The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One

Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.

Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

In the first entry into the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley is not necessarily identified as the main character until the last 45-30 mins of the film. Instead, the film cleverly fakes out the audience by focusing on Tom Skerritt’s captain of the mining ship the Nostromo as the hero. If you haven’t seen Alien, you are missing one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. In the wake of Star Wars, but still firmly entrenched in classic psychological sci-fi cinema, Alien takes its time to introduce its title baddie.
Character development isn’t a core component of this first film. Director Scott appears to take a more aloof, documentary style on the material, using lots of handheld camera work and realistic conversations between characters. Ellen Ripley is a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose specialty is as a pilot. She’s also second in command to Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Because of her rank in the military like structure of the corporation, we don’t see her take command until some bad things befall poor Dallas. Once she does assume command, she faces dissension from the ship’s science officer (Holm) and the contracted mining crew who is already disgruntled about their small percentage from the mission they are returning from. It’s very interesting that at such an early time in the history of the blockbuster movie, there was already a female action hero whose gender never played a role in her interactions with fellow crew members.
There is also a subtext that is commonly read into Alien that makes it fitting that a female character would take center stage. The entire process in which a person is implanted with a xenomorph (the name of the Alien species) embryo is akin to rape. A spider-like creature bursts from an egg, affixing itself to a host species’ face, then inserts a tube down into the stomach of the host where the egg is planted. The emergence of the xeno is also a dark commentary on childbirth. The larval creature bursts from the host’s chest, screaming and crying in a twisted variation on the birth-cries of an infant, and skitters away leaving the host for dead. While I’m sure the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and Ridley Scott don’t believe childbirth is evil, they are making an interesting comment on what a violent and brutal process it is. If you were to step back and observe, it is quite odd that mothers are expected to immediately love and bond with something that has literally torn them apart.
By the end of the film, Ripley has managed to escape the ship and fights of the xenomorph once more, defeating it and placing herself in cryosleep, expecting to wake up in a few weeks back at the space port.

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton
Well, Ripley’s escape ship drifted much longer than she planned, in fact she was out in the emptiness of space for 57 years. She’s found by scavengers and delivered to Weyland-Utani where she learns that her daughter (in a deleted scene from the director’s cut), who was 9 when Ripley left for the mining mission, has died at the age of 66 two years ago. This devastates Ripley, and it is apparent that she is also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the massacre that took place on board the Nostromo. Ripley attempts to assimilate back into life on Earth, but is called back into duty when the planetoid the xenos where originally found on has been colonized and the colonists appear to have been wiped out.
Where in the first film, Ripley is goes into action only when she is pushed, this Ripley appears to have developed a much tougher skin as a result of her experiences. Her job on Earth is working a loader mechsuit (see the big robo suits from Avatar) and moving cargo around for shipment. Once she amongst the space marine platoon headed to kill the alien hordes, she is intent on proving herself just as tough as them, but with a clear head and much more intelligence than many of the grunts around her. When the unit lands and everything falls apart fairly quickly, with xenos mauling the troops, it is Ripley, not the unit commander that takes action and pulls the still living soldiers out. For the rest of the film, Ripley is the one calling the shots. She orchestrates a way of remotely calling a rescue ship from the marine vessel in the planetoid’s orbit and successfully defeats the xenos pretty much single handedly.
This film expands on Ripley’s maternal nature but introducing Newt, the child of colonists who has been severely traumatized by seeing her family devoured and used as living incubators. Ripley takes up the care of Newt without missing a beat, she knows how to speak to the child and comfort her so that she believes she is safe with Ripley no matter what. Ripley has a foil in the form of the Alien Queen, the one responsible for the those creepy, mucousy eggs that cause so much trouble. The finale of the film is two mothers fighting to death to protect their children. Something that is so visceral and ultimately feels like more organic action that most male-centric action films. There is an instinctual protective nature in mothers of all species, so much of the over the top action that occurs feels honest.
Aliens ends the same as the first: Ripley going in cryosleep, hoping that the next time she wakes this nightmare will be a memory. Too bad she has two more films to go.

Film 2010 #20 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004, dir. Kerry Conran)

Starring Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Sir Laurence Olivier
Nostalgia is a strong element in mainstream cinema. You can look at many of the franchise films (Transformers, Batman, Harry Potter) and see that their popularity is due in part to the emotions the audience associates with the properties in how they experienced them as children. George Lucas pioneered the blockbuster nostalgia film, first with American Graffiti, but more importantly with the Star Wars series, based on the science fiction movie serials shown in theaters from the 1930s up through Lucas’s childhood in the late 40s/early 50s.
It’s the same sense of nostalgia that informs Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain film. It’s clearly modeled on the fantastical and cliffhangered films of yesteryear. Sky Captain borrows in particular from Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and DC Comics’ Blackhawks. This is pure cinematic escapism with no real subtext. Its clear the director is quite fond of The Wizard of Oz as well and that provides any sort of under the radar thematics.
The look of the film is incredibly striking, done washed out colors that are only one notch above black and white. I could see the CG being criticized for not looking realistic but I think its done in the stylization of Sin City. It also made me think of what computer generated effects would have looked like if they had existed in the 1930s for a film like this. The director used archive footage of Sir Laurence Olivier for the film’s villain, Totenkopf, and I’m completely at a loss as to why that actor was used. Olivier didn’t have a history of working pulp films, though he would have been very interesting in them.
Character development is appropriately stiff. This is the sort of film where you know there just isn’t going to be a significant character arc. The relationship between Sky Captain and his Girl Friday, Polly Perkins, is Han & Leia revisited. Everything is very combative and jealous, barely concealing how deeply the two care for each other. I actually laughed at a couple moments between the two and found their back and forth exchanges appropriate for this type of film.
At the end of the day, this is a film purely about the visuals and nods to its source material. It has much more heart than a Transformers and its apparent much love went into making it. A fun film that won’t change your life, but will appeal to imaginative kid in ya.

Film 2010 #19 – Big Night

Big Night (1996, dir. Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott)

Starring Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Alison Janney, Marc Antony, Isabella Rosselini, Liev Schrieber, Campbell Scott
The senses of smell and taste are hard ones in the realm of film. To convey them with an absence of any true manipulation of the nose and tongue seems almost impossible. That is why this small independent feature is so impressive. As each course of the traditional Italian meal is presented the aromas and flavors pop off the screen. But as much as Big Night is about food, it is also about film and art in general.
Set in the late 1950s, the film follows Primo (Shaloub), the temperamental chef and his brother Secundo (Tucci), his desperately entrepreneurial brother. Secundo struggles to make their small restaurant Paradise a success, which is not helped by the traditionalist attitudes and unwillingness to budge by Primo. A bit of a boon comes along in the form of their rival Pascal (Holm) telling them he will tell his friend Louie Primo, the popular Italian crooner, to stop at the brothers’ place when he comes to town. This sets Secundo into preparing a massive feast worthy of Prima’s lips. Secundo also balances his relationship with Phyllis (Driver) and his affair with Pascal’s wife (Rosselini).
The origins of this film came when Tucci was working on a film he absolutely hated. On the side, he worked on the script for Big Night with a friend and eventually went to Campbell Scott to help him direct and Oliver Platt to produce. Because of the subject matter and this being a film made by actors, thematically it is addressing the conflict between making profitable films and making artistically honest films. As easy as it would be to say that Primo’s unwavering stance on traditional Italian cuisine is honorable, it can also be flipped and seen as destructive. The film leaves the brothers in a very shaky place, quite aware that they don’t have much longer in their establishment.
The film is also a wonderfully clever comedy. There is a lot of language play with many of the major players being Italian immigrants. One particular exchange occurs between Tucci and Shaloub, when the latter uses the phrase “raining outside” and Tucci jokingly comments that it’s better than it raining outside. This joke is completely lost on the elder brother and very humorous back and forth results. The major feast the film is built around is also full of very funny moments, one customer in tears exclaiming that her “mother was a terrible cook” after partaking in Secundo’s masterpiece of a meal.
Big Night is a great quiet film made by people who truly love what they do. It comes across in every frame that this is a project that they worked hard on but enjoyed every minute of. And if you don’t have a craving for rissoto or the film’s chief dish, timpano at the conclusion than I would be shocked.

Shadows in the Cave Digest #01 – January 2010

I decided to end each month with a sort of “digest” or table of contents for the reviews and essays written over the previous weeks. Hope you like it and you find some things you might have missed the first time through.

My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2009/The Long List
– Sundance Film Festival: The History, 2010 Line Up
– A Decade in Love With Movies: Part One, Part Two, Part Three
– The James Dean Trilogy: East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Giant
– Director in Focus – John Sayles: Lone Star

A Serious Man (Movie of the Month)
Up in the Air
Sherlock Holmes
The Road
The Lovely Bones
Youth in Revolt

Broken Embraces

Hypothetical Film Festivals

No Capes Film Festival
Deconstructing Darko

Next Month
– Spotlight on Robert Altman
– The Alien Quadrilogy: The Evolution of Ellen Ripley
– The Spider-Man Reboot

The James Dean Trilogy – Giant

Giant (dir. George Stevens)
Starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo

James Dean’s final, and in my opinion, greatest performance casts him as the antagonist Jett Rink to Rock Hudson’s Jordan Benedict. Giant sought to redefine the Texas landscape and in terms of subject matter was a very forward thinking film. Not only does it address the wealth and power associated with the oil industry, it also deals with interracial relationships and interracial children in an extremely positive way.
Told over the course of over two decades, Giant follows Jordan Benedict as he marries Leslie (Taylor) and slowly loses his oil empire to family ranch hand Jett Rink. When the patriarch of the Benedict family dies, Rink only asks for one small patch of land as repayment for his years of loyal service. For years he works to drill it, with Jordan and his family finding his efforts humorous but ultimately pathetic. Finally, Jordan finds what he’s been looking for and puts all his effort into usurping the Benedict’s place in the upper crust in Texas.
Dean’s role role is very much a supporting one in this film, his first real secondary role. Hudson and Taylor’s relationship and the growth of their family is the primary plot concern. Once Jett discovers the oil he comes into much greater focus in the overall story. Dean’s portrayal of Jett is masterful; he’s an inarticulate man who understands working the ranch and being an oil rig worker best. This earthier character type plays foil to Jordan Benedict’s refined Texas aristocrat. Both men fit the Western archetype, with Jett being the rougher around the edges type.
James Dean’s finest moments occur in the scene where he zooms up the Benedict house to gloat about his discovery of oil and his grand finale, a drunken fifty-something man who wealth has done nothing to heal his anger and hatred. The first sequence showcases the bombastic skills of Dean; while his motivations are extremely petty you can’t help but feel ebullient with him. The latter scene is my favorite piece of acting by Dean and Daniel Day-Lewis’ final moments in There Will Be Blood owe everything to this performance. Having struck up a relationship with Benedict’s barely legal daughter, Jett has revealed himself a lecherous old man trying to numb the hollowness inside him by consuming disgusting amounts of whiskey. In the conference room at an oilmen’s convention, he stumbles about mumbling things under his breath, knocking over tables and has a final, violent confrontation with Jordan Benedict.
James Dean was never to act again. Before his final two films were released, Dean was taking a drive in his Porsche Spyder with a friend, received a speeding ticket, and two hours later collided with another car while speeding again. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. I remember being angry after I saw Giant that there were no more films with this actor. That couldn’t be right, he was so good and there were so many things he could have done.
I like this commercial produced by a life insurance company that theorizes what it would have been like if he had lived, and think its a good way to cap this essay series:

Sundance Film Festival – 2010 Highlights

Cyrus (dir. Duplass Brothers) – Indie film directors switch to more mainstream fare with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in a nice looking comedy-drama.

Buried (dir.Rodrigo Cortés) – Ryan Reynolds stars as a contractor in Iraq who wakes up buried in a wooden coffin with only a candle, knife, and cell phone. Very interesting circumstances could make for a real test of Reynolds’ talents.

Jack Goes Boating (dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman) – Hoffman’s directorial debut of a stage play he starred in. A romantic comedy set in NYC, starring Hoffman and Amy Smart.

The Killer Inside Me (dir. Michael Winterbottom) – Winterbottom is one of the most dynamic British directors working today and this film looks to be just as mind-blowing as previous work. Casey Affleck stars as a small town sheriff who is secretly a serial killer, finding it harder and harder to hide his crimes.

Holy Rollers (dir. Kevin Asch) -Jesse Eisenberg takes on his first purely dramatic starring role as a Hasidic Jew lured into the drug trafficking business.

High School (dir. John Stalberg) – In what is being billed as a stoner EPIC, the valedictorian of his high school realizes he has to get drug tested and this will reveal he’s a pothead. His plan to remedy this is to fix the drug tests of the entire graduating class to test positive for marijuana. Stars Adrien Brody as Psycho Ed, check out the pic above 😀

Hesher (dir. Spencer Susser) – Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the total opposite of his character in last year’s 500 Days of Summer. He’s a burnout, locked up in his trailer with nothing but hate for the world around him, and eventually becomes the mentor of a 13 year old boy. Natalie Portman co-stars.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (dir. Eli Craig) – I love the premise: Two rednecks, who are actually kind men, are believed to be psycho killers by a group of teenagers from the city who try to kill the pair. This could either be a big letdown or a genius film. Stars Alan Tudyk.

Weekend Trailer Roundup

The Eclipse (dir. Conor McPherson) – a very non-exploitative looking ghost story from Ireland

Mother (dir. Joon Ho-Bong) – South Korean psychological thriller from the brilliant mind behind The Host.
Mystery Team (dir. Dan Eckman) – From the brilliant comedic minds behind Derrick Comedy, one of whom is Donald Glover, former writer of 30 Rock and current star of NBC’s Community. This one look damn good.
Afterschool (dir. Antonio Campos) – A disturbing murder mystery at a prep school. Something about the cinematography and ambient noise is incredibly eerie.
Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (dir. Oliver Stone) – Stone’s stock has fallen in the last decade, W. was a huge disappointment. Here’s hoping he recaptures some of what made him great in the late 80s.