Breakouts and Outbreaks: Sigourney Weaver in ‘Alien’

After a brief, near-cameo appearance across from Woody Allen in his legendary Annie Hall, Sigourney Weaver became a staple actress for the science fiction genre. There really isn’t much to say about the Annie Hall moment as it is her only prior role to her breakout performance in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Her career basically began with a big splash, whose ripples are still present as the Alien franchise continues and Weaver’s own career still thrives on the basis of that performance. Her most recent notable role was playing a hardass scientist in James Cameron’s Avatar.

Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of three seminal science fiction films that helped to establish how space is depicted in cinema. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s Star Wars are the others. Scott’s film quite deliberately emulates the former rather than the latter in its intense focus on the vast emptiness of space, the morality of human limitation, and their shared attempts to predict the future in a realistic light. Alien  focuses specifically on antagonizing capitalism (the company) by depicting a group of miners being subjected to incredible danger while having their lives deemed disposable by their employer. Both this and the corrupt nature of technology depicted in the film (Mother, the ship’s computer who appears to be based on Hal, and Ash, the robot played by Ian Holm), define the film as a morality tale about humanity. The realism of the film comes from the characters being average lower-class workers, the depiction of the space craft (as being very metallic and dirty rather than stylish and modern), and of course the Alien (which functions in a reasonably biologically sound fashion).

What makes this intense sci-fi slasher film such a strange ground for a breakout performance, is that each character is deliberately bland, and not heroic for the sake of portraying them as average people in an extraordinary circumstance. They make mistakes; they are ill-informed. It isn’t obvious who is to survive the film because no one seems particularly inept nor capable. Each character is referred to only by their last name and was written with the intent that they could be played interchangeably by either sex. Given the fact that a woman was chosen to play the survivor, Ellen Ripley helps shape the demasculating nature of the film created by the famous male pregnancy sequence. The point is that no individual is supposed to stick out in the film. It is not designed to give Sigourney Weaver a spectacular role. But she takes what she is given and creates a memorable heroine who is both capable and intimidating.

As a hardass who holds her own in a man’s world, Ripley came to define Sigourney Weaver’s career. The delayed sequel, Aliens (in my opinion, the better film), earned her a legendary Oscar nomination that inverts the role by giving her a first name, a backstory, and a heroic competency. She reprised this role twice before reteaming with James Cameron in what I consider to be a wonderful performance in last year’s Avatar. Quite honestly, I agree with the Academy on her nomination for Aliens, which I consider to be far and away her greatest performance. She holds together a ragtag group of Marines with intense motivation. Her breakout performance in the first film was likely the inspiration for each of the sequels. While the movies may have failed artistically after the first two, Ellen Ripley continues to exist as an iconic film heroine. And Sigourney Weaver to this day carries a strong reputation as a significant contributor to the science fiction genre.

She has escaped sci-fi as well though. In 1988 she earned two Oscar nominations, one for Gorillas in the Mist and the other for Working Girl. But despite her versatility, she is remembered as Ellen Ripley, and in all likelihood, always will be. She was the voice of the ship in Wall-E and is listed as having a bit part in the upcoming Paul. So it appears that her participation in the genre has certainly not expired. Nor should it. She is a talented actress whose powerful voice has found a place in the shared praise of feminists and fanboys… and the foreign press association.

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  • Renard B.

    Sigourney Weaver should’ve won Best Actress for “ALIENS” in 1987 over Marlee Matlin (“CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD”)

  • I agree with Renard — Sigourney’s performance in “Aliens” was inspired and incredibly layered. It’s hard enough to be a female action hero, but she also managed to seem nurturing and vulnerable.

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