I’ve told this anecdote more than a few times, but my brother scarred me for life when he showed me Ridley Scott’s Alien when I was the wee age of 6. Absolutely terrified by the concept of extra-terrestrial life being anything but friendly (damn you, Spielberg!) I would often have nightmares of the Queen Xenomorph entering my room to devour me. I would be scared to roam my house alone, and I was afraid of the dark. It didn’t really register with me though, that there was a hero to the story all along, and that she wasn't the traditional male Hollywood leading man type. Ellen Ripley was a complete badass.
As a fully matured adult (writing about aliens for a living) fortunately, my fear has turned to fascination for a strange sci-fi horror franchise that I, till date, can’t really explain. I’ve seen all the movies more than a few times, and I will even defend Fincher’s Alien 3, and I'll do it right now by recommending the Directors Cut, which is far better than the original. Why didn’t it occur to me that these movies always have a winner at the end, and it’s never the titular character?
On an episode of the Geek Fruit podcast on women heroes in sci-fi, we noted one principal difference between the new age women superheroes like Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy (alliteration win), and Ellen Ripley. Movies today have decided that woman empowerment, and showing empowered women is finally important. Everything from Star Wars to X-Men has female leads, and even though I’m not a fan of how it's approached more as a trending topic than a natural part of storytelling, I’m not complaining. While Rey and Katniss are out and out heroes of their respective franchises who need no handholding, Ripley was the kind of persecuted hero who survived the ordeal of her circumstances. Was it a weird sadistic thing to watch a grotesque form of nature terrorize Ripley for the majority of the series? Or is it really about a hero whose fate is tied inextricably to the titular menace?
Watching the series as I grew up, I just focused on the horror aspect, not questioning the feminist aspect these movies had. Today, I think of it as almost a matriarchal franchise, with the principal character always being female, whether it's Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, Winona Ryder’s android Annalee Call, Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw, or from the Alien’s perspective the protective Queen Xenomorph, who is secretly gestating hundreds of eggs to ensure the longevity of her species. I’m hardly the first one to cite the Alien saga for its feminist overtones, but I am definitely intrigued by some of the cues that have been tied to the storyline.
One of the most intense scenes in Prometheus (a movie most didn’t like, but I loved) is when heroine Dr. Elizabeth Shaw finds herself pregnant with an Alien embryo that she had definitely not planned for. It’s one of the early instances of the android David’s (Michael Fassbender) agenda to play God and create his own life forms; something we get to see fleshed out (pun forcibly thrust down your throat) in Alien: Covenant. In a rabid attempt to save herself, she climbs into an off-limits automated surgical table, where even as she voice commands the interface menu for a ‘ceasarian’, the voice dryly replies, ‘this med-pod is calibrated for male patients only’. She goes on to manually abort herself of the ‘non-traditional’ foetus, but how strange is it when the Captain of the ship is a woman (Charlize Theron, no less) that the sick bay wouldn’t have the ability to perform something that only a woman would need? Fassbender even introduces the predicament slightly earlier when she asks him for help to have the embryo be taken out of her: “I’m sorry but we do not have the personnel to perform the procedure”.
This might be just some plain old storytelling 101, place your hero in a dire situation and see how they overcome it. But it’s just something strange about this franchise in particular that makes it seems almost vindictive towards its hero. Granted, this is, horror and that’s how these things usually unfold, but the fact that not many embryos or ‘chest-bursters’ have ever successfully emerged from a woman, and it's mostly men have ‘given birth’ to the titular character, you wonder if there has been some kind of agenda cooking.
Alien: Covenant finally reveals that a man, or at least a male android is behind the evolution of the Alien to the OG form that first tormented the crew of the Nostromo back in 1979. Even if this new prequel saga spends some of its time pondering over the creation of species, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) ultimately pulls a Ripley and guns up against the Alien, to protect all the human embryos aboard the Covenant that are in stasis. If Ripley had one little girl in Newt to protect, Daniels has a whole ship full of babies that need more than just a MUTHER; the aptly titled AI that guides the Nostromo, and more recently, the Covenant.
As we go further into the lore of Alien with the sequels to the prequel saga already primed and ready to go, I’m curious to see how the penultimate moments lead into the original film. Honestly at this point, I’d like to see a happy ending for any of these protagonists, after a lifetime of battling these creatures to almost always certain death. Maybe it’s fitting that each time either Ripley or Shaw or Daniels has to deal with an ordeal like this, they need a giant nap before their next adventure.
Scribe: Tejas Menon
Captain's Log: Tejas is a core member of Geek Fruit, and on his Twitter, no one can hear him scream.