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Film

How Sigourney Weaver transformed the role of the heroine

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Emphasising horror over fantasy, Ridley Scott’s iconic science-fiction horror film Alien remains the very best extra-terrestrial story ever put to film. Described by the director himself as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction”, mimicking the latter’s cat-and-mouse nature, as well as its relentless focus on filthy, gritty realism, Alien uses tension as a tool, gradually cranking it up with every glimpse of the monster at hand—sometimes what’s scarier is the mere suggestion that something is there. 

Though whilst the titular Xenomorph certainly adds to the power of the films longevity, it is more so the unforgettable lead performance of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley that would make Alien such an important work of science fiction. 

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At the time of the film’s release in 1979 cinema was very much a male-dominated space, with the highest performing films of the time being Apocalypse Now, Rocky III, and Moonraker, each showcasing male leads with a stark lack of strong female roles. Originally written as a male character by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, it was Ridley Scott that requested a female lead in Sigourney Weaver for Alien, playing the role of a bold, assertive warrant officer aboard the Nostromo spaceship. 

As intelligent as she was physically decisive, cinema had not seen a heroine quite like Ellen Ripley before, fighting off and evading the violent alien to become the last woman standing on board the Nostromo. When we first meet her character, however, it is unclear whether she will indeed become the protagonist as Ridley Scott toys with expectations, presenting her as merely another aggrieved member of the newly-awakened Nostromo crew. Brash and outspoken, Ripley grows into the film to become a clear leader, launching into a mode of steely determination. 

Ridley Scott deserves a good amount of credit for this depiction too, with Katherine Waterston of Alien: Covenant stating at a special event, “Maybe Ridley’s not getting enough credit. He’s been doing it for a very long time…I think his attitude about it is very similar to my own. It just seems obvious. There are a lot of cool, complicated women out there. It’s not rocket science”. 

Alien would represent a glass ceiling for female actors, alongside James Cameron’s science-fiction romp The Terminator and pave the way for brand new stories and opportunities in the industry. Crediting the writing and the bravery of Ridley Scott and his crew in the 1970s for the film’s success, Sigourney Weaver told Entertainment Weekly, “I’m very flattered when actresses talk about Ripley, I feel very fortunate that I got to play her, but I have to certainly acknowledge the writers”.

Continuing, she notes, “So many people in the business would have said, ‘Well now we have to make her more sympathetic.’ And then it’s suddenly this token scene that shows we’re actually feminine after all, and that’s frankly bulls**t, because that doesn’t happen in real life. Ripley doesn’t have time to try to be sympathetic, you know?”. 

In a time when heroic female leads were few and far between, Ridley Scott helped to change cinematic representation by bringing Ellen Ripley to life, a heroic, authentic, unsentimental hero for the modern age of cinema.

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