Ripley as a Superhero Fighting The Queen in Aliens (1986)
Aliens is a 1986 science-fiction horror film about a return to an alien-infested planet that has overwhelmed a mining colony, forcing a squad of space marines to try and save them. A box office hit and critical-acclaimed, it is considered one of the most influential films in the genre. It also has one of the best kick-ass superhero moments in movie history.
A sequel to the landmark horror film Alien (1979), Aliens follows the first film’s lead character, Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) return to Earth, only to head back to LV-426, the planet where the first alien was discovered. Colonists there are not responding to communications due to the swarm of Xenomorphs that have overrun the facility and so the company sends Colonial Marines to try and wipe out the creatures, but discover they are outmatched by the acid-blood, hive-like monsters. Big surprise.
As they scramble for safety and plan to escape, they find a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), the only survivor of the entire colony. She’s managed to survive on her own and takes an immediate liking to Ripley, who herself becomes a surrogate mother. And if you’re in need of a mother in times of face-hugging, alien swarming peril, Ripley is choice number 1. She manages to keep Newt alive when the worst of it comes, and in the process, pisses off a very big Xenomorph queen. That happens when you bring a flame thrower to a room full of monster eggs.
And so we come to this film’s climax, and as such, if by some reason you’ve not seen it, be warned, major spoilers ahead. Seriously, this is basically a breakdown of the final scene. It goes like this: Ripley has rescued Newt from the compound, and along with Bishop (Lance Henrikson), an advanced human-like android, make it back to the orbiting space ship, barely escaping a massive nuclear blast from the failed power core on the planet. Unfortunately, the Queen mother of the beasts has stowed aboard and is not too happy about the events on the planet, having seen many of her eggs incinerated by Ripley. Time for a showdown. The alien heads for Newt first. Strapping herself into a massive re-enforced exo-suit cargo-loader though, Ripley emerges into the loading bay as the alien nears the unprotected child and calls out to the frightful monster with the now legendary: “Get away from her, you bitch!” There you go. Movie magic. Let’s talk about it.
Written and directed by James Cameron, the entire film is a study in pacing and controlled tension. Cameron has always been best at setting up his action, and here, he stages the final exo-suit loader sequence with an earlier scene, tying the two together. In that first moment, we witness Ripley attempting to prove her worth on the transport ship before it heads to space, strapping into the suit and deftly using its precision-controlled operation to move cargo in the hold. It’s a brief scene but serves two points: a) we are introduced to the device, its power, and abilities while b) we see that Ripley is already a skilled operator. It feels a bit unnecessary as we first see it, our brains more in anticipation of the slimy monsters soon to come. Oh, how little do we know.
This seemingly innocuous moment very specifically plants a familiarity in the audience so that when the loader comes round again, we don’t need to know what or why it is there. We’ve seen it in action and more so, with the resourceful Ripley at the controls. Cameron can now get straight to the action and not worry about credibility, having already established what the unit is and how it works. It’s fighting time. But even with this yellow mechanical weapon at her disposal, make no mistake, this is Ripley all the way. Yes, she’s in a giant metal punching machine, but here is a woman of exceptional human perseverance. We’ve just sat through an already lengthy set-piece back on the planet, where Ripley went Rambo (if you’ll excuse the introduction of an entirely separate film franchise) on the queen.
Now, dressed up in a big yellow suit, the already empowered female character, basically becomes a superhero in a fight that pits her against a far more aggressive villain. What Cameron cleverly does is mirror the beast with the machine, giving the exo-suit exaggerated clasping fingers, like the Queen, lots of sinewy cables and fluids, like the Queen, and even a deadly spray up near the headpiece that shoots blue fire, similar to the secondary mouth that shoots out acid-laced teeth from the creature.
But how ’bout that famous line? It might seem a throwaway bit just to give Ripley something cool to say, but it actually bears a lot more significance. Ripley’s taunt is a carefully-worded command that implies possession, declaring ownership over Newt, a child that is and has been hunted by the queen’s minions without success. By calling the hideous alien “bitch,” Ripley humanizes the monster and establishes, for the first time, a move toward dominance. Ripley’s presence is now larger than life, a hero given super status, costumed and attributed with special abilities and powers. It’s gripping to watch.
But there’s more. Notice the sound design in the moment. There is no music during the entire battle, only the hissing and howls of the monster matched by the mechanical whirs and whines of the machine she is fighting. One constantly echoes the other. It adds an almost guttural element to the struggle, mixed with Ripley’s periodic howls of ferocity as she wages a one-on-one war with a harrowing monster of nightmarish proportions. Ripley takes the fight to the queen and in so doing, donning the exo-suit, completes the final step in transforming herself into the hero. It’s a brilliant moment.