Ellen on Earth: Gender, Religion, and Ellen Ripley in David Fincher’s Alien3
(Author’s Note: This was originally written for my horror cinema class.)
Not unlike its HR Geiger designed monster, saliva cascading from its bladed fangs, the Alien franchise has morphed generically with each film, these alterations and manipulations contingent on the director’s generic and stylistic proclivities. With Ridley Scott’s original entry in 1979, Alien was created as a film that exists within a haunted house context, traipsing through tropes with a sci-fi bent; James Cameron’s 1986 follow up Aliens recontextulized that universe as a militaristic allegory about the state and the body; David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) sought a vision of spiritual, metaphysical horror; and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997) dressed dressed the franchise entry up in the garb of a goofy sci-fi action film. But it is Fincher’s entry which is the most striking and the least understood, the product of studio interference, script rewrites, and the struggle to achieve an Alien film that both resembled its classical originator as well as diverged from it drastically to mine in the conventions of the art house.
Ridley Scott’s film was predicated on haunted house subgenre existing within a science fiction framework, with much of the film’s tension wrought by the proximity of the monster to the crew members of the Nostromo. But as opposed to a decrepit mansion, Scott frames the Nostromo, a state of the art space craft, as the locale. Those tensions of proximity, proximity meaning danger and death, are carried out throughout the series, but function differently depending on the film. Alien 3, while still utilizing this concept of spatial relationships and characters and their role with regard to possibility of death, is much more unconcerned with what Alien does as a quasi-haunted house film.
There’s the impression that Fincher’s intentions from the first frames are to subvert what came before it, with the 20th Century Fox overture changing, with little discernible transition, to Elliot Goldenthal’s menacing score. Part of the film’s foundation is the subversion of recognizable images, an act which is rarely performed in horror sequels, which tend to merely perpetuate what the audience is already familiar with.
This subversion begins with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), having landed on Fiorina “Fury” 161 after the spaceship Sulaco ejects her and her daughter, Newt, into an escape pod. Ripley’s gender coding has fluctuated in the previous two films, with the first film maintaining a relatively genderless and distanced portrayal (the role was originally written for a male actor), sliding into feminization and sexualization by the end of the film. Its exploration of the gender dynamics aboard the Nostromo is often the center of many critical works, and that relationship is extended into Aliens, where there is a duality to Ripley. She exists as both masculine soldier and feminine mother, and the two often converge in the film. The navigation of sexism within a male dominated workplace also rears its face more overtly in Aliens, and Ripley is further feminized when she shouts at the Queen monster to protect Newt, “Get away from her you bitch!” In the end, motherhood is presented in almost classical fashion, as a form of warrior status, and such biological imperative would end up informing Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill Vol. 2.
But Fincher discards this over gender coding and instead shaves Ripley’s head, making her look androgynous. In a way, it is a silence and an erasure of her femininity, the rest of the film’s characters – ex-convicts that inhabit this facility/factory based planet, formerly monks in Vincent Ward’s original draft – a de-feminization that exerts itself more powerfully than the kind of uncaring treatment of Scott’s film. It’s gender put through the toil of an industrialized world, where that part of one’s identity doesn’t matter at all. With the iconography of Ripley erased on an image level, Fincher and the film then ask whether Ripley’s power can transcend the image and coded binaries that were thought to be so integral to her character. It’s with this question that the film has the most diabolical fun, because the answer is both not what an audience would expect and nor what they would necessarily want.
Yet, given that Ripley is still female bodied and is still recognized as female, her role within the machismo of the industrial planet is articulated in challenging ways. This is no longer the male dominated workforce of Aliens, but rather the reality of womanhood in the face of misogyny. The community’s patriarchal ideology for themselves as both an erasure of femininity and an attempt at the devaluing of womanhood and female agency. As Matt Zoller Seitz suggests, “Because the third film revolves almost entirely around Ripley’s desire to protect the integrity of her body—specifically her womb—Alien 3 feels more purely feminist than the previous two movies, for all their innovative images of a badass heroine fighting bugs whose bodies fused male and female genitalia into a Freudian nightmare” (Seitz/Tafoya.) More than in Alien, Alien 3 wants to present that reality of oppression, even within specific communities, as a form of horror unto itself.
But with regards to the iconography of the character, Ripley looks nothing like herself, covered in dirt, sweat, and oil on the planet. But the cheekbones and the intense gaze are still there, and when she looks up into the sky, she recalls the image of another: Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The connection to spiritual or religious martyrdom speaks to the film’s themes, and especially of its dialectical tendencies. There was less an abstract discursive battle in the two previous films, but the arguments at play here – on existence, on work, and on God – are more abstract, and that Fincher’s lens is so slickly brooding and arguably nihilistic is the film’s appeal.
Its origins as a religious parable, with Ripley oscillating between savior and Antichrist, still inform its thematic proclivities, as there seems to be a gaping hole in Fury 161 (Tafoya). A version of Christianity exists on the planet, but there’s a morbid quality to it, both in its own nihilism as well as its strange lack of commitment. The convicts walk around, at once presenting an air of authenticity and artificiality in the hymns they speak. Ripley acts as ostensible bridge between believer and non-believer, but in fact complicates this binary further. Goldental’s unnerving music accentuates this dialogue regarding religion, relying on choral voices and organ notes, and Fincher and DP Alex Thomson’s images are reminiscent of the Hellish nightmare worlds of Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon (Tafoya).
That Ripley’s power and agency transcends the parameters is the hook and thesis of the film. “Like Joan before her, Ellen Ripley’s been abandoned by God. But she won’t go without a fight,” notes Scout Tafoya, observing the intersection of gender and religion in the film. Patriarchal structures have long exerted their power within the frameworks of religion, and this becomes more apparent in Alien 3, but Fincher allows Ripley to fight for her own place and role within those structures, and for herself.
Alien 3’s location is also tied to religion, as there is a conscious mix of steam punk aesthetics and the subversion of places of worship. The light pours in through barred windows, the spaces both expansive yet capable of engendering claustrophobia within the viewer. Pipes, metal, etc.; it’s a vision of a planet, like Earth, now ravaged by industrialization and turned to Hell. It’s dank and dirty, but the home of prayer. While Alien and Aliens were fixated on the way futuristic technology would inform architecture and vice versa, Alien 3 is falling apart, so mired in misery and the very lack of technological advancement that its filthy sameness is horrifying.
But however experimental and thematically and formally ambitious Alien 3 is, it lives in infamy not only for the fact that the producers took the film (that had an incomplete script when it began principal photography) away from Fincher and sheared over a half hour of material, but as well as Fincher’s disowning of the film. The theatrical cut, which runs at 114 minutes, was critically ravaged upon its original release, with Geoff Andrew quipping, “Good acting has salvaged many a poor script in the past, but not here”. An “assembly cut” print was created in 2003 for the release of the Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set, reediting the film to best resemble Fincher’s original intentions, which included restoring the 37 minutes of footage that had been cut in 1992.
The danger of Alien 3 is not the alien and not, in an unintended way, the military industrial complex. Instead, the danger is men and masculinity. That becomes the ultimate monster, as its origins are as equally unknown as the fictionalized fears of ghosts and vampires. But when it makes its tangible connection with religion, that horror becomes much more a present and raw reality, as the conclusion becomes clear that God does not care. That Alien 3 is so hinged on the reconciliation of the metaphysical being and the female body in the fact of patriarchy and misogyny gives it an edge that very few horror films have. It recontextulizes the gender dynamics and the conventions of its first film to argue something terrifyingly real within the lived experiences of women, painted geographically as “within ‘space’”: it isn’t that in space no one can hear you scream; it’s that no one will care.
Alien 3. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Sigourney Weaver. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2010. Blu-ray.
Andrew, Geoff. “Alien3.” Time Out London. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
Tafoya, Scout, and Matt Zoller Seitz. “The Unloved, Part 1: ALIEN 3.” MZS. RogerEbert.com, 1 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.