Ellen Ripley, Alien, and the Rise of the Modern Ripleys

How Star Wars, Rogue One, Stranger Things, and more are marking the rise of a new wave of Ripleys...

“Is that the only flamethrower?”

Most of us have long heard the fun fact that the role of Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien was originally written for a man. Like Eric Stoltz filming for four weeks as Marty in Back To The Future, it’s one of those fun Hollywood tidbits that seems ridiculous now as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has become one of the greatest heroes in movie history.

Going on to star in four (rumored to soon be five) Alien movies, Weaver has been nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA for her portrayal of this iconic character and its easy to see why. In a world of damsels, love interests and totty, Ripley is a woman: a well rounded, intelligent, confident, not afraid to be unliked, badass hero woman. Ripley was a breath of fresh air across genres that were targeted at men – horror and sci-fi – striding onto the screen and impressing us as a character.

Credited with the birth of the modern Bechdel test, Alien raised the bar for women in film, yet in the decades that followed it has not often been met. Horror and sci-fi are genres that have always celebrated women from Scream Queens to Borg Queens, but in the last few decades they’ve rarely reached the heights of Ripley, until now.

While 2016 was generally considered a year of doom and gloom, the sun peaking through the clouds was the amazing growth-spurt for women in film and television. From directors like Mira Nair and Amma Asante, to writers like Rebecca Miller and Kelly Fremon Craig and stars like Amy Adams and Alicia Vikander, 2016 was a year where women flourished, shining brightest in the horror and sci-fi genres. A new wave of heroines emerged in these genres in 2016 and 2017 looks to be equally as impressive. Ripleys are rising across the board in both films, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Girl With All The Gifts, and Arrival, and television like Stranger Things, Westworld, Jessica Jones, and Powerless. Women are taking the lead and following in the footsteps forged by Ripley nearly 40 years ago.

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“It is our sacred duty to defend the world. And it is what I am going to do.”

The rise of the superhero film has all but enveloped the film industry over the last decade. Whether avenging in capes and tights or battling in galaxies far, far away, heroes are what people want. While there have been a smattering of female characters and some strident feminist filmmakers involved (We love you Joss!) its only now that we’re seeing woman take the lead as heroes. The massively successful Mad Max and Star Wars reboots owe their success to casting women as their lead protagonists. Imperator Furiosa, Jyn Erso and Rey have given women someone to admire and little girls someone to aspire to. Like Ripley, they are a breath of fresh air in franchises dominated by men, driving the plot, protecting the innocent and kicking all the ass.

We are seeing it with superheroes also. In television, comic book staples like Supergirl and Jessica Jones have found massive followings and there are more on the way. Staring Vanessa Hudgens, NBC’s Powerless follows the staff of an insurance company specialising in protecting defenceless bystanders from the collateral damage of superheroes and supervillains. A woman standing up for the little guy against muscle men in spandex – whats not to like?

And of course perhaps the most anticipated hero of 2017 is the one many of us have been waiting for: Wonder Woman. It’s hard to believe that it has taken over 70 years to get the most popular and powerful female superhero in history to the big screen, but the time, thankfully, has come. Directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is set to delve deeper into the story of the Amazonian princess and finally give us a female superhero that women can get excited about. By putting this strong yet vulnerable role in the hands of a female director, we are all-but-certain to get an added level of nuance and understanding of the character. A decision reflected in Netflix’s Jessica Jones, whose entire second season will be directed by women. These Super Ripleys look set to make 2017 the year where women save the world.

“If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.”

Going by recent films and TV shows, the “not too distant future” looks to have some very interesting women populating it. Whether they are navigating dystopias, artificial intelligence or facing death head on, these women are curious and complex.

Recent films and television about AI and technology have been ruled by women. Ex MachinaThe Circle, Her, Morgan, Nerve, Humans, and Westworld all take a look at the ever expanding technology through a female eye. It is no longer Hal singing “Daisy” that represents a chilling potential future, but rather Alicia Vikander’s Ava simply asking “Will you stay here?”.

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Is it feminine assurance or coolness under pressure that makes a female AI so enticing? Or is it more simple than that; will baser instincts be man’s downfall in a world where sex and technology are so inextricably linked? Beyond AI, The Circle and Nerve look into the dominance of technology and social media in everyday life, questioning their ethics and being wary of their influences. In these films Emma Watson and Emma Roberts are modern day Ripleys, defying progress ‘at any cost’ and reminding us that real people can get caught in the crossfire.

However, it is not only technology that can trap us; human nature is just as dangerous. The upcoming series of the best selling novel The Handmaid’s Tale shows us a world where women are forced to live as concubines under a fundamentalist dictatorship. Before I Fall follows a girl who is forced to relive the last day of her life over and over. Arrival tells the story of a driven scientist trying to communicate with an alien life-form. The Girl On The Train follows a newly divorced alcoholic spiralling out of control and becoming involved with a murder. Top Of The Lake follows a detective as she tries to unravel a mystery in a small, suspicious town. Mothers and wives, saviours and victims, life and death, these are women overcoming adversities that plague our world and the women in it, Ripleys of the mind.

“My daughters are trained for battle, sir, not the kitchen.”

Zombies have been a firm horror staple across films and television for decades and men have always taken the lead: from Ash, to Shaun, to Rick, its a man’s zombie world. Thankfully that is now changing, with films and television shows like Raw, The Girl With All The Gifts, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, iZombie and the upcoming Santa Clarita Diet, where women are taking the lead in the undead world. These are not just stories about women chewing the fat (sorry, I had to!), these zombie tales range from dark comedies to social commentary with women embodying the roles of both heroes and villains. The Girl With All The Gifts is particularly interesting as three women across three generations occupy the main roles in a story about evolution, morality and survival. Dawn of the Ripleys.

Aside from brain eating, women are delving deep into the more grisly side of horror. XX is an anthology of horror films with all female directors due out this year. According to one of its directors, Jovanka Vuckovic, the film was made “directly in response to the lack of opportunity for women filmmakers, particularly in the horror genre.”

Vuckovic, Roxanne Benjamin, Sofìa Carrillo, Karyn Kusama and St. Vincent are the real life Ripleys paving the way for women in the horror genre. While in front of the camera, films like Don’t Breathe, The Neon Demon, Nocturnal Animals, The Shallows, and The Purge: Election Year are more than just vicious viewing, they are stories about women who are struggling in worlds dominated by men. From the dirtbag boyfriends and husbands of Don’t Breathe and Nocturnal Animals, to misogyny keeping women powerless in their industries in The Neon Demon and The Purge: Election Year. These films, however gory, are more poignant and prescient than they first appear. In horror, 2016 and 2017 are years where women are dominating the genre, developing it into new, exciting and enthralling areas.

“Why do we even need weapons anyway. We have her.”

Then of course, there is the amazing Stranger Things. While only one series has aired so far, I am confident to call Stranger Things what it is: one of the greatest TV shows of modern times. The terrific combination of horror, sci fi and nostalgia, 2016’s smash hit resonated with audience across demographics, in no small part due to its fantastic and flawed characters and two in particular. Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven rule that show, driving the men and boys into action and continually being the saviors of the innocent, exactly like Ripley.

The two characters are really two sides of the Ripley coin, as Joyce’s motivation is maternal and Eleven is rebelling against a secret organization which is morally corrupt in their quest for advancement. Together this woman and girl fight seemingly unstoppable evils and remain true to themselves in the process. Beyond that, Eleven is a rare character that young girls can look up to and admire. It is heartening to see one of the biggest TV shows of the last decade have a strong, loyal, complex, and powerful young woman in the pivotal role.

In 1979, a character named Ripley shattered gender norms in the horror and sci-fi genres. It has taken a long time, but today we’re witnessing the rise of strong, interesting and complex female characters across these genres, that looks set to continue and grow. Ripley is rumored to return for a fifth instalment of Alien, directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Ridley Scott. Hopefully by the time she strides back onto our screens, flamethrower in hand, Ripley will be impressed by the company she’s in.