This March, it’s all about girls girls girls, as MNL Film Club celebrates films with femme fatales, and not just of the noir variety. They are sassy and smart, and they will punch you in the face it will feel awesome. Above all, they’re females who laugh and cry, who may be vindictive, or insecure or shy, sword-wielding and ass-kicking or just downright crazy: they’re realistic portrayals of women in an art form where women are fetishized and highly objectified.
A science-fiction movie with a female actress in the lead role did not seem possible at all until Alien was released back in 1979 and its sequel, Aliens, in 1986.
The movies narrate the story of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley as she flies in outer space and kills the extra-terrestrial beings that invade her spaceship. In the Ridley Scott-directed movie Alien, Ripley had to face unidentified creatures which accidentally got into her ship and slaughtered her other crew members, one of which by the way, is an android posing as a human being. Ripley and her crew learned that the aliens need human bodies in order for them to reproduce. The crew members scrambled to their feet to save themselves, but unfortunately for them, the situation went from bad to worse. To cut the long story short, after all her comrades have perished, Ripley activated the ship’s self-destruct feature which killed all aliens in the ship but one, and narrowly escaped via a small space shuttle where she will stay for 57 long years.
In its James Cameron-directed sequel Aliens, Ripley was rescued after drifting in outer space for 57 years while in stasis. Because of her previous encounter with the third kind, Ripley was tapped by the United States government to go on a mission to kill all living aliens in outer space. Once in the planet, Ripley discovered that the real purpose of her mission is to gather enough alien specimens to the Earth in order to be studied. Of course Ripley wants to be off the mission and go back home immediately but — spoiler alert! — the aliens have already hijacked the spaceship and killed some of her crew members. In the end, Ripley slayed the aliens pursuing them, including their queen, and saved two other persons before heading back to Earth.
*Caveat: Now let us all pretend that Aliens 3 and 4 did not happen because frankly, they are unworthy and ugly sequels. As such, when I say Alien series, I am referring only to the first two films of the franchise.
The Alien series stands out precisely because unlike the previous testosterone-filled sci-fi movies, it never subjugated its women characters into secondary roles. Women are not only ornamental; they can kick asses too, even if those asses belong to phallic-shaped extra-terrestrial beings whose reproductive instincts and urge to kill are beyond control.
But what really makes the Alien series great is that it represents and reflects a much larger social scenario. The movies actually chronicle the story of how women are running away from male supremacy a.k.a. patriarchy and its single most vile tool for oppression — rape. The movies are replete with not-so-subtle symbols that point out to this conclusion, starting with the shape of the alien’s head and its predatory nature.
By having a woman character run away from and fight against these creatures that look like oversized dildos, it represents women who resist rape, women who stand up for themselves and women who try to get as far away as they could from a society that condones and even promotes oppression and misogyny.
Perhaps that is why Ridley Scott and James Cameron have been hailed as two of the world’s greatest and most successful directors of all time. They understood that women should not only be treated as supporting characters in a story. They know that women are in possession of great characterizations that can be made and translated into interesting stories.
After their stint in the Alien series, the two still produced movies featuring kickass women in the lead — Scott made Prometheus and Thelma & Louise while Cameron had Titanic and Avatar — all of which earned critical acclaim and two of which were even declared the highest-grossing film of all time at some point during their theatrical run. Not bad for female-driven movies, eh?
Aside from its social and political undertones, the Alien series succeeds as outstanding sci-fi movies because they are two great movies themselves. The special effects used were groundbreaking during their time, the premise was fresh and still unspoiled, the writing was impeccable, the cinematography was superb, and all the other details in the movie came together in the end.
But you know this review wouldn’t be complete without me devoting a paragraph or two to the heroine of the film, right? Right. So let’s talk about the incomparable Sigourney Weaver. Weaver, who at that time was relatively just a newcomer to the entertainment industry, was as compelling as she was stunning. Ellen Ripley was tough but she was vulnerable too, she will fight aliens but she will allow herself to cry if she feels like it: she is the epitome of a woman you would not want to mess with, especially if both of you were in outer space and being pursued by aliens. Weaver captured those qualities almost perfectly; she is the right casting choice for what would be the biggest sci-fi heroine in history and nobody could refute that.
When Alien was released, Weaver received widespread critical acclaim for her gripping performance. When the sequel was released, Weaver’s peers eventually noticed her prowess and gave her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress — the first ever recognition the Academy has given to an actress who stars in a sci-fi film. This feat was only followed this year when Sandra Bullock was nominated in the lead actress category for Gravity (lost to Cate Blanchett). For being the poster girl for feminized sci-fi, achieving rare feats, shattering stereotypes and starring in other sci-fi movies, Weaver earned the title “Queen of Science Fiction” and not even Zoe Saldana, the reigning “Science Fiction Princess” can take it away from her.
The Alien series has revolutionized the sci-fi movie genre for good by introducing another dimension to the audience and providing a sharp feminist critique on how our society treats its women.
More than 30 years after it was first shown, the series still ranks as some of the best movies of all time. Unfortunately, its feminist critique is still applicable today.