By Valerie Kalfrin
When Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) topped our August poll of readers’ favorite female action heroes, I wasn’t surprised. How could I be?
Ripley — whose original film, “Alien,” turned 40 last year — influences so many #WomenInAction that ITOL celebrated in August, like Imperator Furiosa from “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) and the “Terminator” saga’s Sarah Connor.
Our readers’ other top favorites besides these three? Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who initially tied with Ripley for the lead. Wonder Woman, marvelously brought to life onscreen in 2017, and Okoye, the steadfast and deadly general of Wakanda’s elite Dora Milaje in 2017’s “Black Panther.”
Ripley also is a reminder of how women in action movies — and active female characters in general — have improved over the years. And how far films still have to go.
“The first time I saw Sigourney Weaver play Ripley, it just changed everything for me.” – Charlize Theron
Now, I love Leia. I saw “Star Wars” at the movies as a kid, and a princess who actually led people, shot a gun, and stood tall with attitude was novel for 1977. I was Leia for Halloween that year, complete with a belt my dad made from plastic coffee can lids spray-painted gold and a blaster using the cardboard center from a roll of paper towels.
But Ripley is in a league of her own (pardon the pun). She stood out in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks largely to the 1986 sequel, “Aliens,” because women in action movies who drove the story were rare. Viewers these days have more female heroes to rally behind – such as Valkyrie of “Thor: Ragnarok,” Nikita, Lisbeth Salander, Mako Mori of “Pacific Rim,” Storm of the X-Men franchise, Foxy Brown, the Bride of “Kill Bill,” Mulan, and Valeria of “Conan the Barbarian” – but Ripley still ranks top of mind.
Smart, persistent, and brave
The American Film Institute lists Ripley specifically from “Aliens” among the top ten greatest movie heroes of all time, between Rocky Balboa and George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Sigourney Weaver, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for the role, deserves much of the credit for cementing Ripley as a pioneer. Ripley wasn’t onscreen purely as a love interest, a sex object, a catalyst to motivate a guy’s actions, or a device to rattle off exposition.
She’s smart, persistent, and brave in the most relatable way: not without fear, but forging ahead anyway.
“I’m so glad she continues to resonate with people. I admire her, too,” Weaver said recently. “I’ve always felt she was such a partner.”
Ripley is one reason that Charlize Theron says she pursued her now-iconic role of Furiosa “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“The first time I saw Sigourney Weaver play Ripley, it just changed everything for me,” Theron (Netflix’s “The Old Guard”) said in a San Diego Comic-Con@Home interview in July. “It was like the world opened up, and the possibilities were just endless. The amount of intelligence that she brought to that role. She was completely in demand of it. She owned that world. But it wasn’t forced. And it wasn’t written. And it wasn’t acted. It was just lived. She was just living in that world in such an authentic way.”
She chased the part of Furiosa because “I saw the potential … If that character can in a small part do what Ripley did for me as an actress, as a woman, that’s something that I’m incredibly proud of.”
A resourceful natural leader
Empire magazine in July 2020 ranked Ripley second of 50 on its list of “The Greatest Movie Heroes of All Time,” behind Indiana Jones. (FWIW, Leia is seventh.) She’s a “courageous, resourceful, very human hero,” the magazine wrote. Beyond gender stereotypes – and her close encounters with vicious aliens and calculating corporate suits – she revolutionized the idea of what a hero could be. “She kept her head, held her nerve, came up with a plan, a natural leader,” the magazine wrote.
Weaver modestly told Empire that Ripley is nothing like her (although she relishes remembering how she was “in the trenches with the crew” on the saga’s films, not “dressed in some little dolly dress, trying to keep clean”).
“I’m so glad she continues to resonate with people. I admire her, too,” Weaver said. “I’ve always felt she was such a partner.”
Still relevant through the lens of #MeToo
Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and executive producer Ronald Shusett crafted “Alien” around pushing people’s buttons. (“The alien screws one of them,” Shusett said in the 2001 documentary “Alien Evolution” about getting the monster on board.) They wrote the characters without specifying gender to ease casting, and director Ridley Scott thought Ripley’s survival would be a great way to toy with an audience who expected her to die. “The importance of this leading character being female was tremendous,” he later noted. “I thought, Wow. OK.”
Watch “Alien” enough, especially through the lens of #MeToo, and you’ll notice body horror, paranoia, sexual trauma, and the “hell of other people.” There are also nude pinups on the bulkhead, sex talk at the table, and a camera that ogles Ripley’s thighs and panties as she dons her spacesuit because, as Scott says on a DVD commentary, studio execs wanted more sex in the movie.
Ripley transcends all of this. She’s more of a leader than Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the captain who’s emotional and irritable but never criticized the way a woman would be. Comfortable in her own skin, she’s cooly authoritative, pushing back when Dallas, Ash (Ian Holm), and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) talk around why they ignore her decisions or blast steam over her words.
No one can hear you scream in space, to tweak the film’s tagline, but as I’ve noted before, no one listens to women either, which would have saved the crew of the Nostromo a lot of anguish and their lives. Poor Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) wants to leave while exploring the alien craft that infects Kane (John Hurt), and no one pays her any mind.
A true supernova
“Aliens” gave Ripley post-traumatic stress, but even wounded, she has accessible strength. I’ve written about her a lot over the years. I can’t help it. Ever since I caught the last few minutes of “Alien” on cable TV when I was about nine (my mom encouraged me to watch her blast the creature into space), then later saw “Aliens” in the theater as a teen, she’s been one of my favorite onscreen heroes.
I love superheroes like Wonder Woman, too, but like Okoye, Sarah Connor, Furiosa — and even Leia at the outset –—Ripley doesn’t have any special powers, except maybe integrity. She certainly has the fortitude not to give a damn if she’s disliked. Ripley might feel afraid or insecure, but she holds steady and finds a way. Her fears aren’t acid that eats her away.
Whether she’s arguing with crewmates or bureaucrats, cursing at a ship’s computer, singing to steel her nerve, or plunging into an alien nest to rescue a child, she’s every brave soul who quashes her fear in the face of something greater. I relate to that whenever anxiety threatens to overwhelm me, like when I was a new mom scared witless with a newborn hospitalized for three weeks. Or when we’re all reeling from a worldwide pandemic.
She’s a sci-fi action hero supernova who exploded onto the screen so brilliantly, she’s outshined and inspired others for decades. May she burn bright always.
Note: This post was updated on 9/2/2020 with the poll’s final results.