“I’m sort of stunned that it is an influential character but I’m delighted, and I can kind of understand it because I actually based the character on a woman who inspires me very much who’s an environmentalist who’s very… she’s very much a person who doesn’t get bogged down in things that could go wrong. I’m glad that I picked the right person… I think she is a terrific character and I have to give credit to the four men and the many men and women behind these movies who wrote them and acted in them that these four films — I was very fortunate to be working with people who could tell a story that could still resonate many years later that had enough universal themes in it, that was still relevant to people.” – Sigourney Weaver (Pantozzi, n.d.).
I've written about Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but I've yet to write about the original Alien films and those characters. For me, Ellen Ripley is one of the greatest characters in cinema history, but I'm fascinated by the way people describe her character in relation to her actual depiction in the films. And I'm also fascinated by the disdain many have for Alien 3, when in fact, and as I will argue here, it is this film that showcases all the amazing qualities we have come to admire Ripley for.
Despite Ripley’s character being hailed as one of the strongest female protagonists in cinema, the way in which her gender is represented in these films is the subject of much debate. Ripley’s first name is never mentioned for most of the first film, and like all the human characters in the film, was written as unisex so that Dan O’ Bannon (the film’s initial screenwriter) could spend more time developing a convincing antagonist character in the form of the now famous Xenomorph creature.
“Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Alien’s screenwriters, wrote into the original script that all of the characters, while written as men (including “Ripley” who was originally written as “Roby”), were in fact unisex and could be cast as either women or men” (Leab, n.d.).
Alien follows a crew of 'space truckers' who intercept a distress call from a nearby planet on their way to Earth. While there, they encounter an alien egg, and this ultimately leads to an alien creature coming onto the ship. What follows is a deadly game of cat and mouse as the alien successfully picks off the crew of the ship one by one until only Ellen Ripley (a warrants officer on the ship) and the alien remain. Ripley finds herself trapped in an escape pod with the creature, before finally jettisoning the monster into space.
Immediately one can see how the film mirrors the slasher films of the 70s. Certainly, Ripley is the Final Girl of this drama, in that Ripley is biologically female, and she is the final survivor. But despite Ripley's status as a strong female protagonist, her gender doesn't play a factor in her characterisation until the end of the film. We identify her as female because of her physical appearance, highlighted by her undressing in the final showdown with the monster, but her self-identified gender is never truly revealed until that scene. It is only when she undresses and we see her wearing feminine underwear (which clashes with the unisex uniforms and clothing of the crew before this) that we can identify her as female. She is revealed to be the Final Girl, sacrificing an arguably ambiguous and unisex identity for a feminine one before her final confrontation with the monster.
That final scene, however, doesn't contribute to her characterisation as a strong female protagonist, in fact, critics have not been kind to that creative decision to have her strip down in such needless fashion and now consider this sequence to be damaging for the character, reducing her to an objectified figure, much like Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi.
Much of the mythology surrounding Ripley’s stature as a strong female protagonist can instead be traced to her role in Aliens. Aliens is the second film in the franchise and follows Ripley as she returns to the original planet where they first encountered the creature over fifty years later. Unlike the original film’s ‘Jaws-in-space’ approach, Aliens is much more action orientated, as a group of space marines square off against not just one but dozens of creatures. During this struggle, Ripley encounters a young girl called Newt, and becomes a mother-figure to her as they try to escape the planet.
Ask anyone which film they think best showcases Ripley's character and they'll tell you - Aliens. Ripley’s arc in this film, much like the original, is minimal at best. Critics praised Ripley and the underlying subtext of motherhood of the film (Weaver was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards that same year for her role). It should be noted, however, that none of this subtext is directly related to motherhood at all. There is no evidence (in the original theatrical release anyway) that Ripley has a longing to nurture. In director James Cameron’s special edition release of the film, a scene is included in act one where Ripley discovers her daughter, Amanda Ripley, has died of old age in her absence. In this version, one could make the case for motherhood, given this establishing information about her character, however without this in the original release (which we will take as master for now) such an arc cannot be recognised. Ripley’s action to protect Newt is a reflection, not of her gender or societal role as mother and carer, but of her humanity – her refusal to let harm come to a child. It separates them from the Xenomorph. I would even pose that if it was Hicks in this role, or if we were to embrace Dan O’ Bannon’s vision of a unisex (or even male) Ripley, we wouldn't be so quick to jump to parental urges as the motivating factor, and instead chalk such actions up to heroics and bravery instead of gender. I argue that it is Alien 3 where Ripley truly becomes the strong female protagonist that we recognise today. While she is certainly a strong protagonist in the previous entries, it is here that her gender (the gender she identifies herself as, rather than the one that is projected onto her by others) factors into her survival.
Alien 3 aspired to return the franchise to its roots – a single antagonist slasher film. This time Ripley finds herself in a much darker story than either of the previous entries. Newt and Hicks are killed before the story even begins when their escape pod crashes into a prison colony planet. Ripley, barely surviving the crash herself, takes refuge in the colony as she awaits pick up by the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
Alien 3 satisfies all the criteria that Ridley Scott’s earlier vision for the story-verse set out, and more significant to this discussion, it is the film that, I would argue, gives us the truly strong female protagonist that we herald the character to be. Ripley sheds many of her feminine traits and adopts a masculine demeanour in her quest to survive in this male populated prison colony. This is most evident in the symbolic act of shaving her head to become like the other male prisoners. She also discards her clothes in favour of a prison uniform and conforms to the day to day life of her male company. Her womanhood comes into play when the male prisoners try to rape her, but it is also used as a strength when one character says “you don’t want to know me. I’m a murderer and rapist of women”, to which Ripley responds, “Well then, I must make you pretty nervous”. Ripley acknowledges her biological gender, but her actions prior, during, and after this scene all point to her identifying herself with the masculine.
As the story unfolds, Ripley learns that she is carrying an alien egg inside her, having been laid by the previous monster during her cryo-sleep before the pod crashed into the planet. She knows the corporation is coming to take her away for experiments, and rather than risk allowing the creature loose on Earth, Ripley sacrifices her life by throwing herself into a smelting plant. Ripley has defeated the alien and in a sense the evil corporation responsible for all her troubles. She defeats the antagonists by using their own facilities against them and denying them the creature they so desperately seek.
The Alien films to this point are about a victim of abuse overcoming her abuser. As Ripley says, “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else”. Ripley is a victim of abuse by an abuser which will not leave her in the first two films, and continuing this line of thought, the third instalment sees her the victim of rape (both metaphorically and physically) and becoming pregnant (in a manner of speaking) as well.
While Alien 3 is typically looked upon as one of the weaker entries in the franchise, it is argued here that the film demonstrates the strongest incarnation of Ellen Ripley that we have seen, one who, not only uses her surroundings to survive, but sacrifices aspects of her character that have been somewhat unnaturally forced on her (the objectified woman in Alien and the mother in Aliens), and instead finds her own identity in the wake of the systematic abuse she has endured. Ultimately, she takes back control of her own fate and her own identity. We come to see Ripley for who she really is. It is the best example I can think of in cinema where a woman takes control of her fate in the face of abuse.
In another sense, Alien 3 can be looked at as the final stage in a three-act journey of identity restoration, starting aboard the Nostromo more than half a century ago. A typical warrant’s officer, Ellen Ripley, survives the various encounters with the monster by slowly and methodically resolving her own identity until she finally defeats the Xenomorph. Her arc now complete, Ripley takes her own life and in turn, her pursuer's as well.
Alien 3 can teach us a lot about how to write characterisation on a psychological level, not just a physical one, by employing arena, protagonistic and antagonistic elements and juxtaposing them against an established character in order to help further define this new identity. It also allows audiences to engage with Ripley in a way not seen in previous films. If previous outings allowed us to engage in secondary identification with Ripley (comparing her characteristics against our own), then Alien 3 offers something far more complex for the engaged viewer.
Don't be so quick to discount Alien 3. It's a far more complex film than we give it credit for. (Image copyright: 20th Century Fox)