Decades after the release of Ridley Scott’s legendary space horror film, Alien, the lone survivor of the commercial towing vessel Nostromo, Ellen Ripley (and her portrayal by the enormous talented actress Sigourney Weaver), continues to powerfully influence the depiction of women in the science fiction genre. Easily ranking as one of the most iconic and well-developed cinematic heroes of our time, Ripley’s endurance as a pop culture figure and feminist symbol stems from the grace and depth of the four ambitious films the character appeared in and continues to impact today’s genre heroines, be it on the silver screen, television, video games, or a multitude of other mediums.
While every individual fan of the Alien franchise has their own feelings in regards to the quality of the four films in the series (Sorry, dissenters, but I’m not including Prometheus or the AvP films as part of Alien film series for the basis of this article.), the Alien franchise is fairly unique in the fact that each individual film featured a unique take on the series, a passionate and talented director, and new challenges and characterization for Weaver’s lead character. While viewers can debate the merit of the plot and execution of each film, it’s impossible to deny that each film added new depth to the character of Ellen Ripley and helped further carve out her well-deserved place as a genre icon.
As luck might have it, the idea that a female warrant officer would be the lone survivor of Scott’s original 1976 Alien film was not even a blip on the radar (…er… motion tracker?) when the film was first conceived. In fact, the original screenplay included only male characters, but screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett have often recounted their claim that the characters were written to be unisex, with a note included in the script stating that any member of the cast could be played by either a man or a woman, depending on the filmmaker’s wishes. Later in the process, when producers Walter Hill and David Giler rewrote the final draft of the script, Ripley was definitively made a female crew member. Ultimately, the choice to have Ripley, alone, make it out alive was a decision enacted to battle audience expectations, rather than some sort of revolutionary statement by the filmmakers. Weaver herself has stated this many times, including when she spoke to HollywoodOutbreak in 2011, saying that “…our producers were lovely men, and Ridley Scott too, but they weren’t being feminists. They thought the last person that anyone would think would survive is this girl. So, it was really done for the story, not for any political, feminist reason.” Still, no matter the reason for her lead role status, in Scott’s film, audiences found a new form of female heroine who stood toe-to-toe with both her male counterparts and the acid-bleeding creature that had infested her ship. As Weaver put it in an interview with AFI when describing her attraction to the character, Ripely was “…a character who was written as a man, so it was written in a very straightforward way. This was a kind of direct person who didn’t have these scenes where she was suddenly vulnerable and she didn’t throw her hands up and wait for someone else to save her. She was a thinking, moving, deciding creature.”
After her slasher film-esque “final girl” experience in Alien, Weaver and director James Cameron were not content to simply rehash the plot of the original film when developing the inevitable sequel. Cameron’s film, Aliens, has become a cinematic classic and is almost universally regarded as both one of the best science fiction blockbusters and sequels of all time, and much of this has to do with his desire to elevate the film beyond a quick money grab to prey on those hoping for another good scare in space. Cameron not only came up with a tense and tight script, but also crafted an entire life-cycle to flesh out the motives and behavior of the alien xenomorphs, including the notorious Alien Queen, and also included an expanded backstory for the character of Ripley that would inform her actions throughout the entirety of the second film.
Cameron pushed Weaver’s character forward in several ways, and the actress responded to these new challenges and informed her layered portrayal of a real and, at times, flawed woman who was forced to face her nightmares for a second time. The post-traumatic stress suffered by Ripley due to the events of the Nostromo made the character not only seem mortal and tangible for viewers who could only imagine living through that type of hell (They did live though it… in the safety of the movie theater.), but included the damaging effects of trauma that are too often not included in violent, sci-fi action pieces. The inclusion of the Marines and the eventual exchange of knowledge (and respect) continued to allow Ripley to challenge gender roles and fight the beasts in a believable way, without becoming an unrealistic action-movie “badass.” Ripley is a character that learns new skills, adapts to her situations, and thinks for herself, all as she gains the confidence to lead those around her as they face the impossible. And, of course, Cameron gave Ripley the backstory of being a mother who has lost a child (The scene revealing this info may only be included in the Director’s Cut of the film, but the effects of the backstory are present throughout the entire movie, even the theatrical cut). Instead of coming off as some form of domestic shackles for the character, the history of Ellen Ripley’s motherhood illustrates how much she has lost and the dismal fate that awaits the character post-Nostromo, pushing her not only to return to the alien planet against her better judgment, but setting up the immediate bond Ripley establishes with the orphan, Newt, and the climactic and near Shakespearean confrontation between our hero and the Alien Queen. Aliens is a truly amazing film that not only entertains to the max but takes Ripley from the role of survivor to true and tested hero. Weaver’s stellar performance also earned her a Best Actress nomination for the Oscars in 1987, something that it still, to this day, fairly unheard of in regards to films from the science fiction and horror genres.
While many fans lament the events of Alien 3 (particularly the brutal loss of fan-favorites Hicks and Newt at the opening of the film), this moody and nihilistic chapter in the Alien franchise has several merits, especially when it comes to the character development of the film’s lead. While painful, the loss of the her companions from Aliens forces the Ripley of Alien 3 to undergo her own journey of soul-searching and self-sacrifice. Stripped of every possible comfort (sans friends, sans weapons, sans hair, sans hope), Alien 3 allowed the character to avoid the pitfall of making Ripley a mockery of herself by continuously returning over and over to fight the alien in sequel after sequel. Instead, the intended final film of the franchise is free to take the story to its darkest, most grim (and, frankly, most likely) conclusion without holding back. With a feeling of raw exhaustion permeating through much of the film, Alien 3 is a suffocatingly hopeless tale, but witnessing our lead character’s refusal to give in through the extreme suffering only further defines her heroism. The Ellen Ripley of Alien 3, while unable to avoid being crushed by the monolithic and greed-fueled corporation or escape falling prey to infection by the alien horde, shows us that, in the end, she still has the agency to end her life on her own terms and go out doing what she knows to be right thing. The third film is a criminally underrated endeavor that gives a worthy and poignant ending to the character of Ellen Ripley.
The fourth film in the series, Alien Resurrection, is probably the most disjointed in regards to its relationship to Ripley’s character arc and the other films, but that’s natural given the “resurrection” element of the story, and it still manages to explore a number of intriguing concepts in regards to her journey. Scripted by Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Alien Resurrection’s most memorable gifts to the franchise’s lead character would include the concept and effect of being brought back to life against your will (via cloning) and the transformation of Ripley into the predatory and part-xenomorph “Ripley 8” (as in 8th clone). While director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s execution and vision didn’t necessarily live up to expectations and the planned fifth and sixth were dropped by the studio after poor audience reception, an attentive fan can easily see the pieces that could have provided an additional and intriguing trilogy focused on this reborn Ripley and her search for her remaining humanity and a place among the stars. (Personally, this writer would have much preferred Ripley 8 seeking out Scott’s Engineers for answers instead of Prometheus’ Elizabeth Shaw.)
Reviewing these four films, even briefly, demonstrates that Ripley stands out as the pinnacle of female genre characters, because both the filmmakers and the actress made a concentrated effort to deliver a realistic, flawed, and layered character. As film critic and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America John Scalzi pointed out in 2011 (via AMC.com), “Starting with Alien, Ripley was a fully competent member of a crew or ensemble — not always liked and sometimes disrespected, but doing her job all the same. As each film progresses, she comes to the fore and faces challenges head-on — she’s the hero of the piece, in other words […] Ripley isn’t a fantasy version of a woman. Science fiction film is filled with hot kickass women doing impossible things with guns and melee weapons while they spin about like a gymnast in a dryer. As fun as that is to watch, at the end of the day it’s still giving women short shrift, since what they are then are idealized killer fembots rather than actual human beings. Ripley, on the other hand, is pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, not wearing makeup, tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself.”
Scalzi may be correct that the sci-fi film genre is filled with “hot kickass women doing impossible things with guns and melee weapons,” and while the inclusion of more accurate and realistic portrayals of women in genre pieces has moved at a fairly infuriating pace since that first Alien film in 1979, the modern sci-fi genre has advanced quite a bit and the influence of Ellen Ripley and the Alien franchise can be seen in almost every successful modern sci-fi property on the modern scene. For example, Cameron went on to further explore the maternal protector role with Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Joss Whedon developed the now beloved sci-fi TV series Firefly, featuring a cast with a variety of well-rounded, realistic, and Ripely-influenced female crew members, a tradition continued in series like Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica and Chris Carter’s The X-Files. The effects of PTSD and themes of self-sacrifice and human frailty are present in Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games novels and films (a subject I wrote about last year when discussing Everdeen’s importance in Geekdom). The latest Star Wars films, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, both feature intelligent, skilled, and capable female leads (although we may be able to give a certain Princess a little credit for that as well), and even Scott has returned to a Ripely-influenced heroine with Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Shaw in his Alien-prequel, Prometheus.
The impact of Ellen Ripley and the Alien franchise will not be ending anytime soon, especially given celebrations of the stories and characters like today’s #AlienDay426, but it’s important to remember, while not intending to take anything away from the legacy of the franchise or creators behind it, that the mere fact that Ripley remains such a stand out figure in genre entertainment is a reminder that the individuals she represents are still extremely underserved in today’s market. While there are many ass-kicking women in scantily clad outfits in genre entertainment, the Ellen Ripleys and Dana Scullys and Katniss Everdeens remain far too few. That said, the scales do seem to be tipping, but until they do, Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Ripley will simply remain our ever-burning “lucky star,” setting the bar for depictions of women in the sci-fi genre for years to come.
For now, I leave you with this quote from Weaver (given during her press tour for her participation in Alien: Isolation, the amazing video game love letter to Scott’s original film) regarding her potential return to her iconic role:
“I think I was really lucky, and I hope someday to complete the Alien saga. I meet so many people for whom these movies mean a lot and it would be great to let the story be finished properly instead of kind of – which is my fault really. I didn’t want to do 5 with 4 because I wanted some distance. But maybe someday we’ll get to do the final installment and Ripley will find some peace. I hope so.”
We hope so too, Mrs. Weaver.