How Ripley became one of film’s greatest heroes in ‘Aliens’

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“Aliens”
Released July 18, 1986
Directed by James Cameron
Where to Watch

The Pick

When you look at the list of movies that came out during Week 29, you’ll see a number of hits that not only dominated the summer, but became some of the most beloved movies of all time. In short, you better pick a banger here. Enter James Cameron. The man is literally responsible for two of the biggest movies of all time, “Titanic” and “Avatar,” and remains one of the industry’s most innovative and entertaining filmmakers. To not find a way to include him on the list feels wrong, especially after passing on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” so let’s honor him by snagging one of his best, while recognizing one of film’s greatest science fiction series.

The Reason

We’ve cheered for many cinematic heroines over our lifetimes, particularly in the past few years, as women are headlining action, adventure and superhero films more and more. But even more than 30 years later, Sigourney Weaver’s journey as Ellen Ripley in “Aliens” stands tall among her peers.

Ripley was introduced in 1979’s “Alien” as a member of a space mining crew in middle management. In the film, she’s quiet, yet firm and pragmatic, even when she’s not always heard. When command of the Nostromus starship falls to her, it’s Ripley who follows the procedure for quarantine but is ultimately ignored. When the alien xenomorph is wreaking havoc amongst her crew, it’s clear that Ripley was right, although she barely escapes with her life as a reward.

As “Alien” concludes, Ripley puts herself into cryosleep, but when the sequel begins, we learn that she’s been adrift in space for decades. Once she’s found, officials from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation she worked for question her, and she remains traumatized by the events of the first film. Again, nobody listens to her, especially after a colony was established on the planet Ripley’s crew found the original lifeform, and the people there reported no problems. Months later, as communications with the colony goes silent, Ripley is asked to help investigate. The corporation wants to send a team of Space Marines to investigate, and Ripley to consult on the mission. Going back is the last thing Ripley wants, as she still wakes up terrorized by nightmares from her past trauma, but her career has stalled since her return, and she can only find work as a dock employee.

“It’s good that you’re keeping busy,” says Burke (Paul Reiser), a rep from Weyland-Yutani who asks Ripley to return to the alien settlement, passively insulting Ripley into doing what he wants. “Also, I know it’s the only job you could get. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Burke’s pitch to Ripley opens a chance to face her fears and move on with her life, and she takes it. However, she fears the Marines are underestimating how capable the alien xenomorph is. Once again, she’s proven right, as the Marines are wholly outmatched by not just one xenomorph, but an entire colony filled with aliens.

Female heroes are standing tall in films and television these days, from “Game of Thrones” to the Star Wars, Marvel, and Wonder Woman franchises. In many cases, the women who rise to the occasion are always ready for action and capable of handling themselves from the outset. They may have obstacles and challenges they must overcome in their journeys, but more often than not, our action heroines have already seen battle. Wonder Woman, after all, is already born an Amazon.

Ripley endures as a hero, not because of her kung fu skills or superpowers, but because she is remarkably human in the way she faces her doubts and fears to overcome them. While she’s wary about returning to the settlement in “Aliens,” the group comes across a small girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) who survived the aliens roaming about and becomes a maternal figure for the child. It is in that relationship where Ripley centers herself with a small mission to care for Newt, and finds the courage to do whatever it takes to protect her.

The story is all there, but what really engages and draws us in is Weaver’s extraordinary performance as Ripley. Watch her face as she explores the human colony behind the Marines for the first time, eyes wide with terror as she scans the darkness to try and see through every corner she can. Fast-forward 90 minutes, and there’s a visible difference in emotion as Ripley steels herself to walk into an alien nest alone. It’s inspiring, an undeniable historical performance that netted Weaver a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards.

“One of the things that inspired me most about the first film was her character,” said director James Cameron in the behind-the-scenes feature “The Inspiration and Design of Aliens.” “Here was a woman who was not behaving like a typical woman in a science fiction or horror film. She wasn’t the girlfriend, she wasn’t the screamer, she wasn’t the one who had to be rescued; she was the one who survived, and she did it by her wits. She was scared to death, but she never lost her thought process. She was smart, and she was kind of a pain in the ass.”

You can almost say the same about Weaver. Cameron got the go-ahead to write the sequel around Ripley’s character, but the production never made a deal with the actress. Once the oversight was discovered, Cameron refused to re-write the script without Ripley, giving Weaver an advantage in negotiations. She eventually agreed to a deal that earned her $1 million to star in “Aliens,” an impressive payday for a female lead.

Ripley’s journey in “Aliens” is enough to make this a great film, but as it happens, everything else in the movie is executed so well that it’s still lauded as one of Hollywood’s best sequels. Cameron, gaining attention for 1984’s “The Terminator,” was handed the reigns to the “Alien” sequel years later. Cameron makes one of the best decisions of his career to pivot the genre of the original film — sci-fi horror — to action, with the addition of multiple aliens and Marines. It raises the stakes while keeping audiences on their toes. Over 30 years later, it’s incredible that it worked so well, and that the studio 20th Century Fox even let it happen. Hollywood sequels, even when done well, usually demand more of the same, so the side step of “Alien” and “Aliens” feels like an Indiana Jones movie about a murder mystery, or maybe the Avengers showing up in a Conjuring film.

We also can’t talk about “Aliens” without mentioning the exceptional cast that brings life and personality to the film, from Michael Biehn as Hicks, Lance Henriksen as Bishop, Jenette Goldstein as Vasquez and Paul Reiser as Burke. In a supporting role, Bill Paxton delivers his breakout performance as Hudson and damn near steals the movie with reactions and quotes. “Game over, man!” may win the most popularity contests, but “We’re in some real pretty shit now” is my personal dark horse contender.

In fact, as the shit gets really pretty for everyone involved, Ripley rises to the occasion and becomes an authority to the surviving Marines, now led by Hicks. Hudson’s fear after the attack threatens to overwhelm him at times, but he finds a way to pull it together when it matters. Newt, a little girl, controls her fear as well as anybody can be expected to, as it becomes a means to her survival.

Again and again, the characters of “Aliens” are knocked back into impossible scenarios, and they show that courage is not the absence of fear, but dealing with their anxiety and moving forward anyway.

Ripley faces her ultimate test in the climax of the film, as she heads into the nest of the xenomorphs alone only to discover they have a queen of their own. At that moment, we see mother face off against mother, the Alien Queen amongst her progeny, and Ripley with her surrogate daughter in her arms. That’s when rage and vengeance take over, and two mothers contend for their own survival as the other demands blood for sins past.

From start to finish, “Aliens” goes big for Hollywood blockbuster status, and it exceeds its task at every level. The cast and crew compared “Aliens” to a rollercoaster ride after the original haunted house of “Alien,” and it is a beautiful metaphor. It manages to become a perfect flip side of the coin it shares with “Alien,” as two different approaches to the material have combined to become science fiction cinema’s ultimate one-two knockout punch.

“‘Aliens’ is the perfect sequel,” wrote Ian Nathan in his original 1986 review for Empire. “‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ while certainly a better film than ‘Star Wars,’ was a more polished segment in a longer story than a stand-alone adventure. But ‘Aliens’ is the model for every potential sequel-maker: it connects irrefutably with the events of the original … and expands on all the ideas and themes while simultaneously differentiating itself. The same, yet entirely different. Perfect.”

When audiences finally saw “Aliens,” it was an immediate hit, becoming one of the top-grossing movies of 1986. The film also benefited from its release at the boom of the VHS rental era and cable-TV airings, ensuring repeat viewings from fans and consistent exposure to new audiences. As the Alien franchise continued to generate new installments and branch out into other markets with action figures and video games, the mark of the original two movies never seem to be too far from our minds, a rare case of nostalgia holding up very well. High schools are even recreating the film as stage plays, and fans now celebrate April 26 as Alien Day, named after the LV-426 colony from “Aliens.” There is no doubt it remains one of the most beloved movies of its time.

While 20th Century Fox continued to return to the Alien franchise in the future, it never matched its critical success after “Aliens.” There are plenty of reasons for this, but one rarely mentioned: None of them ever completed Ripley’s journey, or lacked a hero as original and compelling as her. In “Alien,” Ripley is a survivor. In “Aliens,” she becomes a hero.

The Weekend

Blockbuster fanatics often look to the first weekend of May, Memorial Day, or the July 4th weekend for the major releases, but the third weekend of July has become a stealth release date for acclaimed blockbusters. “Aliens” may be a strong contender for either the best sci-fi or action film of the 80s, but in the following years, “Robocop” in 1987 and “Die Hard” (released in a handful of theaters before going wide a week later) in 1988 make active cases, respectively. Other franchise films that opened here include a few Marvel movies, “Captain America: The First Avenger” in 2011 and “Ant-Man” in 2015, “The Mask of Zorro” in 1998 and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” in 2009.

That doesn’t mean Week 29 is dominated by action franchises, as several popular comedies made their debuts here. Dudley Moore scored the most famous role of his career with 1981’s “Arthur,” while Michael Keaton became a headlining star in the slightly subversive (at the time, at least) “Mr. Mom” in 1983. In 1988’s “A Fish Called Wanda,” a few Monty Python alumnus matched wits with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, who won an Academy Award for his comedic performance as the enlightened moron Otto. As filmgoers entered the 90s, Alicia Silverstone became the iconic Cher Horowitz in Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless,” an era-defining high school comedy debuting in 1995. Another career-highlight comedic performance came three years later, as Cameron Diaz became the object of Ben Stiller’s obsessive crush in 1998’s “There’s Something About Mary.” The hotly debated “Ghostbusters” reboot debuted in 2016 (Hey, I thought it was reasonably funny). Finally, a quartet of black women left audiences howling in 2017’s hit “Girls Trip.”

Moving forward to the new century, director Christopher Nolan had gradually become one of the rare directors to define himself as his own brand, and the success of “The Dark Knight,” the second of his Batman trilogy, released this weekend in 2008, cemented that reputation. The third weekend of July has become a sure bet for Nolan, as most of his later films would be released in this time frame as well: “Inception” in 2010, “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, and “Dunkirk” in 2017.

The other notable films of the weekend include John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne premiering in 1952, the legendary worst movie ever from Ed Wood with “Plan 9 from Outer Space” in 1959, Danny Boyle’s indy classic “Trainspotting” in 1996, Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” from 2005, and the beginning of a new horror franchise with James Wan’s “The Conjuring” in 2013.

Next Week: “Step Brothers”

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Note: The number of colonists on the planet are 158, not 60. The Weyland Yutani Corporation that the humans work for is typically noted as “the Company.” Both have been corrected.

Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on July 19, 2019.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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