Honoring the Heroine: Ellen Ripley

To be frank: I am not a big fan of the Alien franchise. But I also think it would be amiss not to talk about the most famous science fiction heroine of them all. So stand aside and salute to Ellen Ripley.

Ellen-Ripley

To be precise, salute to Ellen Ripley from the very first Alien movie. See, when I look at the franchise, I see three totally different movies (I didn’t bother to watch the fourth), which just happen to feature Aliens and a character named Ellen Ripley. The first movie is basically a horror flick which happens to be set in space – a really inspired combination, considering that it solves one of the biggest problems with most horror movies (“Why the hell doesn’t the idiot just leave the house immediately?”). The second is an action flick. And the third is a strange mix of dystopian elements and existential questions which are not as clever as the movie maker seem to think. Consequently, Ellen Ripley is changed for each movie to accommodate the story, and every victory she has is negated in the next movie. The cat she rescued in the first one is just left in her flat to never be seen again in the second. The child she protects in the second is dead at the beginning of the third. There is no continuity, and Ellen Ripley is suddenly some sort of weapon swinging warrior woman with next to no built up.

So let’s discuss Ellen Ripley from movie one. As the story goes, all the characters in the movie were originally written gender neutral and that Sigourney Weaver just happened to be the most convincing candidate for the role for lead. She certainly has the acting abilities to make the story believable, but I admit the more cynical part of me wonders if the casting was perhaps mostly an attempt to distinguish the movie from all the other science fiction movies which were produced around this time. But no matter what the motivation was, it created a character far removed from the usual scream queens, a character which does everything a lead should do and just happens to be female. Despite the sexual symbolism connected to the Alien, there isn’t much of a gender related agenda in the movie (in contrast, the sequels are pretty much into your face with gender issues), but that’s exactly what made Ellen Ripley so revolutionary. The gender just doesn’t matter, you can just as well imagine a male in her role. The only nod to her gender might be her insistence to protect the ship cat, but it seems to be more a demonstration of her humanity, which prevails even in a terrifying situation.

Thus said what really makes Ellen Ripley a heroine is less what she does towards the end of the movie, but what she does at the beginning of it. The relationship between the crew members is a very compelling character study, and in this dynamic, she is the one who would rather do what is right than bowing under group pressure. She is the one who stands to the opinion not to let a crew member back on the ship until quarantine protocols are observed. She is proven right in the end, but let’s be honest here: The likelihood that someone dies for the sake of quarantine is in such situations higher than the possibility that there actually is a danger. Yet she risks the wrath of her crew members and accepts the guilt of someone dying because of her decision, knowing that if this is one of the rare cases in which there is a serious threat, the consequences will be worse. That is true courage.

If there is one point of criticism I have, than that Ellen Ripley is a little bit too perfect. Not only is every decision she makes ultimately right, she is also the first voice of caution, the one who deciphers the coded warning and she has a sure radar whom to trust. There is competent and there is being eerily perfect, and Ellen Ripley is sometimes too close to the latter. A trait which only got more prominent during the movies which followed (another reason for sticking to the first one).

Still, Ellen Ripley is an unforgettable character, and it is kind of a shame that she still stands fairly alone in the gallery of female main characters in science fiction movies.

Quote: “That’s the only way. We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered. And then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space! Is that acceptable to you?”

Well, if you are a fan of horror movies, this is definitely for you. More generally speaking, it is kind of a must-see movie, due to its fame. Thus said – some aspects didn’t age particularly well. I am sure that upon seeing the movie for the first time, a lot of people didn’t expect Ellen Ripley to become the hero of the movie (it was not exactly advertised), but nowadays everyone knows about her, which makes a lot of aspects kind of predictable.  

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6 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Ellen Ripley

  1. Well said.

    You are spot on with how her character basically gets F’d over in each film as the next director/writer throws out whatever the previous one had established.

    The biggest mis-step was killing Newt between Aliens and Alien 3 (off screen). This sabotaged any internal consistency to the Ripley character through the first three films.
    The fourth film has a clone of Ripley, so is not the same person.
    Some Aliens fans consider the first two films “canon” and everything else basically nonsense that directly contradicts what Ridley Scott and James Cameron brought to the character.

    I love the first two films, the first being my overall favourite. But the second film is where Ripley really becomes Ripley, where she becomes her own person, in the first film she is basically just a cyper for the audience to relate to.

    • I mostly like the first movie better because for one, I like the concept of a horror movie in space, and two, in this one the role is actually gender neutral and just happens to be played by a woman while in the sequel they make a big deal around her being female. I am also not too sure if the character in the second one is really that layered, mostly because I think Cameron made quite a jump with her, with next to no explanation. I think he did a better job with Sarah Conners. But it is really no wonder that most people agree to just forget what happened after the second movie.

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