HAIRCUT 100: Day 95, No. 95. Ripley in ALIEN3 (1992), as played by the beautiful Sigourney Weaver. Did you really think I’d forgotten her? For shame. Granted, I’m betraying my age and inclinations here, but I did warn you a pattern might emerge, in my case cult movies from the eighties and nineties. What can I say? That’s the wind beneath my wings. Make your own damn list! Anyway, in a dark and radical change of direction following the exuberance of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), bleak stylist David Fincher totally pressed the reset button on this one. Critical opinion remains divided – and Fincher himself can’t stand the film, citing constant producer-interference – but if ALIEN3 is a franchise misfire then it’s a fascinating one, and an obvious preface to the gothic claustrophobia of the debut director’s subsequent nineties masterpieces Seven and Fight Club. In negating the upbeat resolution of Cameron’s previous instalment, Fincher makes the right move by shocking his audience from the outset and isolating his protagonist. With the other survivors still in play, it would have been difficult to avoid just remaking Aliens, although that’s no doubt what the studio wanted.
When the Sulaco escape pod crash lands, Ripley finds herself stranded on a dead planet housing a penal colony. Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161 is populated by a religious cult of former murderers and rapists and their guards, all living in a largely decommissioned ore refinery where women are not allowed. (Mise-en-scènically, this decaying industrial setting recalls Peter Hyam’s stark reimagining of High Noon in space, Outland, and the TV show Red Dwarf). The inmates live an essentially monastic existence, led by the charismatic and evangelical Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), their heads shaved because of lice rather than piety (so the entire cast of this movie is bald). In an oddly sensual scene, the disgraced alcoholic base medic, Clemens (Charles Dance), shaves Ripley’s head before dying horribly at the hands of the latest alien, a dog hybrid. The alien spares Ripley, and with a growing sense of horror, she begins to suspect she may be carrying one… The climax of the movie is a ‘bait-and-chase’ plan by which the prisoners lure the dog-alien to the foundry’s molding press through a series of tight and gloomy corridors with the hope of drowning it in molten lead. The extended chase scene is often likened to a demented episode of Scooby-Doo Where Are You? but is nonetheless tense and effective on its own terms, while the denouement leaves us with more bodies than Hamlet and a lingering sense of the darkness of the void and the futility of existence, which sets us up nicely for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection.
Weaver’s interpretation of the role was, as ever, impeccable, surprising us again, developing the character and retaining her essence. Everything about Ripley challenges gender stereotyping, especially in genre film. As critic John Scalzi wrote: ‘Ripley isn’t a fantasy version of a woman. Science fiction film is filled with hot kickass women doing impossible things with guns and melee weapons while they spin about like a gymnast in a dryer. As fun as that is to watch, at the end of the day it’s still giving women short shrift, since what they are then are idealized killer fembots rather than actual human beings. Ripley, on the other hand, is pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, not wearing makeup, tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself.’ Ripley is probably one of the most significant female protagonists in cinema. When I’m teaching this stuff, and we get around to discussing powerful and authentic women in film, I can guarantee she’ll be the first name fielded by seminar students, and quite rightly so. ‘You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.’