Ripley, the protagonist of Alien, is hard to separate from Ripley the protagonist of the Alien franchise. The character has changed with each new movie, but we're going to do our best to put away Ripley the pop culture icon and look at the character as if we were coming to this film for the first time. So, when we meet her for the first time, we meet her as just one of seven crew-members—one who's got a lot of acting to do before she proves herself to be the protagonist.
It's a Man's World
Ripley is the warrant officer aboard the Nostromo, making her third in command behind Dallas and Kane. Officer or not, she's still a woman a man's world—and this is a man's world circa 1979, not the 21st century's paradise of gender equality. (Snort.) (No, but seriously—things were different in 1979, even though it might not seem like a long time ago.)
What that means for Ripley is that she's always at risk of being undermined or talked over. As Roz Kaveney points out, "the film can be read as feminist … in its anxieties that a woman like Ripley, who passes as equal in a male-arranged world, will always be at risk of being betrayed or threatened" (source).
Take the scene when the away party returns. Dallas orders Ripley to let them on the ship, but Ripley refuses:
Ripley: What kind of thing. I need a clear definition.
Dallas: An organism. Open the hatch.
Ripley: Wait a minute. If we let it in the ship could be infected. You know quarantine procedure. 24 hours for decontamination.
Dallas: He could die in 24 hours. Open the hatch.
Ripley: Listen to me. If we break quarantine, we could all die.
Lambert: Would you open the goddamn hatch? We have to get him inside!
Ripley: No, I can't do that, and if you were in my position, you'd do the same. (Alien)
Here, Ripley is doing her job like a boss, making the right decision no matter how hard it is, and Dallas and Lambert are mansplaining their faces off, ignoring the fact that she's correctly following protocol.
In fact, Dallas has a pesky habit of disregarding Ripley. When the facehugger turns up dead, Ripley suggests to Dallas that they dump the thing, but Ash pushes for them to keep it for study. Dallas, of course, listens to Ash. When Ripley follows him, she has to shut a door in his way to get him to listen to her. She tells him about her misgivings over Ash, but Dallas remarks, "Standard procedure is to do what the hell [the Company] tell[s] you to do" (Alien).
Bet you wish you'd listened to her now, Dallas.
Dallas isn't the only one who doesn't like to listen to one of the only women on board, either. When Kane appears on the ship with the alien, Ash disobeys Ripley's order and admits the away team, saying later that he "forgot" that Ripley is the senior officer when Dallas and Kane are off-ship. Oops.
Okay, sure, Ash is ignoring her command because he has a secret mission requiring him to get the alien aboard, and maybe Dallas is just insecure about his own command. We grant you that it's possible to read these conflicts differently.
But what about Parker and Brett's harassment of Ripley when she comes to check on their work? And what about the fact that men are traditionally associated with roles of command? And what about the fact that, before Alien, women in science fiction were mostly relegated to being rescued in skimpy costumes? Given all this, Ripley's struggle to make her voice heard as a woman in a traditionally male dominated social structure is key to understanding her character—not to mention the fact that a certain murder-a-thon could have been prevented had she been listened to in the first place.
But It Would Mean Nothing (Without a Woman's Touch)
Once the alien kills Dallas, Ripley takes command … and starts taking names. Her first move is to gather everyone into a room and determine their next course of action. Parker wants to kill the alien like yesterday, Lambert wants to beat feet in the shuttle, and Ash is silent.
In her first act of command, Ripley manages to keep the obviously fragmenting group together. She soothes Lambert's frayed nerves and prevents Parker from acting irrationally, allowing her time to think.
Ripley: We'll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered and then we'll blow it the f*** out into space. Is that acceptable to you?
Parker: If it means killing it.
Ripley: Obviously it means killing it, but we have to stick together. (Alien)
That last line is crucial, because it shows Ripley not only taking command but reminding the crew that they have to work as a group. Notice the cinematography in this scene. The framing splinters the crew, each distant from the others. Lambert never shares the frame with another character. Ash keeps his back turned to the others, not even turning when to speak with Ripley. Parker keeps his distance in the background. These visual hints tell us that the group is fragmented, and Ripley's position in the center of the group is the only thing keeping them together.
Ripley doesn't just lead by consensus, though. She's also willing to what Dallas isn't and use Mother to discover Ash's secret mission. After realizing that Ash is a robot and that they have no hope against the alien, Ripley decides on a new plan:
Ripley: We're going to blow up the ship. We'll take our chances in the shuttle.
Blow up the ship.
Parker: Good. (Alien)
Again, pay attention to the framing of this scene. Parker not only agrees with Ripley's plan, but they share the center of the frame, each looking at the other at eye level. The camera is telling us that Parker has finally accepted Ripley as the leader. He even tells her to take care of herself when she goes on her own to prep the shuttle. Nice guy!
These camera angles help tell us that Ripley hasn't just been given command due to her rank. She's earned command for being a strong leader who earns the respect of her crew. Well, the rest of the crew that's still alive, that is.
Okay, we know Ripley isn't a girl. What we're talking about here is the Final Girl Trope. Basically, the final girl is the last survivor of a horror movie. She's usually a teenage girl, and she's usually brunette—since slashers prefer blondes. Sorry, Lambert.
When Alien debuted, the Final Girl Trope was still in the process of becoming a staple of the genre. Halloween, Black Christmas, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all had final girls before Alien, and people have argued about whether Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho truly has a final girl (source). Either way, the trope was new enough when Ripley went against the alien that she survives for reasons beyond her brown hair and XX chromosomes. Martin Flanagan tells us why:
Only Ripley, who is prepared initially to sacrifice Kane to ensure the safety of the entire crew, and who shows the greatest command of the situation when the alien begins its genetically programmed killing spree, is entirely without blemish. In the logic of a horror film, this ensures her survival. (source)
As viewers, we're outsiders who can see her good qualities right away. We know Ripley is right when it comes to not admitting Kane; we know she's right to question the Company and Ash. Unfortunately for Ripley's crew members, they don't listen to her until it's too late.
She's All That
Flanagan also tells us that "those who die in Alien seem to do so as punishment for some deviant or unsatisfactory facet of their personality—another recognizable trait of the horror film" (ibid). By that logic, Ripley survives because she doesn't have those flaws. Let's get totally judgmental and consider her crew-mates and their faults for a second:
- Dallas makes poor decisions while under pressure and follows the Company's orders even when he shouldn't.
- Ash is uncaring and puts his orders and self-interest before others, even at the cost of their suffering and deaths. (So it's kind of in his programming; he's not getting a pass just because of that.)
- Lambert can't contain her emotions and they overcome her ability to act.
- Brett is too complacent and just goes along with what others tell him (even to his death).
- Parker is courageous but overly aggressive and doesn't stop to think before he acts. Exhibit A: Attacking the alien with fists and screams.
- Kane is curious but a little too foolhardy. Seriously, why would you touch that obviously menacing alien egg, guy?
- Jonesy is a cat and as such is only out for himself. Enough said. (He only survives because audiences hate it when you kill the animal.)
Ripley's character provides counterbalance to the faults of her crew. Unlike Dallas, she makes the correct decision when it comes to Kane and in not trusting Ash. Unlike Lambert, Ripley never lets her emotions override her ability to act. Unlike Parker, she balances her domineering personality with the ability to think before acting. Unlike Ash, Ripley considers the needs and lives of others when determining her motivations and morality.
And unlike Jonesy, Ripley is not a cat.
Only Ripley combines everyone's good qualities in a mix potent enough to go toe-to-toe with the alien. She's the very best that humanity has to offer. When she faces the alien in the shuttle, all of Ripley's best characteristics come into play. She stays calm under pressure, uses her intelligence to devise a plan, courageously straps herself into the chair, acts when it is necessary all while not being a cat.
The end result is one dead alien.
At least, we think it's dead. Maybe it's just floating around in space being super, super cheesed about being shot out of an engine into the vacuum of space. (Given that there are innumerable sequels and spin-offs, we're going to go out on a limb and say that it's not really over.)