Month of October; countless horror films; a column that can be about anything: likely ingredients for an essay in the spirit of Octoberween. Yet only now does our author realize how quickly Halloween approaches, and he’s reminded of the great movies he can discuss in relation to the year’s greatest holiday. So he asks himself, what do (500) Days of Summer, Take This Waltz, and a 1970s horror film have in common? The answer exists somewhere in…the Tuesday Zone.
Woah, it’s the second half of Octoberween and I haven’t even talked about a horror movie. Unless you consider Luke Kirby in Take This Waltz a monster, which he kind of is. So like Second Breakfast, I’m gonna get in the spirit of things. I’m gonna talk about my favorite (and in the running for best) horror movie, Alien (1979).
I was gonna talk about all the sexual imagery, but that’s been done to death, so instead I’m going to talk about something else that’s been done to death: how badass Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is. But in case you haven’t heard about the sexual imagery thing before, here’re some examples. It’ll come up.
So sex comes into play. But, I mean, it’s a horror movie. Sex always comes into play. That’s the first thing that sets Ripley apart as a super badass heroine: she’s never objectified or condemned for sexuality. In almost every horror movie the survivor is the virgin, and those caught in the sack (or the back of the van) get some sorta screwy moral “comeuppance.” But here we have Ripley, who’s distinctly female (especially in the last scene of the movie) but never hyper-sexualized. We get to look at her as a person and unique character instead of a byproduct of the movie’s topless-shot quota.
The character we get to see is pretty amazing, too. What’s most interesting is that she’s not even the protagonist for the first half or so of the movie. She’s a crew member, and an important one, but she’s not Ellen ‘Goddamn’ Ripley yet. But even Ellen ‘Not Goddamn’ Ripley is an amazing character; she’s smart, assertive, and not afraid to stand up against the captain of the ship when he’s acting illogically. If this were a College Thesis, I’d even say that she subverts patriarchy. But that’s something that might require citations, so I won’t go into it.
In that scene, Kane (John Hurt) has a Facehugger shoving a baby down his throat and Dallas (Tom Skerritt and his beard), the captain, wants to re-enter the ship. Ripley reminds him that protocol forbids this, as any contamination by local creatures requires a quarantine. She’s not over-emotional, nor heartless, but doing what she knows is right even if she must defy the captain.
But she’s not just following any rule set for them. Later on, when “The Company” endangers all their lives with their protocols, she also goes against that. She’s ultimately a subjective character (someone who acts instead of has things happen to them), who has a strong will and sense of agency, and that’s pretty rare for women in movies.
Tom Skerritt Dallas ultimately dies because of too much facial hair the titular Alien, Ripley becomes the protagonist. These days we all see that coming because we know how amazing Ripley is, but back then that was a huge shock. The captain of the ship dies halfway through the movie. While the monster kills everyone, we get a Ripley vs. Xenomorph (the species name of the Alien) thing going on, and we’re right back to Ripley vs. “The Man”. The Xenomorph is heavily masculine in a lot of ways, including the phallic head and the equally dick-like second mouth that shoots out and literally penetrates the victim. I’m not one to claim everyone looks like a penis because it’s cylindrical, but as Freud didn’t say, “Sometimes a Xenomorph’s piston-like mouth is not just a Xenomorph’s piston-like mouth.” Ripley is fighting against a violent, sexual masculinity. She takes absolutely zero shit.
But lest we draw Ripley up as pure warrior, we should remind ourselves what makes her a strong female character and not just a strong character who happens to be female. While Ripley was not initially written as a woman, Ridley Scott often reminds us that her femininity is an important part of her character. I bring this up because of a great article that Rooster Illusion’s SciFriday columnist turned me onto. It’s called “How Wanderer Alice Became Warrior Alice, and Why” by Kristina Aikens, and discusses Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The gist of it is that Lewis Carrol’s Alice was a great female character because she had strong feminine attributes, like curiosity, exploration, and outspokenness, whereas Burton’s just became masculine.
Scott walks a fine line between these two kinds of representation, because Ripley is definitely a warrior, but she’s also outspoken, physically feminine, and caring. She speaks her mind when she knows she’s right and goes out of her way to save Jonesy the suicidal cat.
She takes charge but also listens to people. In the last scene, Ripley thinks that she’s finally escaped the spaceship and left the Xenomorph to die, so she gets ready to enter stasis. She strips down to underwear and a tank top, but Scott doesn’t film her like she’s this issue’s centerfold. She’s vulnerable, like any of us, and the shedding of her uniform emphasizes this. She’s not condemned for being in her skivvies, but instead humanized. Then, we realize the monster has stowed away on her pod. When there’s a giant creature roaming around that was designed to invoke the fear of sexual assault, her state of sexual vulnerability is even more powerful. But Ripley, despite all of this, still outsmarts the monster and survives. Even when she is most clearly feminine to us, she’s still a strong, capable character.
Ripley’s still one of the biggest badasses in Sci-Fi for her role in Alien, a role that launched Sigourney Weaver’s career as an awesome actress. Aliens made her one of the biggest badasses in action movies, and a lot can be said in favor of director James Cameron’s depiction, too, because she’s a badass warrior but also motherly and affectionate. Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection missed the mark on what made Ripley so fascinating to people (as well as on a lot of other things) because she became, more or less, a man. She lost what made her a strong female character, and really, that’s one of the reasons Alien has such staying power. Not only does all of the tension, imagery, and design add up to the perfect horror movie (in space!), but there’s also a dynamic, unprecedented protagonist. Revisit Alien this Halloween (or, for you lucky ones that haven’t seen it yet, enjoy it for the first time) and remind yourself what inspired countless monster movies, paved the way for strong female leads, and created one of the scariest monsters captured on film.