If the original Alien franchise was described as a metaphor for the conception of the universe, it might go something like this: Alien (1979) was the big bang, the explosion that made everything possible; Aliens (1984) was the vibrant yet chaotic afterglow; Alien 3 (1992) is the point that the universe continues to expand and the first stars run out of fuel, collapsing into supernovas; Alien: Resurrection (1997) is the burnt-out, Red Dwarf remnant of what once was.
For the prequels, we change perspective to present-day Earth, staring through the Hubble Telescope into the past, at fading light that has taken many lightyears to travel from distant stars. Consequently, Prometheus (2014) and Alien: Covenant (2017), no matter how brightly they shine in the night's sky, are still just a distant electromagnetic echo of where it all began — Alien, the Big Bang.
Explained in the most superfluous way possible, the point is, no matter how far the franchise moves on, each new instalment will only act as a reminder of the greatness of the original 1979 hit, #Alien. It's hard to deny the impact Ridley Scott's film had, most of all for introducing the world to Sigourney Weaver's unforgettable performance as Ellen Ripley, a character who became one of the most influential in cinema, a feminist icon. And it was all made possible thanks to a unique caveat in Dan O'Bannon's original screenplay.
The Original 'Alien' Script Was Unisex
After the character descriptions, O'Bannon outlines that "the crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women." Significantly, this means Ripley could've been played by a male lead (something that is unfathomable looking back now). Instead of writing the roles with gender in mind, O'Bannon left the decision to director Scott and casting director Mary Selway.
Although Veronica Cartwright — who ended up playing Lambert — initially read for Ripley, Weaver was eventually chosen for the role. At the time, she was 29-years-old, a relative unknown who mainly featured on Broadway, with Alien becoming her first motion picture appearance. Clearly, Scott and Selway spotted her potential as the best candidate to transform Ripley into the key aspect of the film.
There are many reasons why Ripley is widely regarded as a feminist icon. She is tough, rational and pragmatic, but also conscientious, caring and ethical. Essentially, she is a leading woman who hasn't been boxed into a set template of masculinity; instead, she kicks ass whilst retaining her femininity, spreading a positive message that feminine traits can also be heroic.
This is even more impressive considering the industry at the time. Although there are still unfortunate remnants of archaic structures in modern cinema, Weaver burst the patriarchal bubble of not one, but two male-dominant genres that make up Alien — #horror and sci-fi. In particular, slasher movies, hugely popular at the time, highly sexualised female characters, reducing them to troupes and, more often than not, making them victims to a male antagonist.
Considering O'Bannon wrote a unisex script, credit must go to Scott for carefully crafting the role of Ripley in Alien. Further credit is also due to James Cameron, who wrote and directed Aliens (1984). Ripley's transformation to center-stage in Alien was a slow-burner, beginning in the background, but Cameron put her at the center of the story in the high-velocity, action-heavy sequel, where she remained for the rest of the quadrilogy.
Gender Inequality Is Still A Serious Issue In Hollywood
For a film made close to four decades ago, Alien was incredibly progressive. As we know, by leaving gender neutral, O'Bannon opened the door for the role of Ripley, a role that went on to shape cinema and provide the first true action heroine. So isn't it time more screenplays were written without gender in mind? It does, after all, seem like an easy solution to a serious problem.
Let's be clear, it doesn't mean that there shouldn't be plenty of complex, inspiring roles written explicitly for women. But, disappointingly, even in the 38 years since Alien was released, equality between male and female character depiction is seriously lacking, not helped by a low number of female screenwriters and directors. The story isn't much better in front of the camera, either; a recent study by Polygraph revealed a shocking 78 percent of films are male-led, while only a third of speaking roles go to women.
Further still, a huge number of modern films still fail the Bechdel Test. For those unfamiliar, the test is incredibly straightforward, and judges a film by three simple rules: (1) It has to have at least two (named) women in it, (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man. It should be simple, right? However, only half of all films in user-edited databases pass this test. Alien, however, is positively cited in Alison Bechdel's 1985 comic strip, which first popularized the said rules.
Even as recent as this year's Cannes Film Festival, the issue of gender inequality made it to the forefront of talking points. Actress Jessica Chastain, who was on the jury at the festival, gave an impassioned speech during the final conference of the event, explaining the "disturbing" nature of female representation across a number of films at the festival. She said:
"I do believe that if you have female storytelling you also have more authentic female characters. This is the first time I’ve watched 20 films in 10 days, and I love movies. And the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that I saw represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest."
Unisex Scripts May Be A Move In The Right Direction
Drafting early versions of the script in the same way as Alien can help alleviate such problems by eroding the debris of binary gender roles, where masculine traits — self-confidence, ambition, emotional "strength" and aggression — are exclusive to men, and feminine traits — purity, submissiveness, obedience and overemotional response — to women. Hollywood is notoriously bad at promoting such stereotypes, and a unisex script is one way around it, provided a stringent casting process calls for both men and women to audition.
Unfortunately, this article will end on a less promising note, by looking at the most recent instalment in the franchise, #AlienCovenant. Considering the significance of Alien, it's a shame to see that Scott's second prequel doesn't pass the Bechdel test, mentioned earlier. Most of the interaction takes place in group situations, and during one of the few tense interactions between two female characters, Maggie Farris (Amy Seimetz) tells Kareem Oram (Carmen Ejogo) to wait in quarantine, as Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is on his way, presumably as a knight in shining armour.
Previously, I wrote of a number of stupid decisions the cast and crew make in Covenant. And while admittedly these instances are shared between both sexes, Covenant does seem to move away from the franchise's feminist roots. There are a number of examples of classic, anti-feminine troupes: "female hysteria," a reliance on the male characters to save the day and the "deadly bath" scenario popularized by horror as a pretext to a grisly demise. It's hard to imagine these troupes existing if a unisex script was used.
Alien, and Ellen Ripley in particular, made a serious crack in the mould all those years ago. Unfortunately the mould is stubborn, and retains its shape in present day. There is slow progress being made of course, and while unisex scripts shouldn't be used for all productions, they could provide a blow that'd help smash the mould to pieces, and send it out to space where it belongs, along with the Xenomorphs.
Are you in favour of more scripts being written like Alien with unisex characters?
(Source: Daily Script)