Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Get Away Fom Ripley You Bitches

JA from MNPP here. If you consider Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece Alien a horror film (and you really should consider Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece Alien a horror film) (and even more specifically it should be considered it a slasher film, just a slasher set in outer space) then it becomes immediately clear that Ellen Ripley, the character immortalized by Sigourney Weaver in this and its subsequent three sequels, started out as a fairly straightforward Final Girl. She fits in right beside Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter's Halloween and Heather Langencamp in A Nightmare in Elm Street - the smart girl who sees the encroaching horror and manages to outwit outplay and outlast the danger.


Ripley's not really the Action Hero we think of until Jim Cameron's sequel - make that Action heroine, THE Action Heroine; she made and broke and burned the mold up with a flamethrower. And even there Cameron does all sorts of interesting things with the idea of an Action Heroine that so many films today don't bother to even contemplate - Ripley, even when she's kicking ass, is a character that is always painted with as much femininity as possible, on top of her butchness.

When I say "femininity" I don't mean objectifying her as a sexualized, desirable woman (although those moments where Sigourney strips down to those tiny underpants are important, I'd argue, in that they stick that obvious physical facet of her womanhood front and center). Adding in the character of the uber-tough Vasquez in Aliens is a clear attempt to slide Ripley's character to the center of the femme-to-butch scale - she seems so demure and ladylike standing next to Jenette Goldstein in her red bandanna! - but great pains are made over and over again to code Ripley as a mother figure. Her protection of Newt and the introduction of the Alien Queen with her pulsing egg sac as the big villain - it's all a way of designating a space for a specifically feminine sort of rage within a heretofore male dominated film space.




Ripley's character only gets more and more complicated as the sequels progress and I think, even with the hit-and-miss nature of the last two films, it's clear that's what kept Sigourney coming back over and over again. Ripley becomes a broken martyr and then she becomes an infected experiment, half-human and half-something else - and as sloppy as Resurrection is I dare you not to get chills in the scene where she confronts the deformed other versions of herself. That scene's actually an interesting statement upon the fractured nature of Ripley at that point - the way the movies split her apart and built her up again in a different director's vision time after time after time.

Anyway that's a little history of who Ellen Ripley is, and what she became. We came for the monsters but we stayed for the lady. And now Ridley Scott wants to take us back there, only more back, as he's working on a prequel to his 1979 film. Names have been popping up like aliens out of rib-cages over the past few weeks. Everybody from Natalie Portman to Gemma Arterton to Noomi Rapace and now Anne Hathaway have been rumored for the lead role of "a female Colonial Marine general" in the time thirty-five years before the events of Alien.

I know a couple versions of the scripts have been around because some people seem to know more about the character then that, but I plan on keeping myself as spoiler-free as possible... and yet I still feel the need to contemplate! Shocking, that. I've been going back and forth over it in my head and I can quite decide what's the smartest route to go - should they even try to have this character be anything like Ripley? Or should they go in a completely different direction and have them be nothing like each other? Will it feel like an Alien movie without some vestige, even shadowed, of her there? Or does that shadow just swallow up all the light? I mean is it even possible to make a character that won't be seen through the prism of Ellen Ripley anyway?


It's really an impossible question and hopefully the team making the movie are just working on crafting a good story with not only an interesting character for the female lead but interesting roles for the entire cast, and not obsessing over this one facet like I seem to be. Yet I don't have a movie to make, and all the time in the world until the movie's sitting in front of me, so obsess I shall. What do y'all think?
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11 comments:

Jesse M said...

I'm glad you finally mentioned Sarah Conor in the poll, even if you didn't in the post. Ripley, Sarah, and Samus Aran are the trifecta of complex and compelling female characters who have set a bar for female representation that no other narrative framework has managed to reach.

(I blogged about Samus being a feminist symbol a while back, and it sounded a lot like your analysis of Ripley)

I think what made all three of these work is that for one vanishing moment, the creators of these franchises weren't thinking about whether the character represented femininity or whether she was too butch or too sexy or too distracting. It's a weird function of under-determination, where Ripley doesn't seem defined by overly-self-conscious scriptwriters who are either too cerebral or willfully oblivious (aka "pedantic", "trashy", "kitsch").

I haven't seen these Dragon Tattoo movies, but maybe the main character will work as a successor to Ripley, Sarah, and Samus? Maybe some of Tarantino's women will be recognized for these virtues eventually, as well?

Dom said...

I think it would be impossible to get away from Ripley in the prequels - she has come to define the franchise almost as much as the xenomorph itself has.

However, I think the correct response isn't then to give up, and simply make Ripley 2.0. Instead, I hope they strive to come up with a different take on a complex female character. Ripley isn't the only way to achieve it, even if between the four films she covered a lot of ground, as a character.

I'm not sure what the best approach to be, but I think one of the best moves would be to stay away from focussing on the new character as a mother. This kind of ground was covered pretty extensively in the other films, and so perhaps focussing on ways to maintain her femininity without resorting to motherhood could keep the character compelling, and original.

Whoever they cast, they'll never totally be able to escape Ripley's shadow, but hopefully at least they can earn a favourable comparison as something other than a total knock-off.

/3rtfu11 said...

I know Sigourney Weaver made this franchise. What I don’t comprehend too well is the desire to make the new protagonist female. Simple minded assumption that they’ll capture lightning in a bottle twice. An original idea would to write the main character as an older woman. Not suggesting Weaver be cast as an entirely different character but writing the part older alleviates pressure off of an ingénue. Instead the film would concentrate on what would an older person (in this case a woman) do in an extreme situation where they never had the option to scream and run? How could they use their intelligence to survive what appears to be insurmountable circumstances?

NATHANIEL R said...

@/3rtfull -- agreed that an older woman might be an interesting approach. Of course they'd never do it. But ... i ca't believe i'm saying this ... i think maybe MALE would be the way to go.

now, i'm all for female characters as leads as everyone knows but by focusing on a man for the prequel you get to totally recreate the franchise and NOT undermine Ripley at all by trying to "recreate" or "replace" her.

@JA -- this is an awesome piece. I espeically loved the bit on the multipled selves in Ressurection. That movie IS a mess but boy are some of the parts interesting.

@JesseM -- i guess i need to know more about Metroid's Samus to see the complexity. But i am very old school about video games. It was so cool to realize that it was a woman but beyond that...

JA said...

Yeah the thought of switching to a male lead occurred to me at one point but I just couldn't bring myself to utter the words. I love my monsters fought my little ladies! ;)

I also forgot the tangent I meant to go off on about how they could just hire Winona Ryder to play the part. It would have precedence: In Alien Vs. Predator, which is set way before any of the Alien movies, we meet a character played by Lance Henriksen, who played the cyborg in Aliens. It's never stated explicitly but it's fan-wanked that his character in AVP is the model on which that cyborg was based. So Winona's character in this prequel could be that same sort of precursor for her future cyborg character in Resurrection! And yes I still will go to extreme lengths of geeky rambling to try and get Noni's career jump-started, obviously.

I also also meant to mention Sanaa Lathan, who was the female lead in AVP, but I couldn't think of anything to say about her character because oh my god was her character boring.

Volvagia said...

Umm...I've seen the original movie. And...comparisons to Ellen Ripley would, most likely, be greatly exaggerated. Plus: It's a David Fincher, which should already convince you to not think about it as that kind of movie.

Volvagia said...

I meant the new one is Fincher's. Yeah. Sorry about that goof. Point is: NO WAY is that character going to get even close to Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. So, if you think a snowball can land in the Sahara, give your best argument.

Kokolo said...

Ripley is my Jesus, Alien my Old, Aliens the New Testament.
And I think they shouldn't even make the lead a woman.

mrripley said...

Natalie portman has failed twice in sci fi so she must not do it,arterton too posh,hathaway interesting,rapace maybe.

mrripley said...

I keep thinking Charlize Theron.

NATHANIEL R said...

kokolo - lol. maybe they should just resurrect Ripley then for the 5th movie. Ripley being eternal. She Is That She Is.