Wednesday, September 23, 2009

WOMAN OF THE WEEK: Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley

I've long been lobbying for Ms. Weaver to be given the ol' Woman of the Week treatment, so I was glad when BJ-C gave me the opportunity to do it myself. In the role of Ripley, Weaver is one of the most memorable--and one of the first--of the "final girls".


Not a final girl, you say? Let's focus on the first film, shall we? In Ridley Scott's Alien, Ripley is a character of middling rank in the crew of the Nostromo. She is far from cut out for greatness, but possesses great strength of character. And so when the entire crew of this interstellar garbage scow comes apart at the seams when put upon by a hostile alien threat, she must find it in herself to outlive her crewmates and find a way to somehow defeat the killing machine. Which, in the end, she does, in the process becoming the "last survivor of the Nostromo."

Sounds a hell of a lot like a final girl to me.

Sigourney Weaver was a virtual unknown when she landed the key role in the 1979 space horror/adventure, having only previous enjoyed a few barely seen bit parts in films like Annie Hall. This was quite literally a star-making turn for her, and deservedly so.

In those days, and come to think of it, in these as well, it was next to unheard-of to have a film of this kind with a female central protagonist. Needless to say, producers were concerned. But in the end, not only did she pull it off, but it's safe to say that Alien probably wouldn't be remembered as fondly as it is today without the main character of Ripley.

Her presence, her intensity, and not to mention her impressive physical stature, make Sigourney Weaver a striking actress, and never moreso than in her most famous part. Ripley (we don't learn her first name until the James Cameron sequel) is a very identifiable character, yet she pulls off her "everywoman" persona without falling into the stereotypical tropes of female protagonists in horror films.

More than merely a final girl, Ripley is also a heroine in the truest cinematic sense of the word. Taking on a traditionally male role, she steps up to the plate after the men around her--and a fellow female who has the more stereotypical female reaction--collapse under the pressure and are picked off one by one. Ripley takes a proactive stance, and takes the battle to the monster.

This role is reinforced in the sequels: Her no-nonsense presence amongst the far-less-prepared Marines in Aliens; her even harder, gruff and battle-weary exterior amongst the prison inmates in David Fincher's Alien 3; even her grim and stoic portrayal of the character in the otherwise awful Alien: Resurrection, though reduced to a certain degree to cartoonishness, is memorable. Simply put, Ripley is a great movie character.

But for me, it is in the horrifying original, that haunted house tale in space, that Sigourney Weaver shines the most. From the beginning, we see that she is more fit to lead the crew of the Nostromo than its captain, Dallas. But for whatever reason, her skills are not put to their greatest use--until the crisis arises.

It's a landmark in screenwriting, because Ripley is a character almost devoid of sexual identity. Honestly, it wouldn't make a difference if she were a man or a woman--but that's precisely the breakthrough here. This isn't a female character whose importance and heroism is wrapped up in her female-ness. Much like so many male heroes who are simply heroes, and not summed up by their male-ness, Ripley is merely a human character. She is a strong, resilient, powerful person--and the woman part is incidental.

I love being able to feature Sigourney/Ripley as Woman of the Week, because she is, to me, the fully evolved version of what a female character can be. Meaning, she is more than a woman--she is a person.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Listen to Ms. Weaver:

7 comment(s):

Leah said...

Well done! Although her "female-ness" wasn't the central focus, the filmmakers didn't hide it either as evidenced with her devotion to Newt and the white t-shirts she wore. But I agree 100%, this was definitely a character we viewed more as a person than strictly a woman. Regardless, Ellen Ripley is always on my list of badass women in horror.

P.S. Alien is obviously my favorite Sigourney Weaver film but a close runner-up is Imaginary Heroes. It's not a horror film, but in my humble opinion, I think everyone should watch it at least once.

wiec? said...

great post!

Ellen Ripley is by far one of the best drawn out characters in sci-fi i think. through the sequels she really develops the character through her experiences and Rip seems to grow right before the viewer's eyes and i think Weaver deserves a lion's share of the credit. as the sequels sort of went side ways for me after Aliens Weaver really kept the character (and the movies) grounded.

she was the right actress in the right role at the right time.

also i hate to knit pick but wasn't it Capt. Dallas. Ash was the robot.

B-Sol said...

Whoops, thanks wiec, good catch!

RayRay said...

I have long felt that Sigourney Weaver's Ripley was a mold breaking character, the first female action hero. While she was certainly a "final girl" in the first movie, she became a hero in all subsequent installments of the original franchise. While Aliens was a rare sequel where it is debatable if it matches, or at least approaches, the original, the others went south, and went south fast. And while they went south, the character Ripley somehow did not.

Alien 3 was a bad sequel as it was essentially a rehash of Alien but on a crappy planet, not a crappy spaceship. Yet Ripley would stand and deliver. And the final scene, where she gives birth to the new queen there is the stange balancing of her grip on the creature: part stranglehold, part mother's caress.

The truly cartoonish Alien: Resurrection was actually very bad. Everything. The story. The cast. Winona Rider and Nick Tortelli. Even the animatronic monsters lopst some of their dark luster. Yet Ripley brought both a gravity and a dark comedy - "This ship is almost as old as I am" - that carried the movie. And she became the true badass at the core of Ellen Ripley.

In Alien Riley lacked sexuality, but again, so did Lambert. But Lambert was the more feminine, both before and after the crises broke out. Ripley was cloaked in the aura of the chain of command, and that is what came through. She was also a stickler for procedure, which is perhaps an indication of her consciousness of her sex - a woman could not bend the rules and advance; yet both Dallas and Ash did when it came to the strict quarantine rules.

Strangley, the one time Rilpey's physical sexuality is revealed is in the moments of her most extreme danger and terror, while aboard the lifeboat. Thinking she was free of the interstellar bogeyman, she lets her guard down, literally and figuratively. Only in her near nudity is it revealed that the bogeyman is within hand's reach, and she must overcome near insanity in her terror. It is in these moments when Ripley transcends "final girl" and becomes a hero, actively confronting her adrenaline and the terrible monster, and doing the near impossible - surviving.

seangstmthefortressofsolitude said...

Interestingly, the character, as originally written (along with all the other characters in Alien) had no gender.

(FROM THE SCRIPT NOTES OF THE ORIGINAL ALIEN SCRIPT BY DAN O'BANNON and RONALD SCHUSSET)

"THE CREW IS UNISEX AND ALL PARTS ARE INTERCHANGEABLE FOR MEN AND WOMEN"

B-Sol said...

Excellent comment Ray. I kind of think this might warrant an entire post on your part at some point.

Lily Strange said...

Ripley was one of the first movie heroines who really kicked ass. I idolized her. Finally, a woman who didn't have to wait for a man to rescue her. Alien and Aliens will always be among my favorite movies. There are those who disagree with me, but the last two in the Aliens series (3 and 4) are a real disappointment. But that's my opinion.

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