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Happy Birthday, Ripley: Alien at 40

Unless you’ve been asleep on a starship lumbering across the cosmos, you know that “Alien” turns 40 this year. So does Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), its enduring character and one of my favorite cinematic heroes of all time. 

Ripley is the film’s sole human survivor, the person we now think of as its hero, though she was never supposed to be. She ended up taking control of the franchise, at least for two movies, before the films pumped up more of the creature and reduced what people like me embraced in the first place. Fans of this franchise fall into two camps, I’ve realized. People like “Alien” director Ridley Scott, filmmakers David Fincher (“Alien 3”) and Alexandre O. Philippe (this year’s “Memory: The Origins of Alien”), and scores of admirers of the comics, books, and action figures are fascinated with the creature’s movement, motives, design and evolution. 

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“I always wanted to go back and make an ‘Alien’ 5 or 6, where we find out where they came from and go there, and answer the question, ‘Who are they?’” Scott said when “Alien” turned 20, no doubt still following that impulse with “Prometheus,” “Alien: Covenant,” and whatever his production company cooks up that might evolve the franchise further. 

Then there are people like me, who love Ripley like a friend and ignore the films that don’t treat her well because she’s infinitely more fascinating than cannon fodder.

In a film about body horror and paranoia and the “hell of other people,” Ripley is comfortable in her own skin. Watch “Alien” enough, and you realize she’s more of a leader than Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the captain who’s irritable and emotional in all the ways for which women often are criticized. No one can hear you scream in space, to tweak the film’s tagline, but no one listens to women, either, which would have saved the crew a lot of anguish. No one abandons exploring the alien craft when Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) wants to leave, and Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, overrides Ripley when she wants the infected Kane (John Hurt) quarantined.

Ripley and “Alien” are perfect storms of happy accidents. The film largely holds up in the #MeToo era because the film was designed around discomfort, sexual assault and violation, thanks to screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and executive producer Ronald Shusett. (“The alien screws one of them,” Shusett said about getting the monster on board.) H.R. Giger’s creature design amplified these themes that pushed the audience’s buttons. 

None of the characters had a gender at first to ease casting, so producer David Giler suggested making Ripley a woman to “earn a few points at this studio that’s making ‘Julia,’ ‘Turning Point,’ and all that kind of stuff. You know, women’s films,” he says in the 2001 documentary “Alien Evolution.” As if face-huggers, espionage, and ballet have all that much in common.

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Weaver debuted in “Annie Hall” for mere seconds before making “Alien,” after being passed over for other roles because she’s 5 foot 11. Regardless of height, her Ripley has such presence, a cool intelligence and authority. She’s not unkind, just confident with a firm sense of responsibility. Watch her confront Dallas about yielding to Ash, or questioning Ash as he fusses and protests, lying all the while. 

Scott has nothing but kind words about Weaver, but it’s clear when he recalls making “Alien” that he saw the humans as a unit, where he could misdirect the audience into who would die. Ripley striking a cord was an eye-opener. “My surprise about ‘Alien’ was afterwards. The importance of this leading character being female was tremendous,” he said in "Alien Evolution." “I thought, Wow. OK.” 

I heard “Alien” before I saw it. I was doing homework in my room while down the hall, my parents and grandparents watched it on cable. I had a roaring imagination and didn’t need much to visualize what was happening when poor Kane convulsed at the dining table. Days later, I turned on the TV to find “Alien” by accident and went to switch it off—my skittish, kid-like reaction to a rated-R horror movie. My mom noticed and said I could watch it. This is cool, she said. She survives.

Ripley was flinging that poor cat in its box into the escape pod by then. I watched her think she was safe, then scurry into a closet, put on her spacesuit, strap herself in tight, and blast the creature into space with a harpoon. The alien burned up in the engines, scattering in sparks like stars. 

I was afraid of a lot of things back then: slasher films whose plots fascinated my classmates watching them on the sly; superstitions like saying “Bloody Mary” in a mirror three times. Not having many friends, and saying or doing something in school that would draw snickers and stares and nicknames and loneliness. When my mom asked me fetch the laundry from the basement, I’d sing when I’d turn the lights on and off and race up the stairs with the basket. I only mildly registered at the time that here was a girl who also sang to keep up her nerve (“You are my lucky star,” Weaver’s idea), but more amazingly, was a girl in outer space. My biggest movie hero at that age was Princess Leia, a leader who shot a gun, for goodness sake, and stood tall with attitude, even with Vader towering over her. 

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I backed into watching “Alien” years later, after seeing “Aliens” upon its release with my grandparents. As I grow older, the two films entwine into one strand of Ripley DNA. She has post-traumatic stress, but even broken down, she knows who she is. She’s assertive, and doesn’t get pushed around. She has accessible strength.

Viewed as an adult, “Alien” is both ahead of its time and squarely of its time. There’s sexism on the Nostromo that we might not have noticed before the #MeToo movement, or maybe we did and just rolled along with it because it seems like that’s the way things would always be. There are nude pinups on the bulkhead and sex talk at the table, even with women on the crew, and no one objects or bats an eye, because hey, space travel is rough, and some men will be men. The camera ogles Ripley in that closet, squarely on her thighs and her panties while she steps into her spacesuit, something I didn’t absorb as a child, because as Scott says on a director’s commentary, studio execs wanted more sex in the movie. I suppose they missed what the creature looks like when it bursts from Kane’s chest, or how it assaults the crew to reproduce, how Ash attacks Ripley with one of those rolled-up porn mags, trying to suffocate her into silence once she knows where his loyalties lie.

Weaver based her portrayal on an environmentalist friend who “just goes forward and gets things done.” She’s not an automaton who barks orders but feels prickly, flawed and human. She’s so sure of herself, even after Parker (Yaphet Kotto) blasts steam over her words, or Lambert calls her a bitch, or Dallas condescends. Scared, sweaty, and singing, not glamorous or feeling so brave herself, Ripley pulls herself together out of sheer will because there’s no other way. 

Earlier this year, Weaver surprised the cast and crew at North Bergen High School in New Jersey when they staged “Alien” as a play, complete with costumes made from recyclables. One boy—playing Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) by the looks of the Hawaiian shirt—called out, “You’re my childhood hero,” and pushed through the crowd to give her a hug. I wonder when he saw the film in its entirety, if he’d ever been listening down the hall at first like me. 

All I know is that I was a little girl scared of the dark, and I am still not the bravest of the brave. But I always come back to this woman who doesn’t give a damn if she’s disliked. Ripley in her world helps me feel brave, comforts me. She’s in control of her space, something relatable when worries seem to overwhelm, like when I was a new mom scared witless with a newborn in the hospital for three weeks. I can handle myself, she says in “Aliens.” But we knew she could from the beginning. She could give up, or be frozen with fear, except she won’t because she’s too stubborn, too determined, not to survive. Whatever insecurity lies in her blood isn’t like acid; it doesn’t eat her away.

So Happy Birthday, Ripley—the beyond “Alien” queen.

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