In the years since the 1979 debut of director Ridley Scott’s Alien, the storied science fiction franchise has continued on through many different incarnations. And while its central monster has become one of the most recognizable faces of terror in popular culture, there are many more elements beyond the Xenomorph creature that propel this film franchise. Most specifically, it is the role of sexuality and femininity with the Alien series that gave rise to its greatest triumphs, darkest terrors, and most haunting themes.
Ideas of sexual violation, the strength of motherhood, and bodily transformation are all at play in both main protagonist Ellen Ripley and the terrifying monsters she must battle. While these are found in their finest form with Alien and its 1986 sequel Aliens, they play out to lesser and often less successful degrees within most of the films that follow. With Alien focusing most intently on sexuality and Aliens centered on motherhood, these two science fiction classics create a powerful screen duo that still resonates three decades later. At the center of it all is Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, a powerful survivor of the worst horrors to be found in the universe and a woman whose femininity is at the center of her strength.
But it all starts with writer Dan O’Bannon’s concept for Alien. During his work on the failed film adaptation of Dune by Alejandro Jodorowsky, O’Bannon was exposed to the art of H.R. Giger. Giger’s art centered most often on hauntingly sexual and alien imagery that was both terrifying and beautiful. It was this art that gave O’Bannon the inspiration for Star Beast, which would eventually become Alien. In that time, O’Bannon created the story of an alien monster that stowed aboard a space vessel by being implanted into a crew member. While the film would go through multiple rewrites, that central concept would remain in place. However, the inclusion of Giger into the designs of the film, including its monster, and the direction of Ridley Scott would bring the concepts of sexual violation and body horror to the forefront of Alien.
Violating Terror from Outer Space
In execution, Alien plays quite similar to a classic haunted house film, trapping its protagonists in a massive yet inescapable location with an inscrutable monster that terrorizes and kills them one by one. But Alien has much more on its mind than simple thrills, even though these are executed with the utmost skill. The terror of the Xenomorph comes from the cold depths of outer space, found upon a derelict spaceship. But its introduction to the crew of the Nostromo space mining vessel is through vicious violation of crew member Kane. Born from one of many leathery, slimy, massive eggs, a crawling spider-like facehugger latches onto Kane’s face, ramming a tube down his throat and implanting an egg within his body without the crew fully understanding what has happened. It’s only when the alien creature is birthed through violent, unnatural means (bursting forth from Kane’s chest during breakfast in one of cinema’s most evocative scenes) that the crew begins to understand what has truly happened.
The choice to make the victim of the xenomorph male is absolutely crucial to both Alien and the franchise as a whole. This is a decision that subverts that overused horror trope of female victims and instead places a male victim in the crosshairs of a nasty and deeply sexual attack. This is birth gone completely wrong. The underlying fears of having something unnatural and deadly growing inside us speaks to both female and male fears. Should the victim have been female, the true terror of the xenomorph could almost be seen as sexist and therefore far less effective in its universal terror. Instead, it is grotesque and inhuman, forcing both character and viewer to reckon with its sexual terror.
The remaining crew of the Nostromo is comprised of both men and women and as they are slowly picked off, the sexuality of the monster rises to the forefront. Giger’s design of the xenomorph is highly phallic, with its long head being far from a coincidence. Shrouded in darkness, only pieces of the creature are seen at any given time, increasing its mysterious nature and making the audience latch onto any detail possible. While future movies would reveal the creatures down to the last inch, the little-seen nature of the xenomorph in Alien still works wonders within its narrative’s focus. At any moment, the creature is dripping with slime, which oozes from its mouth, a mouth that houses a second set of jaws, which thrust forward and bite. This is another violation of the victim, but with more immediately deadly consequences.
One of the great tricks of Alien is that the film’s ultimate hero is not spelled out until the second half of the film. Each of its characters are relatable, human, and given fairly equal amounts of screentime, which makes the deaths and narrative trajectory far less predictable. While the franchise’s history spells out that Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) will be the star of the film, Scott’s movie does not do that until the claustrophobic death of Captain Dallas. With the main male figure gone, Alien soon shifts its focus to another source of depraved sexuality – that of science officer Ash, who is revealed to be an android. His attack on Ripley takes the form of an alien, broken sexuality, with suddenly revealed sexual magazine clippings adorning the walls in the room where it takes place. A robot, Ash has clearly snapped and is playing out some form of twisted sexual fantasy through trying to suffocate his target with a rolled-up magazine. Ripley survives and Ash is decapitated, but the themes are further reinforced.
Ripley survives due to her wits and tenacity, often thinking ahead and taking charge when needed. Her instincts are most often right while still being fallible, but she’s most certainly at a disadvantage when it comes to actually fighting the creature herself. That vulnerability is heightened within the film’s finale and its surprise mini fourth act. Alone and with the creature possibly around any corner, Ripley is at her most vulnerable. Given the increased sexuality of the xenomorph, the horrific possibilities loom large. When seemingly alone within her escape vessel, Ripley strips down to very little. While this may play into the leering nature of many horror films, it also ties her to the sexuality of the alien. Suddenly appearing from a gap in the wall, the xenomorph arrives like a peeping tom with newfound agency against his victim. But Ripley works through her crushing terror, arming herself in the protective clothing of a spacesuit definitively ending her terrorizer.
Motherhood Versus Monsters
While Ripley was not written with a man or woman in mind, actress Sigourney Weaver’s casting is the lynchpin in the power of this franchise. Having Ripley be a woman pushes forward the idea that femininity is not a weakness in the face of such an aggressively sexual creature, it is the power which is needed to defeat it. After all, the alien’s sexual nature attacks both men and women in equal measure. The power of that femininity is most clearly addressed in writer and director James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens.
Picking up 50 years after the original, Aliens sees Ripley picked up from cryo sleep after her escape pod wanders in space unseen. In that time, LV-426, the planet where the Xenomorph was found, has been colonized by human settlers and Ripley’s daughter has passed away as an older woman. While the revelation concerning her daughter is only to be found in Cameron’s director’s cut of the film, it’s a character moment that provides greater context to Ripley’s journey within the sequel. She’s no longer just a horror movie protagonist, she’s a fully fleshed out character who is haunted by her past trauma and saddened by her losses.
Heading to the colony on LV-426 with a group of colonial marines after all communication has been lost, Ripley soon finds herself looking after the only survivor of the massacre, a young girl named Newt. While saving a young girl is something that any hero would do in film, Ripley’s motherly instincts are what propel her to do so and inform the vast majority of her actions throughout Aliens. Her connection with Newt quickly grows over the course of the film, with her time spent comforting her and talking about the reality of the monsters lurking nearby giving their mother-daughter relationship true warmth and real stakes. Ripley also develops a relationship with Marine Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn), who comes to act as a sort of surrogate father within the dynamic. That formation of a makeshift family within the horror and death that surrounds them is the product of Ripley’s feminine strength and is largely responsible for their survival. Outside of them, most of the male characters come to represent futile machismo, greedy corporate interests, or any other futile and ultimately corruptible aspect of humanity.
These ideas of motherhood at war are further reinforced by the third act developments within Aliens. As Newt is taken to the alien colony by a Xenomorph, Ripley follows close behind, leaving a badly injured Hicks to be taken away from the danger. Throughout the course of Aliens, Ripley has proven herself to be smarter and more capable than most any would believe, but it is here where she ascends to being one of the great heroes of cinema. Armed with a machinegun, flame thrower, and grenade launcher, Ripley descends into the Xenomorph den to rescue the little girl she has sworn to protect. It’s a selfless rescue that doesn’t feel cliché, but rather is the result of a deep bond forged because of motherhood.
So it is only appropriate that the thing standing in Ripley’s way is the biggest mother of all – the Xenomorph Queen responsible for birthing the hundreds of eggs responsible for the massive alien army. Their showdown is literally mother against mother – one who represents the virtues of humanity and one who represents the sexual terror from beyond. With Newt safe beside her, Ripley’s only move to escape is to threaten the one thing the queen values: her eggs. There is a sense of connection here, an understanding that comes only from sharing in motherhood. Nevertheless, the queen is ultimately a terrifying monster and a threat to Ripley’s newly reformed motherhood. The result is a thrilling escape that eventually leads to the classic power loader fight scene – a physical confrontation between the two with Ripley now given the chance to take on her opponent face to face. Much like Alien, there are no men who are able to help once the final fight has arrived.
Once victorious, Ripley and Newt find comfort and peace together before entering cryo sleep. “Will we dream?” asks Newt. “Yes,” replies Ripley, “we both will.” Having come through the nightmare together, happiness can be found with a chance at a new life. There is love and hope that comes from motherhood, a nurturing form of care that accepts the dangers in life, but believes in something better. Earnest healing of the soul has begun because of Ripley’s motherly love.
While Alien 3 would subvert these ideas for a far darker entry into the franchise, which alienated a large portion of the fanbase, and Alien: Resurrection would push the theme of motherhood into a far too literal realm, it’s clear to see that these ideas became essential to the core of the Alien franchise. Ripley and her struggle against the Xenomorph does not only provide some of the greatest science fiction films ever made, it makes for one of cinema’s greatest examples of feminine power – a power not shown on the big screen nearly enough.