part alien herself.
There is a muted lesbian theme; Ripley breathes all over Call, later saving her as the alien is sucked out of the ship to its final death in space, leaving the robot lady and the alien lady to pursue an ambiguous happy ever after. (The Ridley Scott directed 2017 prequel, Alien: Covenant, doesn’t really warrant a mention. Neither do all the mash-ups – Alien vs Predator etc. Monsters on their own are boring).
As the narrative progresses through each film of the classic trilogy, so too does the role of Ripley, on the heroine’s classic path from maiden to mother to crone. She remains relatively ordinary in the first film, a working crew member who initially avoids being devoured by the alien only because she wanders off to look for the ship’s cat; by the second film, with a female child to protect – Newt, who reminds Ripley of her own daughter Amanda (a strand which was cut from Cameron’s Aliens, much to Sigourney Weaver’s displeasure, as she felt it central to the development of Ripley’s character and maternal motivation), she faces down the advancing alien queen with the memorable line, “Get away from her, you bitch!” Human and alien, female to female, eyeball to eyeball. By the third (and for some audiences, the best) film, Ripley has ascended the throne, demanding of the penal colony men:
Today, Ripley remains a cinematic heroine. Forty years ago, when cinema audiences were swamped in testosterone-soaked action movies (the Rocky series, Apocalypse Now) and frat boy shenanigans (Animal House, National Lampoon), Ellen Ripley was a revolutionary character. Even in 2019 – perhaps especially in 2019 – cinema, and the wider world, could do with more like her.