Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Motherhood is primal. The tiny seed that impregnates itself in a woman’s body – feeding off her nutrients and life blood with parasitic fervour, tearing its way to freedom nine months later – inflicts justifiable disfigurement to body and brain, fertilising a new mother’s mind with an insatiable need to protect the life it has divulged. It’s a need that never falters; it’s neither fickle nor fleeting but is ferocious, which is why when Ellen Ripley commands “Get away from her, you BITCH!” in Aliens (1986), the soul of every observing mother ululates exultantly. The pulsating, slime slobbering Queen xenomorph that was about to make a masochistic meal of seven-year-old Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jordan is meted out a deathly lashing by the film’s heroine, who, bedecked in the protective metal of an exosuit cargo-loader, expels said bitch through the ship airlock into outer space.

A mother’s instinct to protect is a ruthless, intuitive thing that would dive in front of a bullet or offer a kidney without thought. Science knows it as ‘maternal aggression’ – a motherly assault that protects offspring from harm. A mum knows it as the rising fury that threatens to rip the head off any human (or other) threatening the welfare of her child – woe to any playground attendee who unbalances the status quo with ill-mannered running, wayward sand or impatient pushes under the beady eye of all-seeing mum. Perhaps director Ridley Scott did not have this exact scenario in mind when he was figuring out how to scare the world into frenzied hysteria with the art of cinema and some fiendish extraterrestrials in a horror-sci-fi extravaganza of death and destruction, but what he did do was set the world up for the evolution of Ellen Ripley into one bad-ass momma bear.

Something that Sigourney Weaver is sure to adopt and adapt as she readies to reprise her role as Ripley in Alien 5, already written and soon-to-be directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9Elysium and Chappie). But it all started 36 years ago on a futuristic spaceship, with a crew fretting to escape the pharyngeal jaws of H.R Giger’s (1940-2014) biomechanical monster. Scott’s Alien (1979) introduced Ripley as warrior-heroine; the girl with balls big enough to save the world. Script writer Dan O-Bannon (who co-wrote Alien with Ronald Sushett) fictionalised the sexual imagery implicated in Giger’s genitalia-inspired artwork in an overt and intentional manner, stating “… I’m going to attack [the audience] sexually… I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.” With pluck and perceptiveness, Ripley escapes most manner of alien-inflicted penetration and violation, and she does it without being overshadowed by Giger’s acid-bleeding monstrosities, earning herself not only an Academy Award nomination for her role in Aliens – but a place in popular culture’s annals of fame.

Ripley’s maternal instincts are shown to be an integral part of who she is as both survivor and protector

What alien-busting Ellen Ripley has done for women is iconic not only in film but in life. By challenging gender roles she gave stereotype an almighty beat-down, scoring a never-ending supply of goals for Team Feminism but she also did more than that; she gave a rip-roaring shout out to motherhood in a way that cinema has not been able to replicate with the same visceral intensity or metaphoric brutality resonated by the Alien films. What Ridley Scott started in 1979 director James Cameron continued in first sequel Aliens. It’s in this film that Ripley’s maternal instincts are shown to be an integral part of who she is as both survivor and protector. In Alien, Ripley’s misplaced maternal instincts (as she hurries off in search of the ship’s resident cat Jonesy) save her from certain death-by-alien and in Aliens cat becomes daughter, in the form of Newt whose family and colony have been wiped out by the film’s nemesis. Ripley risks everything to protect her surrogate daughter, as any mother would, and by the end of the film Newt is calling Ripley “mommy.”

One of the film’s most memorable scenes is a stand-off between Ripley and big-momma-alien, in which Ripley threatens to kill big-momma’s million-strong mass of soggy-egg-offspring with flamethrower awesomeness, and big-momma backs off. The interplay is poignant because there seems to be a level of understanding between Ripley and momma-alien, mother to mother – both mums exercising their maternal aggression. Ripley destroys the nest anyway – being the sensible thing to do – and big-momma, following horror convention by not dying against all logical odds, returns with vengeance, picking on what she knows and understands to be Ripley’s weak point, Newt. Of course, she’s no match for Ripley but the mother-to-mother interaction that somehow binds heroine and fiend introduces an irony into the mythology, whereby the innate ‘foreignness’ derived by the concept ‘alien’ is undermined by the metaphoric similarity suggested by the implied affinity resonating between Ripley and momma-alien.

By the time Alien Resurrection (film number four) rolls on by, the metaphor has become something quite literal, with the debut of an alien/sapien or human/xenomorph, born as a by-product of corrupted cloning experiments conducted by scientists of the United Systems Military. And the theme looks to continue; concept drawings released by Alien 5’s Niell Blomkamp show Ripley distorted into something xenomorphic, insinuating that the impending sequel is ready to step it up a level in its reiteration of the idea that primal instincts draw us closer to, rather than separate us from, the aliens around us; human or other. Not that Ripley has anything more to prove but, hell, there’s no doubt she’ll have more to say and when there’s a world begging to listen, why not?

More in Regulars