February is women in horror month. It sounds like a great excuse for me to catch up on seeing a ton of horror movies and also revisit some of my favorites. So you can expect to see at least a few entries from me this month all about the bad ass women in horror movies.
My first pick is a chance for me to talk about one of my most favorite movie characters of all time. I suppose some would try to argue that Aliens isn't horror, but I assure you as a child I have very distinct memories of being unable to watch this movie from fear, and quite possibly screaming at a certain point on The Great Movie Ride in Disney World. Of course now the xenomorphs are one of my all time favorite monsters.
I personally prefer the more suspenseful Alien to Aliens, which is more of a straight action movie. That isn't to say the film isn't good. I made the mistake of watching the director's cut the first time I saw it, which made the movie seem to drag a lot more than necessary. The original theatrical cut does still have a slow build - it is almost exactly one hour before we see the full grown aliens for the first time, but a lot of the build up provides us with a lot of mythology and a deeper understanding of what is going on with this series, so I think it's worth it. Aliens is also I think the strongest of the films in terms of Ripley's character and therefore the best pick for Women in Horror month.
As the film begins, the shuttle craft Ripley escaped with in Alien is being found, 57 years later. Ripley wakes up to a world that has advanced a bit from last she knew it and seems to be full of jerks. None of them are willing to believe her story about the alien creature, especially since a terra forming colony has been on the planet for quite awhile now. The only person who is moderately interested is Carter Burke (played excellently by Paul Reiser) and that's just because he's hoping to make some money off the whole thing. Ripley is plagued by nightmares of her experience. When Burke asks her to join a team that is investigating the lack of contact from the terra forming colony, she originally says no, but soon realizes that the best way to make the dreams go away is to rid the universe of these creatures for once and for all.
If you're going to make any criticism of this film, I'd say it's that nearly all the males in it are idiots. Corporal Hicks seems to be the only one with any amount of intelligence and decency - I'm also excluding Bishop because he is a synthetic and not an actual man. While it's great to see so many strong female characters, I'm not sure we had to see them at the expense of men. One of the great things about the first film is that it treats all the male and female characters as equals. Unfortunately that's not what's going on here.
Regardless, Ripley is largely the only one in the film who knows exactly what is going on and the best way to handle things. When the Lieutenant guiding the squad of marines basically falls to pieces, Ripley takes charge. When nearly all the marines are dead and Corporal Hicks is severely injured, Ripley doesn't hesitate to go back into the virtual hornet's nest to rescue Newt.
One of the things this movie does right, and I think credit goes to both Sigourney Weaver and James Cameron for this, is that Ripley does keep a sense of femininity while also being really tough and strong. She has fears and she shows her emotions, but when it matters most she finds the strength to do what needs to be done, and that makes her a truly strong hero. One element I learned from the director's cut that I think should have remained in the film is the knowledge that Ripley was in fact a mother, and that her daughter died in that long period while she was in hypersleep. It really helps you understand her motivations when it comes to taking care of Newt.
Newt herself is a pretty strong female character - she managed to outlive every other person on the colony and escape from the aliens until Ripley and the marines arrived. She even guides them through the tunnels to escape toward the end. It really is a crime that they chose to kill her character off at the beginning of Alien 3. I think they could have done great things with her had they taken the series in a different direction.
Of course, there is one other really strong female character in this film, and no, I'm not talking about Vasquez. As much as I enjoyed seeing a female marine who was tougher than pretty much all her compatriots, Vasquez isn't much more than a stereotype in the film and therefore doesn't count to me. No, I'm talking about big bad Momma(as I like to call her), the alien queen.
I think one of the reasons I can't help but love these monsters is that they can't help what they are - they are doing what they need to do to survive. As Ripley torched the mass of eggs laying in front of the queen, I found myself shouting, "You're killing all her babies!" The queen is just doing what she was born to do - lay eggs. She can't help that the continuation of her species requires another species to serve as a host. Her drones are also playing their part, gathering up more human hosts so that more of their brothers can be born. When Ripley destroys all the eggs and most of the drones, Momma takes matters into her own hands and seeks her revenge. She is just as strong a female as Ripley is, and a simple twist of luck could have resulted in her winning that final match. In a way, Momma did ultimately win this battle - we just don't realize it until Alien 3.
While the series was ultimately squandered by the studio (check the wikipedia entry on Alien 3 if you want to see what can happen to make a movie go so very wrong) I think all 4 films are great as a character study - Ripley continues to grow and evolve throughout all of them. There is a prequel currently in development and I'm glad to say that the current plan does not involve Ripley. It wouldn't make any sense for her to be there. Hopefully though it will still feature as least one strong female hero.