The 1980’s were the golden age of the modern action hero. With films like The Terminator, Die Hard, and an assortment of Indiana Jones, Rambo and Rocky films, to name just a few of the most popular franchises; the decade was largely dominated by the beefy, oiled up, shoot ‘em up action stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger battling a Predator, Sylvestor Stallone punching an equally oiled up Dolph Lundgren, and Tom Cruise playing volleyball on the beach with Val Kilmer in what is still one of the most homoerotic scenes I’ve seen to this day. Through all this testosterone there is one great action hero that stands out to me as unique, one that avoids the traditional cliches of the genre, and one that has cemented herself as one of the most badass action heroines of all time: Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from the Alien franchise.
Ripley is first introduced along with the other six members of the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, a commercial vessel on a return journey to earth. There is no epic introductory shot, she’s just a member of the crew who finds herself with a difficult decision to make following the escape of a dangerous alien life form on the ship. There isn’t anything necessarily special about her either; she isn’t the strongest or even the best prepared to handle the situation. It’s not even clear who the main protagonist of the film is until at least halfway through. After the initial release of the Xenomorph and the death of her crewmember Kane played by the late John Hurt, there are still a half dozen characters left to take the mantle of the hero. The writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote all the characters as unisex with the intention of changing pronouns after casting. In fact, Ripley was never supposed to be a woman, but it works perfectly. Her sexuality is never mentioned in the first film and never affects what her character is capable of, but gives her a side that a male character would not have. She is the only character in James Cameron’s second film Aliens that cares for Newt, the sole survivor of the colony that has been overrun by Xenomorphs. While the men in the outfit dismiss the young girl as nothing more than a shell-shocked afterthought, Ripley cleans her up and puts her to bed, even learning the name of the doll that she carries with her. In the midst of all the devastation she has made an effort to care for the girl, much like a mother would.
This mother image holds very strong throughout the franchise. “Mother” is the name of the system within the Nostromo, something that at the start only Captain Dallas has access to. Following Dallas’ death Ripley takes on the role of commanding officer and briefly talks to Mother before she realizes that Mother and the android Ash have very different plans for the crew. At the end of the first film she blows up the Nostromo in an attempt to kill the Alien, liberating herself from the control of the mother figure up to that point, and becoming an individual with no authority to adhere to.
In the second film in addition to caring for Newt, she battles and ultimately kills the alien queen. In that moment Ripley has, in essence, become the new Alien queen, but we do not yet realize it. The third film in the franchise, Alien3, is problematic for many reasons, but one thing it does well is carry this mother theme through to the very end. After escaping the colony at the end of Aliens, Ripley has crash landed on a prison planet. Partway through the film she becomes aware she was impregnated by an alien while in cryosleep and there is an alien queen living inside of her. In the film’s final moments Ripley sacrifices herself, falling backwards into a furnace and not allowing the scheming Weyland Yutani corporation to capture her or the alien. It’s a powerful moment in a flawed film that at the time allowed the franchise to end on a high note, although the release of Alien: Resurrection five years later changed that, along with the two Alien vs. Predator films and the prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. In Alien: Resurrection Ripley is a human/alien hybrid clone, and nothing that made the character special before has been retained. So despite the franchise continuing past the end of the third film, the Ripley arc has run its course.
She’s not the most popular action hero, doesn’t have the kill count or the one-liners of a Schwarzenegger (save the iconic “get away from her, you bitch!” from Aliens), but she’s a well-written character with a consistent arc. Her goal in the first film is simple: survive. And while that goal ultimately shifts to completely ending the deadly Xenomorph species, her sole mission is to protect herself and the people around her. She’s one of my favorite action heroines, and if you aren’t familiar with Ripley or the Alien franchise yet, well, why are you reading this, but also give it a visit. It’s worth your time.