In space no one can hear you scream

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ALIEN airs on TCM January 25th as part of their ‘70s Thrills programming

For decades screaming was often the weapon of choice for women in action, science fiction and horror films. We were expected to shriek, shout, yelp, whimper, squeal and squawk in the face of serious danger and (hopefully) a man would eventually come to our aide. So you can imagine how frightened little 11-year-old me was when I first heard the tagline for ALIEN back in 1979. Weeks before I actually saw the film I spent many sleepless nights rolling around in bed and contemplating the terrifying idea that no one could hear me scream if I was in space. If no one could hear me scream how could I be saved from whatever terrible danger awaited me?

Like many kids I was fascinated by the idea of space travel but as a female of the species I didn’t have many role models to look up to. It would be another 4 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman to experience space flight as a member of the Challenger shuttle crew in 1983 but 30 years have passed since then and we still haven’t put a woman on the moon or any other planet for that matter. I mention all this because to describe the heroine of ALIEN as “groundbreaking” seems too simplistic and almost crude. Warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wasn’t just groundbreaking. She was a 10.0 earthquake that reverberated across movie screens and sent unmeasurable shock waves through our collective conscious.Her impact is still being scrutinized today by countless films scholars, critics and historians but there’s no denying that plenty of little girls like yours truly are deeply indebted to Ripley for broadening our idea of what a conventional movie hero could be. She seemed to embody the idea that actions speak a hell of a lot louder than words and screams.

alienposter2It’s worth noting that the memorable tagline for ALIEN was written by a woman. Copywriter Barbara Gips came up with the idea while her husband, graphic artist Philip Gips, was creating the original movie poster and he used it in his design. The studio was so impressed with her idea that they decided to run with it in their advertising campaign. At the time there was still an air of mystery surrounding a film’s release and unless you spent hours scouring magazine racks for production information you usually went into a film blind with only the trailer, radio ads and movie posters as your guide. Barbara Gips’ bleak warning ignited our imaginations and spoke to our shared nightmares. The film’s tagline has become a mantra of sorts among horror film buffs and science fiction fans but it’s also a reminder of how women were often portrayed as “screaming Mimi’s” in action focused films before ALIEN challenged that perception. In space nobody could hear Ripley scream–and she does let out two good shrieks during the film–but her survival is dependent on her deeds and her ability to think clearly when the rest of her crew is panicking… and screaming!

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Many have criticized and questioned the character of Ripley claiming she acts “too masculine” and is just a “man with boobs.” Carol J. Clover (the author of the often cited Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Films) said that Ripley was a “particularly grotesque example of wishful thinking” but I find these observations incredibly shortsighted. While it’s true that the character of Ripley was originally written with a male actor in mind, I’ve never questioned the character’s femininity. Ripley defied Hollywood templates that attempted to define womanhood with simplistic labels such as wife, mother, virgin and whore. But she was also a naturally nurturing individual who cared deeply about her crew as well as a cat and she risks everything to save them. Ripley’s tender relationship with the yellow tabby Jonesy tells us all we need to know about her parental instincts and innate empathy without having to point them out in LARGE BOLD LETTERS, which was done in the sequels that followed.

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In complete opposition to the “Ripley’s too masculine” complaints hurled at the film, there’s also the problem of her underwear. Some think the final moments of ALIEN are problematic thanks to Ripley’s “tighty whities” and the way they eroticize the character but as an 11-year-old girl watching ALIEN for the first time I never once questioned Ripley’s wardrobe choices. The film opens with a shot of the entire crew in their underwear that instantly had me recalling scenes from various Frankenstein films I’d seen and their nudity implied a kind of birth or awakening to me. When Ripley strips down to her skivvies again it’s part of a cycle of events that suggest she’s grown, died, been reborn and is returning to the womb of the ship. Of course there’s no denying the sexual themes of the film, which was based on H. R. Giger’s highly sexualized work, but when Ripley’s nearly naked she suddenly appears vulnerable and that makes her last confrontation with the monster all the more terrifying. Her genderless uniform may have tricked us into forgetting we were watching a female hero in action but the film demands that we embrace her femininity in its final moments.

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35 years have passed since Ripley saved the world from an alien threat but Hollywood still seems incapable of accepting the idea of a female hero who faces danger head-on without wailing about her predicament or relying on a man to guide her to safety. While watching the new Oscar nominated film GRAVITY recently I found myself wishing Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) would just shut-up and get on with the business of surviving. Her continual shrieking, shouting, yelping, whimpering, squealing and squawking was a threat to her crew members as well as herself. I want more action orientated women protagonists in my movies but I want them to reference the trail blazing independent characters that came beforehand and pointed to a better, smarter and more all-embracing idea of what it means to be a hero that defies easy definition and refuses to scream when the s–t hits the fan.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with a good scream. Sometimes it’s simply a reflex or the only sane response to a terrible situation but screaming also unnecessarily wastes energy and time when you’re seriously under threat. It’s also a reaction that’s essentially associated with females. When a man is caught screaming his head off or needlessly whimpering our knee-jerk reaction is to call him a “sissy” and point out how woman-like his actions are in even more derogatory terms. And although plenty of men have effectively wailed in fear on film, it’s still an area where women reign supreme and Ripley’s calm, self-assured manner in the face of extreme adversity is an exception and not the rule. So what’s my point in writing this long-winded post? I really just wanted to let you all know that you can catch Ridley Scott’s ALIEN on TCM when it airs on Jan. 25th as part of their terrific ‘70s Thrills programming. I also wanted to remind Hollywood of Barbara Gips’s warning: In space no one can hear you scream. So please give me more Ellen Ripley’s and less Ryan Stone’s.

24 Responses In space no one can hear you scream
Posted By Arthur : January 23, 2014 9:18 pm

Her femininity was also portrayed in her caring for the little girl Newt, that they found on the abandoned base. In the Director’s cut we learn that Ripley’s own daughter died after a ripe old age while Ripley was in suspended animation, and so Newt is a daughter substitute. Note how at the very end she is fighting to protect Newt from the Alien which is also female and who is fighting to avenge the death of her own “children.” Thanks for analyzing this memorable film.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 23, 2014 9:41 pm

Arthur – Thanks for the kind comment but I wanted to point out that you’re referencing James Cameron’s sequel . I’m writing about Ridley Scott’s original film, which I prefer because as I pointed out above, it doesn’t turn Ripley into a mother.

Posted By Arthur : January 23, 2014 9:59 pm

Sorry, the two films are running together in my mind, their names are so similar. (In fact, you refer to the film as ALIENS in the first paragraph.) They were both great, but those that followed were no comparison.

Posted By Dan Heaton : January 23, 2014 10:00 pm

Good points about Ripley not fitting into a specific box. She doesn’t get so lucky in the other films, and that’s one of the reasons that Alien plays so well. Ripley isn’t obviously the HERO from the start and is just a member of the crew. Sigourney Weaver didn’t even get top billing. I really like the subtle way that it doesn’t call out her being a woman yet still presents it in a matter-of-fact manner.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 23, 2014 10:02 pm

No worries, Arthur! I’m just thankful for the feedback. I did like Cameron’s sequel a lot but the original film’s a personal favorite.

Posted By Doug : January 24, 2014 12:03 am

It’s great that TCM is showing “Alien”, but I encourage all to seek out the Blu-ray set which has a great image and lots of extras.
I’m kind of amazed that some considered Ripley ‘too masculine’.
She seemed quite feminine to me, in every good way.
It’s not like Ripley was the first ‘strong’ woman to appear on film-how many entries in the “Film Noir” genre showcased strong women doing what they had to do to survive?
Kimberly, once again we agree-”Alien” is a favorite, and although “Aliens” had it’s moments, none of the sequels can touch the original. I think I’ll watch it tonight.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 24, 2014 12:21 am

Dan – I love how ALIEN unfolds without any clear “hero” signaled out at first. The death of Captain Dallas was really shocking and when Ripley rose to the occasion and became the hero of the film it was a wonderful surprise.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 24, 2014 12:28 am

Doug – Glad we can see eye-2-eye on ALIEN! It really is an amazing movie for a lot of reasons. Scott’s direction is tops, the art dierction is stunning and the cast is just terrific. And I do agree with you that there were plenty of strong women in Film Noir as well as numerous dramas but in action, science fiction and horror films women tended to play the victim and often needed rescuing. ALIEN put its female character on equal ground with the men. She carried an unconcealed weapon, barked orders at her male crew members and single-handedly saved the world from an alien invasion. That was something else altogether!

Posted By Susan Doll : January 24, 2014 1:42 am

I remember seeing this film in the theater as though it were yesterday. I remember because it scared the daylights out of me. I always know the effectiveness of a scary film by how soon I start looking at my watch. I look at my watch to calculate how many more scary scenes there might possibly be. Usually, I start looking during the last 2o or 30 minutes. With this film, I was looking at my watch in the first half hour.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 24, 2014 2:01 am

I sympathize, Susan! To this day it remains the scariest film I’ve seen in a theater during its initial release. The first time I saw it I watched most of the movie through my fingers because my hands were covering my face.

Posted By Arthur : January 24, 2014 3:26 am

Is it only me? While I really liked Alien, I preferred Aliens. Whereas Alien was a shocking horror film, Aliens was a solid action flick with great character development.

Posted By Ken : January 24, 2014 4:33 am

I really like how Alien had an ensemble of great actors, none of whom were that well known, and never made it obvious who would survive and who would die. Too many movies have one or two big stars who will obviously survive to the end, with no real suspense.

Posted By Elisabeth : January 24, 2014 5:11 am

I’ve never understood the “man with boobs” comment about Ripley, either. Ripley has always struck me as the ideal heroine because she just HAPPENS to be a woman. She is so many things before that — crew member, voice of reason, hero survivor — and none of it is connected to her gender. Ripley COULD just easily be a man. I’ve always craved more characters like her, who were scientists, soldiers, cops, chefs, whatever who just happened to be women, but who didn’t scream it in every line and action. Whenever anyone says “It’s so hard to write a female character, don’t you think?” I always say “Why can’t you just write them as a person? Why can’t you write them like a man? What’s different, really, about the way they’ll approach a job or a situation?” Maybe I’m just a weirdo. :P

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 24, 2014 5:59 am

Arthur – I really like ALIENS but ALIEN hit a lot more of my buttons and I thin it’s the better movie but I know you’re not alone. I’ve had plenty of other people tell me they prefer ALIENS.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 24, 2014 6:08 am

Ken – Agreed. The ensemble cast in ALIEN is just terrific and I love their back-and-fourth banter. And the unexpected twists & turns the story takes are still surprising today. Too many modern films treat their audience like idiots and telegraph the entire plot in the first 15-20 minutes. By the 30 min. mark I’ve already worked out the trajectory of the entire movie.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 24, 2014 6:24 am

Elisabeth – You’re not a weirdo! Or maybe we both are? I’m so tired of films that treat men and women like they’re from different planets. Call me crazy but I think we could all benefit from seeing more movies that focus on our similarities because so many of our perceived differences are based on social conditioning and societal expectations.

Posted By robbushblog : January 24, 2014 3:57 pm

Aliens is good, but Alien is great. It is the better film by far.

I think that Ryan Stone, being a scientist foremost, and going through astronaut training on the fast track, should be very scared and should scream and be emotional. This is her first time in space, she didn’t go through the regular amount of training. This is a situation that she cannot comprehend. It is totally believable that she would react in that way. I think you’re being too harsh about her reactions.

If you want to see a movie with a kick-ass heroine who is tough as nails and doesn’t get weepy or scream like a little girl, see You’re Next. That chick is awesome.

Posted By Doug : January 24, 2014 4:20 pm

Ripley and Lambert are not ‘female’ characters, Yaphet Kotto’s Parker is not a ‘black’ character-Tom Skerrit’s Dallas is a leader, but not a stereotypical one.
They are all individuals, working together.
When this film came out, I was a crew member on board a ship; I can identify with their situation. Well,except for the acid blooded Alien.
I watched this again last night;among the ‘kills’ the one that gets to me the most is Lambert, as she is frozen, trapped with the Alien right in front of her, unable to move for what seems like 30 seconds. She is so scared that she can barely let out a ‘yelp’. That felt real-Veronica Cartwright isn’t mentioned as often as some others, but she has impressed in quite a few films.
“In Space, no one can hear you scream…but you CAN smoke.”

Posted By Jay : January 24, 2014 8:36 pm

“Alien” cannot be praised enough, imo.

Discussion about character types in horror films, particularly slasher movies, has given us the “last girl.” Meta horror flicks like “Scream” or “The Cabin in the Woods” underline, italicize, and bold the role. My bet (and contribution to your appraisal of this character) is that we can trace all “last girls” to Ripley, rather than to Laurie Strode. Despite the progressive rendering of the character, in fact Ripley is the “mother” to them all.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 24, 2014 9:17 pm

Great write-up on one of my favorite films!

Ripley’s go-get-’em attidue and heroism was one of the things I always thought about when I began playing first person shooter games on the computer starting with “Doom” and “Quake” and so on. On the computer no one could tell you were a girl, although I always took a female nickname to make sure that everybody knew who they were playing because it was more fun that way and anybody could be a hero. I used to play with an online Quake clan and I think there was someone playing as “Ripley” in there — that character was inspirational!

Like you, I also loved that Ripley loved her terrific cat, and we all know there is almost no better cat than a butterscotch tabby like Jonesy! That she would not go to safety without taking him along said a lot; I volunteer at a cat shelter facility and know that many folks in much easier real-life situations take the cowardly way out and leave their felines behind. Small plot point but it spoke volumes, to me more than the obvious taking care of that little girl in the sequel. Of *course* nobody is going to abandon a kid…

I agree with robbushblog about “Gravity” and the character being primarily scientist and not astronaut and therefore possibly excused a bit more for her panic. Possibly…

“Alien” is one of those movies that if I happen to catch it on TV I will stop and watch it to the end, anytime!

The underpants thing wasn’t sexual (much) and will we ever get to the point where a woman (or man, for that matter) undressed isn’t titillating, though? Probably not in American films! :-)

Thanks again for this great personal viewpoint on this exciting film!

Posted By Doug : January 26, 2014 12:25 am

MedusaMorlock said:”…we all know there is almost no better cat than a butterscotch tabby like Jonesy!”
I have one named Nash that I generally call ‘knucklehead’. He is…opinionated and stubborn as they come. But he and his mate Natasha have done much to make this house a home.

Posted By george : January 26, 2014 2:50 am

ALIEN and ALIENS are so different, it’s hard to compare them or choose one as better than the other.

ALIEN is a haunted house movie, with the space ship as the haunted house. ALIENS is a war movie.

They’re both great movies, and I’m glad we have them both.

Posted By Arthur : January 26, 2014 6:34 pm

The director of Aliens, John Cameron, was an assistant on Galaxy of Terror (1983) which was inspired by Alien, but had more of a military, war movie, element to it. When given the opportunity to direct Aliens, the sequel to Alien, Carpenter incorporated many of the elements of Galaxy of Terror.

Going back even further, Aliens and Galaxy of Terror echo the setup, format and ambience of Thing From Another World (1954), which itself can be seen as echoing the classic tale Beowulf, warriors in a cold inhospitable environment who see their sanctuary attacked by a monster which they kill and then the mother of the monster comes for revenge. . .

Posted By Gamera2000 : February 1, 2014 5:24 am

I still remember when I first saw this at the shows with my parents back in 1979. It was one of the few horror movies, my mother ever went to see. It frankly blew me away, the imagery, the great score by Jerry Goldsmith, and the look of the alien creature. Interestingly, the scene that made me jump in my seat was not the chest burster, but the moment when John Hurt peers into the alien pod.

As far as the Alien and Aliens comparison goes, I think both are terrific films, but I think Alien haunts ones dreams.

I think that the beauty of Ripley in the first movie is that she emerges as the hero during the course of the story. The early scenes play like an ensemble piece, with a working class crew of space miners facing an unexpected horror. She remains to this day on the great female characters in any move.

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