[The Final Girls Club] The Strength of Ellen Ripley in ‘Alien 3’

Logo: Rachel Parker

The Final Girls Club posts on the 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.

The release of Alien 3 came as a critical disappointment, but is generally overlooked for its representation of protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), in which she is recognised for being a strong, vigorous woman who is idolised for her capabilities and strong will through tough situations.

Much of the mythology surrounding Ripley’s stature as a strong female protagonist can instead be traced to her role in Aliens. Aliens is the second film in the franchise and follows Ripley as she returns to the original planet where they first encountered the creature. Unlike the original film’s ‘Jaws-in-space’ approach, Aliens is much more action-orientated, as a group of space marines square off against not just one but dozens of creatures. During this struggle, Ripley encounters a young girl called Newt, and becomes a mother-figure to her as they try to escape the planet.

Ask anyone which film they think best showcases Ripley’s character and they’ll tell you: Aliens. Ripley’s arc in this film — much like the original, is minimal at best. Critics praised Ripley and the underlying subtext of motherhood in the film (Weaver was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards that same year for her role). It should be noted, however, that none of this subtext is directly related to motherhood at all. There is no evidence Ripley has a longing to nurture. In director James Cameron’s special edition release of the film, a scene is included in act one where Ripley discovers her daughter, Amanda Ripley, has died of old age in her absence. In this version, one could make the case for motherhood, given this establishing information about her character, however without this in the original release such an arc cannot be recognised.

I argue that it is Alien 3 where Ripley truly becomes the strong female protagonist that we recognise today. While she is certainly a strong protagonist in the previous entries, it is here that her gender (the gender she identifies herself as, rather than the one that is projected onto her by others) factors into her survival.

20th Century Fox

Alien 3 aspired to return the franchise to its roots — a single antagonist slasher film. This time Ripley finds herself in a much darker setting than either of the previous entries. Newt and Hicks are killed before the story even begins when their escape pod crashes into a prison colony planet. Ripley, barely surviving the crash herself, takes refuge in the colony as she awaits pick up by the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Alien 3 satisfies all the criteria that Ridley Scott’s earlier vision for the story-verse set out, and more significant to this discussion, it is the film that gives us the truly strong female protagonist that we herald the character to be. Ripley sheds many of her feminine traits and adopts a masculine demeanour in her quest to survive in this male-populated prison colony. This is most evident in the symbolic act of shaving her head to become like the other male prisoners. She also discards her clothes in favour of a prison uniform and conforms to the day to day life of her male company.

Her womanhood comes into play when the male prisoners try to rape her, but it is also used as a strength when one character says “you don’t want to know me. I’m a murderer and rapist of women”, to which Ripley responds, “Well then, I must make you pretty nervous”. Ripley acknowledges her biological gender, but her actions prior, during, and after this scene all point to her identifying herself with the masculine. As the story unfolds, Ripley learns that she is carrying an alien egg inside her, having been laid by the previous monster during her cryo-sleep before the pod crashed into the planet. She knows the corporation is coming to take her away for experiments, and rather than risk allowing the creature to lose on Earth, Ripley sacrifices her life by throwing herself into a smelting plant. Ripley has defeated the alien and, in a sense, the evil corporation responsible for all her troubles. She defeats the antagonists by using their own facilities against them and denying them the creature they so desperately seek.

While Alien 3 is typically looked upon as one of the weaker entries in the franchise, it is argued here that the film demonstrates the strongest incarnation of Ellen Ripley that we have seen — one who not only uses her surroundings to survive, but sacrifices aspects of her character that have been somewhat unnaturally forced on her (the objectified woman in Alien and the mother in Aliens). Instead, she finds her own identity in the wake of the systematic abuse she has endured. Ultimately, she takes back control of her own fate and her own identity. We come to see Ripley for who she really is. It is the best example I can think of in cinema where a woman takes control of her fate in the face of abuse.

Alien 3 can teach us a lot about how to write characterisation on a psychological level, not just a physical one, by employing arena, protagonist and antagonistic elements and juxtaposing them against an established character in order to help further define this new identity. It also allows audiences to engage with Ripley in a way not seen in previous films. If previous outings allowed us to engage in secondary identification with Ripley (comparing her characteristics against our own), then Alien 3 offers something far more complex for the engaged viewer.

by Charlotte J

Charlotte J is a culture writer and former cinema manager. A lover of coming of age ventures and twisted thrillers, her favourite films include Lady Bird, Back to the Future, Easy A and Get Out. You can find her on Twitter @charlonfilm

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