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Queen Ripley: Why the Heroine of Alien Is the Ultimate Final Girl
When I was five years old, my parents blessed me with one of many trips our family would take to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I mean that sincerely too; Disney World is a stunning, magical place that delights me even to this day. One of my favorite parks within Disney World is a place that was once called MGM Studios (which is now Disney Hollywood Studios, and is still just as wonderful). MGM was home to Muppet-Vision 3D, which was my sister Anna’s favorite, and Rock n’ Roll Rollercoaster, where my love of the upside-down, twisty thrill ride was born. However, my parents’ favorite ride, and the one that I’ll be referencing today, is Turner Classic Movies’s Great Movie Ride.
If you have never ridden The Great Movie Ride, I’ll explain it to you. The Great Movie Ride is an animatronic and interactive trip through some of the best films of all time. When you’re in that famous, never-ending Disney line, you’re in the A/C—which is likely the reason it was my parents’ attraction of choice—and you watch the trailers and the best moments from classics like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Mary Poppins projected onto a silver screen as you meander through your wait. To a five-year-old, many of the references don’t make a lot of sense, but one thing that stuck with me is this: Alien is one of the most terrifying films of all time. As you’re waiting in line, you’re hearing that classic tagline that I use to justify my fear of outer space to this day: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The moment on the tram where the xenomorph drops down from above and almost lands in your cart was absolutely wicked, and to this day, The Great Movie Ride is the reason that my very first time to watch Alien was this past week.
That explained, Disney World and my fear of space is not the central focus of today’s blog. It’s the environment itself trying to kill you, the unknowable darkness and vastness of space, yada-yada-yada, if you’re not terrified of it then you’re John Rambo or you’ve never thought about it. Anyway, the focus of today’s blog is the fact that Ellen Ripley from Alien, played brilliantly and masterfully by Sigourney Weaver, is without a doubt the most groundbreaking female baddie in the history of film, because she’s not afraid of the soul-sucking unknowability of space. She’s not petrified and unable to function. She’s a woman who is shrewd, cunning, and survives in the face of an unstoppable killing machine, where no one, not the company she works for, nor the ship and its systems, and certainly not the alien in question, wants her to survive this harrowing trip.
Going into Alien, I expected it to do what I’ve always assumed it did: defy the tropes that make female characters in horror films so unlikeable. Many times, the women in scary movies are panicky, weak, unable to fight back, and have to be rescued from their own stupidity. It’s an easy, predictable archetype and it’s just plain annoying, to be frank. What nobody remembers from Alien, or at least, what I had never heard discussed, is that there is another female character in the film. I watched the movie yesterday and I had to look up this girl’s name, because she’s that lame and forgettable when compared to Ripley, but Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright, is a whiny, hysterical baby who literally cries her way through the entire film. I think that the inclusion of Lambert is actually genius, and that it brings a lot of depth to the movie. The choice to bring another woman into the mix, who is the exact opposite of Ripley and who just screams and sobs when she faces the xenomorph instead of rising to the challenge and fighting back, shows that Ridley Scott acknowledges that women have been done wrong in horror. He sees how the terrified, pitiful woman is not a sustainable character, and he kills her with abandon and moves back to more of that sweet Ripley action. Watching Ripley get told what to do and how to do it, and only survive by defying all the guys on the ship that treat her with disrespect the whole film, is as satisfying as it is anxiety-inducing. She goes against the grain, she makes her own decisions, and because of that, she is a powerful character who was a true departure from the norm of the horror film final girl. Everyone who dies in this film dies because they didn’t listen to Ripley. Ripley says they need to retreat when they realize that the beacon is not a distress signal, but a warning. Ripley says they need to take the shuttle and abandon ship when the xenomorph is traveling by air shaft and picking them off one by one. Ripley risks her life to save a cat and is more successful in that endeavor than the others are in trying to rescue actual humans. The bottom line here is that Ellen Ripley is the voice of reason, the most inventive person, and the cleverest character, and that is why she outlasts the people on this ship who treat her like she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. That’s why she is such an earth-shattering, radical female character.
For those who have never seen the film Alien, because it is a little before their time or because, like me, they have a pathological fear of space, I’ll refer you to a more recent film that draws upon all of the same themes, and that could only happen because of the groundwork laid by Ripley’s character. In J.J. Abrams’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character is so resourceful, so collected, and so capable and triumphant, that people said she was unrealistic and were even kind of annoyed that she survived all that was thrown at her. Here’s the thing though: Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane undeniably only exists because of Ripley in Alien. Both are trapped in a claustrophobic space where the outside environment is toxic. Both are locked in with a “monster” of sorts. Both defeat an alien life form in an awesome, inventive way in the end, and both are survivors who, in the face of terror, don’t run and hide, but do what they have to do to get out of this bad situation with, at the very least, their lives. Watching Alien made me understand 10 Cloverfield Lane on an entirely new level. It made me appreciate Michelle’s resourcefulness, and her determination, and her will to live, on an entirely new level. Michelle is a product of Ellen Ripley, and she takes a rightful place among the ranks of women in film who defied that helplessness trope.
In conclusion, I think we all have a lot to learn from Ripley. I’m tired of watching Lamberts, girls who cry hysterically and trip in the big chase scene and go into the dark basement and forget to grab a knife from the kitchen before they investigate a weird noise. I want more Ripleys in the film world, but more importantly, I want to be a Ripley in my daily life. Let’s face our monsters and suck it up and do our jobs. Let’s be resourceful and even a little bit rebellious, and when we come out on top, flying back home in one piece with our cat, let’s take a deep breath, know we did our best, and take a little hypersleep nap.