[originally published July 1, 2010.]
Motherhood is the strangest thing, it can be like being one’s own Trojan horse
– Rebecca West
[*Entire article is a spoiler alert – if you are planning on seeing the films for the first time, watch out!] I’m watching the Alien films again. There are four films in the Alien Series (known as the Alien Legacy): Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott), Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron), Alien 3 (1992, dir. David Fincher), Alien: Resurrection (1997, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet). There are so many aspects of these films I could talk about but I choose to focus on the ‘maternal.’
I am certainly not the first person to explore the maternal theme but I do have a unique voice here. “[O]ne of the most interesting additions to the subject of family horror is Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and its first two sequels, Aliens (1986) and Alien3(1992). The idea of the family is particularly present in a distinct form in each of the three films, as is the theme of motherhood.” (Full Sail University Online) There is a contemporary / anniversary edition box-set of the films with director commentary, special editions and a director cut. (cool!)
So, the first film establishes the maternal theme. The ship’s main computer is called ‘mother.’ On the foreign world eggs are discovered. The life-form that first attacks, impregnates the male human host with a deadly off-spring. It rips through the chest in a birthing analogy. Ripley, in a very maternal manner, saves a cat from the ship’s imminent destruction.
Ripley – our sexy, tough, mother-figure hero. “Ellen Ripley is a fictional character and the main protagonist of the Alien film series. She is played by the American actress Sigourney Weaver.” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia) She has been appropriated by gender specialists. Basically, she kicks ass.
Make no mistake about it. It’s very important to maintain a status-quo in this franchise so our female hero is made maternal and so is the beast. We contextualize “difference” by normalizing. “Science fiction films have become the genre of post modernity and its representation of futuristic worlds, inhabited by cyborgs, aliens and monsters. They highlight the constructed otherness of identity and through the focus on difference, sci-fi challenges the known and accepted categories of identity.” (University of Leicester). We can be scared but we’re safe in contextualizing. We all have mothers after all. Heroes or beasts.
All of the films keep Ripley in her proper place by aligning her with the maternal.
In Aliens, Ripley wakes up to find that she has been in suspended animation for 57 years. Her biological daughter had died in her mid 60s. She meets Rebecca/Newt who is approximately the same age as her biological daughter was when Ripley left – around 10. Ripley becomes Newt’s surrogate mother. Newt’s biological mother was killed by an Alien. Ripley’s new foster daughter, like her, is a survivor. While a biological link is absent there is a connection in sensibility.
Newt asks Ripley if the Alien bursting through the chest is like humans giving birth. Newt also asks Ripley if she has children. Ripley never laments over a husband, boyfriend or partner. We can assume she was a single mother – a role that she continues to manifest. “The battles with the Aliens are interesting if we consider them in terms of motherhood. When Newt is captured by an Alien and taken back to the nest, Ripley is compelled to find and rescue Newt. This situation must be reminiscent of Ripley’s loss of her own daughter (refer to Aliens – Director’s Cut) and serves to reinforce both her attachment to the sole survivor on the colony world LV-426 and her determination to carry out her promise to find her if they became separated … In the final battle scene with mama Alien, Ripley’s motherly instincts remain and she defends her daughter by transforming herself into a cyborg. When the Alien mama is destroyed, Newt accepts Ripley as her mother and refers to her as “mommy”, rather than Ripley…” (University of Leicester)
The Queen Alien is called “mom” by a marine. Ripley incinerates her eggs after Newt is abducted. We can assume this is revenge – Ripley is going to blow-up the plant anyhow. At the end of the film Newt calls Ripley “Mommy.” In your face much?
In Alien 3, “Newt is killed when the EEV crash lands on Fury 161. To check for the possibility of an Alien, Ripley asks medical officer Clemens to perform an autopsy on Newt’s body. During the procedure and later during the cremation of Newt and Hicks’ bodies, Ripley is clearly distressed and obviously misses her ‘nuclear-family’.” (University of Leicester)
In Alien 3 the doctor who finds the shuttle-wrecked Ripley on a prison world asks if the dead Newt was her daughter. In a forlorn manner Ripley she says no.
The birthing metaphor is continued. Just as the humans are cremated an alien is born.
Rosi Braidotti said “Science fiction represents alternative systems of procreation and birth, ranging from the rather child-like image of babies born out of cauliflowers, to monstrous births through unmentionable orifices.” (Womb Invasion) An Alien, bursting through the chest is a horror-birth.
Ripley discovers she is carrying an Alien Queen inside of her. “In Alien 3, the Alien won’t destroy Ripley, as it knows Ripley is its species future (ie nurturing the unborn Alien Queen). The Alien is now the protector of Ripley yet it continues to kill the prisoners – whom it views as a threat to both itself and the unborn Alien Queen. Ripley’s role reversal and transformation to mother /destroyer is complete when she sacrifices herself to destroy the xenomorph growing inside her. (ie Ripley is essentially the Mother of the unborn Alien Queen infant).” (University of Leicester)
She is now a potential mother and rather than unleashing the monstrous offspring on humans, she kills herself. She is finally a mother and martyr.
The end – maybe.
The franchise continues with Alien: Resurrection written by Joss Whedon and with Winona Ryder – interesting…
- I thought you were dead.
- I get that a lot.
Ripley is cloned: “As for Ripley, she is no longer the do-good-motherhood heroine of Alien-films past. With her genetic make-up a scrambling of human and alien genes, she possesses great strength, acidic blood, and a sense of connection to the aliens. Yet at the same time, she is instinctively repulsed by the aliens and unsure of her purpose. Yes, the new Ripley may be physically superior, but she is also emotionally vulnerable.” (Alien Resurrection Movie Review)
In the following this dialog takes place:
- And in a few hours, it’s gonna burst its way through your rib cage and you’re gonna die. Any questions?
- Who are you?
- I’m the monster’s mother.
So ‘difference’ – the monstrous, the un-wed and childless female – is contained, contextualized and re-absorbed. In my book You Never Know: A Memoir I say; “Difference is something that most people avoid. Fitting in becomes a goal. Personally, I think difference is valuable. It is the “same” that irks me. Variation is not the same as inconsistency. One can be incredibly multi-tonal and consistent.” (Shiller, You Never Know: A Memoir, p. 23.)
Alien vs. Predator (2004, Dir. Paul WS Anderson) – “The film was released on August 13, 2004, in North America and received mostly negative reviews from film critics. Some praised the special effects and set designs, while others dismissed the film for its “wooden dialogue” and “cardboard characters”. Nevertheless, Alien vs. Predator was a commercial success, grossing over $172 million against its $60 million production budget. The film’s success led to a sequel in 2007 titled Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007, Dir. Colin Strause) – “Warring alien and predator races descend on a small town, where unsuspecting residents must band together for any chance of survival.” (The Internet Movie Database) – attest to the popularity and longevity of the series.
Alien Resurrection Movie Review, Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997
Accessed May 30, 2010.
Full Sail University Online, “Motherhood and the Other: A Comparative Look at Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3.”
Accessed May 30, 2010.
Shiller, Romy. You Never Know: A Memoir. Victoria, BC: Trafford. 2008.
The Internet Movie Database.
Accessed June 1, 2010.
University of Leicester. GENDER [/alien vs. ripley...] “GENDER, TECHNOLOGY AND REPRESENTATION IN THE ALIEN LEGACY.”
Accessed May 30, 2010.
Accessed May 30, 2010.
Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online.