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.
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.