A couple of days ago I saw the picture below, from Alien, and I thought of a class of mine, years ago.
(I do not own the rights to the picture above)
I had shown them Ridley Scott’s film, one of my classic choices to start talking about movies with a class, and they had liked it but there was this cat thing they couldn’t understand: why does Ripley risk her life for Jones the cat? For those who don’t remember the details of the plot, Ripley has already started the count-down to blow the Nostromo up and only has a few more minutes to board a shuttle when she remembers the cat, the only other survivor. She fetches it, losing precious minutes, and after the final confrontation with the monster she will place it near her feet in the hybernation pod.
“Why, teacher? Couldn’t she just leave it? Would one really remember the cat in such a situation?”
My answer was that it was a way to characterize Ripley, to make her different from a male hero. Alien is the first film where the action hero is actually a heroine, and we owe this fundamental element to Walter Hill, who had been asked to direct it and had worked on the script before leaving the project to Ridley Scott. Originally, the hero was the spaceship captain, and I am sure the film would have been very good anyway, with its blending of genres, the claustrophobic atmosphere and the intertextuality. But a female protagonist, a heroine who saves herself and the cat, and then goes to sleep in a transparent pod like a good princess in a fairy tale, made Alien the extraordinary, innovative piece of science fiction cinema it is. Casting Sigourney Weaver was the next decisive choice: young and beautiful, but not in the obvious way (the obvious beauty gets killed by the monster quite early in the film), she had a physique suitable to the tour de force Ripley goes through once she is the only remaining human being on the craft.
And that’s all for now – back to work.