Sigourney Weaver in ”Alien”, 1979, directed by Ridley Scott | Twentieth Century Fox, Brandywine Productions
The Editorial: thoughts, short stories
or essays about the world of cinema
Forty years ago today, one of the defining sci-fi films, Ridley Scott’s Alien, had its premiere, introducing audiences to one of cinema’s greatest sci-fi characters. I watched it again one night a few weeks ago in celebration of its anniversary. What, in my opinion, makes Alien extraordinary is that it belongs to itself, and to cinema. Retaining a trace of the independent spirit of the New Hollywood, as well as an European sensibility, Alien created a world that lived on its own. A world, mainly contrived to the interior of the ship Nostromo, with its empty and immersive corridors and spaces and a feeling of otherness, that I think can be best described as organic. It merges biology and technology in a way it had never been done before, nor since, in sci-fi, investigating how it is to be human in a hostile universe where you encounter other biological and artificial life.
It is not an action film, there are no hierarchies, no gender references, no sentimental dialogue (all paths that the ordinary sequels subsequently took). None of this matters out there, in the space chaos. There is something bigger than you out there. You simply get the sense of that watching the film. It uniquely conjures up primal emotions, the kind I imagine you would experience if you witnessed the dawn of human existence. That’s my personal relationship with Alien, one of those few films you don’t just experience, but rather inhabit.
There is one other thing I want to talk about. It is a particular scene, an early scene that made me alert, planting the seed in my head that very first time I watched it years ago that I was in for a great film, as well as for a great character. It is when Sigourney Weaver’s resolute Ellen Ripley – who until that moment has an unidentified role in the hierarchy of the spaceship – shows steely determination and cold calculation in directly refusing her captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), to admit Kane (John Hurt) back into the ship after Dallas, Kane and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) had left the ship to investigate the derelict craft after they received an emergency signal from a planet previously thought to be uninhabited, and an extraterrestrial creature had attached to Kane’s face.
”Dallas: Something has attached itself to him. We have to get him to the infirmary right away.
Ripley: What kind of thing? I need a clear definition.
Dallas: An organism. Open the hatch.
Ripley: Wait a minute. If we let it in, the ship could be infected. You know the quarantine procedure. Twenty-four hours for decontamination.
Dallas: He could die in twenty-four hours. Open the hatch.
Ripley: Listen to me, if we break quarantine, we could all die.
Lambert: Look, could you open the god-damned hatch? We have to get him inside.
Ripley: No. I can’t do that and if you were in my position, you’d do the same.
Dallas: Ripley, this is an order. Open that hatch right now, do you hear me?
Dallas: Ripley. This is an order. Do you hear me?
Ripley: Yes. I read you. The answer is negative.”
Who is this person? What makes her stay so cool? She’s the one who does her job. And I believed her. I believed she wouldn’t have let them in. The only reason why they are let in is because another character, Ash, overrides Ripley and opens the hatch. Sigourney Weaver played her role cool. Androgynous and with a masculine height and dressed in her spaceship uniform and displaying that hard look refusing to allow herself to be governed by her emotions. Her work ethics and functional uniform are so far from the norm of today’s society that Ripley, forty years on, is a near-mythical creature herself, more so than she has ever been.