True Heroism in Alien

Ripley isn’t the protagonist of the 1979 classic — at least not at first.

Ripley is probably one of your favourite-ever on-screen heroes or heroines. She’s certainly one of mine; her sense of urgency, her pragmatism, and her ingenuity are beautifully balanced by her almost-crippling vulnerability when faced with overwhelming odds. The final twenty minutes of 1979's Alien, in which she bounds down fire-belching corridors welding only a makeshift flamethrower in one arm and a cat in the other, is so gripping and emotionally gruelling precisely because of Ripley’s normalcy. She’s a regular, everyday person, and she responds to a giant murderous creature the same way we would — with absolute, total terror. The genius, glaringly obvious in both Sigourney Weaver’s performance and Ridley Scott’s choice in casting her, is in making Ellen Ripley one of us. But the way they achieve that goes far deeper than we realise.

I noticed it during my very first viewing at age fifteen, and it’s stuck with me since: for the first half hour of the movie, Ripley isn’t special. At all. She isn’t given noticeably more screen time than the other Nostromo crew members, she isn’t given a storyline that’s of any importance (at least no more so than the others), and the camera never puts her centre-frame or bestows her pride of place in any scene (for example: who’s the first to wake from cryosleep? John Hurt’s Kane. This quick but important shot would typically be our introduction to our protagonist. Not so here.)

Basically, there’s nothing Scott or writer Dan O’Bannon do to announce ‘this is the lead character’, let alone give any small hint. Even in the screenplay itself, Ripley gets no special sidebar or description. There is that great little scene between her and Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett and Yaphet Kotto’s Parker as the pair try (poorly) to fix the landing ship, during which Ripley’s no-shit attitude is established, but it still doesn’t single her out. In fact, the scene makes her a bit of a boring killjoy — not exactly the stuff regular protagonists are made of. She’s not even one of the crew members who goes out to investigate the derelict ship on LV-426 in the first place: so far, Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is given ever so slightly more centre-focus. Could he be our lead? He is the captain after all. Or will this movie continue to be an equally-balanced ensemble piece?

What comes next is a brilliant, simple and overlooked moment that makes us subtly take notice of Ripley. When Kane is carried back to the ship in the grips of a facehugger, Dallas orders Ripley to open the airlock doors. Her reply? ‘No.’

These are the precious seconds in which Ripley emerges from the rest of the players. Go back and watch the movie, and take special notice of everything I’ve pointed out: the focus falls on her during this scene when she utters that word. Everyone else is panicking on both sides of the airlock, but she remains calm and collected, aware of the morality of the situation but already convinced of the greater good of the people aboard the ship. Later on, when trying to save the dwindling members of the crew (and her own skin) from the Xenomorph, her actions during this align closer to our typical ideals of heroism: attempting to rescue remaining colleagues? Heroic. Rescuing a freakin’ cat from the clutches of a man-flaying beast? Certifiably Herculean. But it’s that very first rebuttal, her defiant ‘No’, that’s truly heroic.

Why? Because while her crew members scream at her in righteous moral fury to allow Kane and the others back into the ship, she chooses to take the fiercely opposed and downright unpopular decision in order to keep the rest of the crew (including herself) safe. Whatever your moral stance on that scene — and it’s an enduring one because it’s so difficult to grapple with — what remains clear as day is Ripley’s decision. She has chosen to act. Everyday heroism is doing what others possibly can’t — or won’t — do. From this initial emergence as a driving, independent force of agency, she slowly and ever so surely comes into focus as the one leading the story through the rest of the movie, taking control of each situation as it comes and slowly but surely ending up as our last remaining character.

This extremely elegant slice of writing and directing might be my favourite thing about Alien; hiding the core protagonist of your story among the supporting players is certainly something you wouldn’t see in a movie of a similar budget today. Of course, it’s a total horror-movie trope: Ripley is essentially the ‘Final Girl’, but Alien, in adhering to the best of horror’s formula and forging it into something that just feels primordial, even purer, makes this feel completely fresh. And it’s absolutely crucial to why we love Ripley so much: at the film’s beginning, she’s us as we currently view ourselves. At the film’s end, she’s us as we would like to view ourselves.

In real life, the camera doesn’t linger on us. We’re not written any great standalone scenes, nor are we given all that much screen time. But when the call to heroism sounds — the everyday kind that comes in small doses — we’d like to think we’d emerge from the other players. We’d like to think we’d say ‘No’, too.