I freakin’ love Ellen Ripley. And you do, too. In fact, there’s not a soul on this planet who doesn’t like Ripley after seeing an Alien movie, boy and girl alike. She’s tough. She’s kind. She’s brilliant. She’s competent. She’s even funny. Ellen Ripley is my favorite final girl.
According to Carol J. Clover (who notably coined the term in her study on gender in slasher films), a final girl is a trope used in horror flicks to refer to the last surviving woman alive—usually possessing some form of quantifiable characteristics to distinguish her from the rest of the cast (eg; “virgin”, “related to the killer”, “brown hair”). Though many have argued against Ripley being cited as a “Final Girl”, I believe Ripley is not only a final girl, but the final girl.
I find that the trope itself is a bit fluid across the movies it appears in–there’s simply no reason not to include Ripley among the best of them. The first installment in the franchise, Alien, is essentially a slasher in space, often aptly compared to a haunted house. The xenomorph is the eponymous antagonist of the film, the “monster” stalking and haunting the crew aboard the Nostromo, and killing them off one by one. There is also a case for the sentient technology (e.g., Ash and the ship’s computer, “Mother”) as the big baddie—both the xenomorph and humans are just trying to survive the evil machinations of Weyland-Yutani. The xenomorph is simply trying to exist and reproduce—the fact that humans are needed as a host is a by-product of their survival, not an ill intent.
At first, it’s not immediately apparent that Ripley is going to be the star of the first Alien film, much less a final girl. Every actor (the majority being male) is treated with a fair amount of screen time in the beginning—in fact, Ripley doesn’t really say much until she exerts her position as third ranking officer to keep with protocol in not allowing Kane to board the ship. It’s at this exact point that we have an inkling that she’s different than the other crew members; she’s other. The movie then builds upon this pivotal moment, and we are left to witness a character become stronger the longer she survives.
Despite Ripley transforming into a type of action hero both in defeating the xenomorph in Alien and continuing her survival in the fantastic sequel, she isn’t some sexy badass spouting out witty one-liners in hot leather pants. Ripley’s relatable, vulnerable, and funny in a natural way. She’s level-headed in the face of adversity—and she isn’t superhuman, where she’s suddenly so competent and fearless that she’s able to conquer the enemy without breaking a sweat. She screams in fright a few times, sings to herself to calm down, and flat out refuses to help initially in the beginning of Aliens. I love this—Ripley would rather live a quiet life performing menial jobs while finding a way to sleep at night in lieu of being a hero. This right here is what makes her so relatable—what person in their right mind would willingly put themselves through that again? Yet—she eventually does just this, and faces the threat with as much (if not more) passion for survival as she first did in Alien.
What also makes Ripley so awesome is that, despite being this crazy strong and competent hero, she’s also an incredibly compassionate and empathetic woman. She’s constantly looking out for her cat, Jonesy, and takes to Newt quite quickly. Aliens is also when we first hear of the existence of her daughter, and somehow this makes her character even more compelling. She’s a brilliant, skilled member of the crew aboard the Nostromo and a mother to a young child back on Earth. Possessing such a strong position and admirable career while still being a mother was almost unheard of back when the movies were first released. Even nowadays, it’s still fairly uncommon to see a combination of both come into play this seamlessly. Most strong female characters are either tough for themselves, or for their kids. Not both. At the core, the xenomorph just wants to survive. But so does Ripley. And she does everything in her power to ensure that she (and the ones she’s trying to protect) do.
There’s a lot of characters that owe their existence to Ripley. This is the reason why people went so nuts over Furiosa in Mad Max—she was essentially another Ripley: tough, capable, possessing courage of conviction. They weren’t the handy sidekick, nor a sexy wordsmith. They feel real. And to a lot of women (and men), seeing a character this relatable become something so undeniably fierce, is more inspiring than any supernatural “badass” character in the world. We see these women face real struggles. We see them face nearly impossible odds and survive within reasonable means. We see these woman wholeheartedly care for others.
Alien transcends the sci-fi and horror genres just as much as Ripley transcends the final girl trope. She’s a victim in the first installment; its only survivor. In the second, she becomes an actual action heroine (and even a bit villainous at one point, in terms of her relation to the alien queen). The next two Alien movies aren’t as important in defining her character, but Weaver’s portrayal keeps her consistent throughout each, despite the varying writers and directors. It’s widely known that Weaver had a say in her character development in the later franchises, even going so far as to make sure her character is included in the first place.
Alien 3 suffered from a number of discarded plot ideas and scripts that never made it to the screen—one in which was penned by brilliant sci-fi novelist William Gibson. His story posited an interesting twist in the series, taking the focus away from Ripley and centering it around Hicks and Newt (which, actually, I’m still very interested in seeing develop). Newt and Hicks dying before the third movie was a huge mistake—the dynamic between these characters and their relation to Ripley was tantamount to what made Aliens so successful (and different) than the original. And as for the fourth film? Though fun and enjoyable, let’s not go there.
The Alien franchise still remains one of the most original and transformative movie-watching experiences in film, and Ripley is no exception. She’s the utter embodiment of what a final girl is—and what the definition of an action heroine should be. Ellen Ripley will save you from yourself. Game over, man.
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