The Curriculum Vitae of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley


1. Name: Ellen Ripley
When we first meet, her name is just one more surname in the work place. We have Kane, Ash, Dallas, Ripley, Brett, Parker and Lambert. Even the cat goes by Jones. ‘Enough of this kitty bullshit,’ says Brett, on an ill-fated hunt of the cat. ‘Jones!’ There’s no way of knowing who’s going to survive. Ripley’s just a crew member: abrasive, self-serving and by no means heroic. She’s smart in wanting to quarantine Kane, but not exactly a team player, not someone your heart goes out to. And there’s nothing spacey about the names, in the same way there’s nothing space-age about the chunky steam-powered technology.

2. Sex: Female
A tough woman in a man’s world. Aside from the construct of Mother, the only other female crew member of the Nostromo is Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright, a stereotypical weak link, whose death comes as a mercy to the audience and whose emotional incontinence contrasts with Ripley, the tough, capable, authoritative and, most importantly, unemotional character. The threat this represents is played out by Ash (the synthetic man), who attempts to kill her by literally ramming a male view of female sexuality down her throat. Ripley’s actual sexiness is a late discovery, in her standard issue knickers. As the last woman standing, she combines Little Red Riding Hood with something witchy, especially in her otherwise inexplicable devotion to Jones, the cat.

Aliens screens at BFI Southbank on March 26 and 31 as part of the A Woman’s Gotta Do season.

3. Family: one Special Edition daughter, one surrogate daughter, one weird alien daughter
Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, as well as being a science fiction/ horror hybrid, is also crucially a work place drama. Characters are defined by the job they do. Parker and Brett repair the engines, Ash works in his laboratory. We go through procedures: landing, taking off. Perhaps the most exciting sequence involves the self-destruct procedure in its full fiddly-ness. James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens (1986), as well as becoming a more straightforward action/war film, also segues into a family romance. On the Special Edition DVD, this is rendered more explicit with the inclusion of a scene explaining that Ripley had a daughter, who died while Ripley was in hyper-sleep. In the photograph, she is played by Weaver’s mother, Elizabeth Inglis. According to Cameron, Weaver was appalled that this scene was cut, saying that she’d based her whole performance on it. But this is precisely the kind of back story that is good for the actor, but not necessary for the audience. We understand the minute we see Rebecca (aka Newt, a nickname hinting at the ineffable weirdness of children) that there is a surrogate family in the offing, with Hicks as ineffectual father and Bishop as Synthetic Uncle (I prefer Avuncular Artificial). The feminist survivor of the 1970s becomes the working mum of the 1980s, juggling child care and grenade launchers and ultimately going mano a mano with the mother of all Aliens. Of course, motherhood is compromised as the original terror of the chest-bursters is a fear of malignant pregnancy and Newt has to be rescued from the alien maternity ward. With the shift to war movie/family romance, Cameron’s Aliens become less alien. They become resourceful soldiers and one angry mother. The femme-on-femme violence anticipates Weaver’s Women Beware Women role as the manipulative ‘bony-assed’ career woman Katherine Parker in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (1988). Feminist struggle becomes a catfight. ‘Mommy,’ Newt cries at the end as she embraces Ripley, completing her in a way that seems incomprehensible without the Special Edition daughter subplot.

4. Marital Status: Single
In the Nostromo, sexual tensions brew but are not acted on. There are no overt romances and the various wet deaths are the only consummations, devoutly not to be wished. Cameron, in his attempt to normalise Ripley, gives her a potential partner (and Newt a potential father) in Hicks, a white- bread, charisma-free zone. And just as Lambert’s flapping panic assured us of Ripley’s heroism, so Vasquez’s butch marine (‘ever been mistaken for a man, Vasquez?’ — ‘nope, have you?’) assures us that Ripley’s het. David Fincher happily rips into Cameron’s facile sitcom values by despatching both Newt and Hicks in the credit sequence of Alien 3. Whatever flaws his film might have (Skippy the CGI kangaroo Alien chief among them), we should be thankful for Fincher’s attempt to radically cancel the homogenising impulses of his predecessor, as well as giving Ripley a post-Aids haircut. In contrast to the Pretty Woman dream of meeting the right man, Ripley is happy to get her rocks off with a similarly damaged partner who certainly offers her nothing in terms of a marital future. ‘I’ve been out here a long time,’ Ripley says in explaining her direct need for sex. Played by Charles Dance, Clemens is a doctor, an ex-drug addict, a prisoner and the most interesting character in the film. His early death at the hands of an apparently jealous Alien robs the film of much of its emotional content and leaves us with a cast of anonymous, unpleasant and brutish characters for the Alien to lunch on. Ripley will survive that attack because she is carrying an Alien. Ripley evolves from the innocent pursued by the wolfish Alien of the first film through the competing matriarchs of the second, and the third film cements her relationship to the Alien via an offstage rape. Perhaps this is what the Alien always wanted. Think back to the first film and how odd it is that once ensconced in the escape pod, the previously implacably hostile, aggressive and effective Alien seems to relax, settling in for the ride, now that all possible competitors for Ripley’s affections are dead. It would be tempting to see Ripley’s suicide/infanticide, which concludes Fincher’s film, as a meta-commentary on the state of the franchise, which she affectionately and thankfully finishes off, but for the horrors of the Jeunet sequel to come.

5. Work Experience: Warrant Officer
The original Alien brought a rare highlighting of class to a major Hollywood film. Brett and Parker are, respectively, the indifferent and angry horny-handed heroes of toil, and the rest of the crew represent a higher echelon, a middle management, while still being subordinate to the Company for which their lives are (literally) expendable. Yaphet Koto walks straight off Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), arguing about bonuses, belligerently and amusingly obstructive. Ash and Ripley bicker about priorities, everyone is touchy and no one (aside from Kane) has any enthusiasm for adventure unless it is written into their contracts. Ripley goes from being a member of the workforce to a ‘fish out of water’ hero in the following two sequels. In Aliens, she earns her spurs as a grunt, comfortable with ballsy machinery and improvised weaponry. In Fincher’s film, the Company is a cartoonishly malignant presence, and in the final film Ripley is no longer worker but product. The Company, as a character, goes from faceless menace to slimy presence (Carter Burke, the lawyer in Aliens). However, the increased villainy of the Company comes at the cost of any real critique. The credible deception and betrayal of the Company in the first film becomes a pantomimic caricature and Ripley, instead of a paid-up member of society, becomes increasingly ostracised throughout the franchise, from warrant officer to soldier to inmate, until in the end she’s more Alien than human. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver transmutes from an ensemble player in the first film, a more conventional lead but still within an ensemble context in the second film, to a co-producer and undisputed star of the final two films of the franchise. In the latter two films, she is more complicit (as the bearer of secret knowledge) with the Alien (Jeunet) and the Company (Brandywine Productions).

6. Age: 300 and something
There was always going to be some falling off in a franchise whose main initial attraction was surprise and shock. The last productions seem particularly fraught with a ‘why are we doing this’ mentality and the very naming of the final entry (Alien: Resurrection) smacks of ironic apology. One of the main problems was Ripley herself and the contrivances the films had to use to put her in harm’s way. Weaver admitted to the danger of turning Ripley into a ridiculous cartoon who keeps waking up to find aliens chasing her, but was apparently convinced by the quality of the scripts and the artistic merit of receiving ever larger cheques in her bank account. The clone that she plays in the final entry gleefully enjoys her polymorphous role as a Ripley/Alien hybrid, but the ghosts of greater films haunts Jeunet’s Gilliamesque comic book romp. A moment of genuine tragedy, the discovery by Ripley of sister clones in tortured partial forms reminiscent of Nazi medical atrocities, is undermined by Ron Perlman’s throwaway line ‘must be a chick thing’ and the rest of the film feels like a tortured cloning of the first movie’s original motifs: instead of the original film’s chest-burster we now get a chest-burster that becomes a head-burster, instead of the computer, Mother, we now get Father.

7. Hobbies and Interests: Likes Animals and World Peace
In Alien, Ripley wants to save herself and the cat. By Alien Resurrection, she’s saving the world. ‘You sound disappointed,’ Winona Ryder’s Call notices as they look at… erm… clouds. To be fair to Weaver, with her environmental charities and her inspiring performance as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist (1988), she has used the clout and dollars earned via Ripley to do good, but doing good was never what Ripley was about. She was about surviving. And survive she did, but perhaps for a little too long.

John Bleasdale