NOTE: This post is from one of my film classes so there is a reason it sounds more like an essay at times but I wanted to share my findings with the readers on MoviePilot between two films on the basis of motherhood. The films are 1942's Now, Voyager and 1979's Alien.
What does it mean to be a motherly figure? Washington Irving answers this question by explaining that “A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.” According to the films Now, Voyager and Alien, a mother is the complete opposite of how Irving defines it. While most people see their mother as a role model or their ultimate savior, the characters of Charlotte Vale in 1942’s Now, Voyager and Ellen Ripley in 1979’s Alien turn to their mothers and find no hope or love. They only seem to find empty bodies with no soul and a prosthetic heart.
In Now, Voyager, we are introduced to the character of Charlotte Vale, a seemingly broken young woman who is scared of living beyond the limits of her own home. While we, as viewers, believe Mrs. Henry Vale, Charlotte’s mother, would be the one to repair her daughter, we are soon dumbfounded to believe that she was actually the one who broke her daughter in the first place. Mrs. Vale keeps Charlotte locked away from the world in her house thus prohibiting her from achieving freedom, finding love, or even making a simple social connection. She believes that Charlotte’s one and only friend should be her own mother.
When Dr. Jasquith, a psychiatrist, pays Charlotte and her family a visit, her mother seems to act like there is nothing mentally wrong with Charlotte. For example, when Charlotte begins to feel bullied by her family, she breaks down and runs off causing her mother to claim “No member of the Vale family has ever had a nervous breakdown” (Now, Voyager). At this point, Mrs. Vale is going so far as to not even acknowledge that her daughter is in a crisis right now. Even though she is witnessing her daughter’s descent into depression, Mrs. Vale does not seem to care even a little about Charlotte’s emotional state. Mrs. Vale claims that no one in her family has had a breakdown in a way to make sure her daughter remains at home and does not run away with Dr. Jasquith to his institution. Mrs. Vale understands that Jasquith can help Charlotte’s mental mind. However, she is too selfish to attempt to help her daughter and wants her to not leave the house even if it could cure Charlotte’s never-ending sadness.
Also, the relationship between Charlotte and Mrs. Vale is an invisible love and hate relationship. It may seem like Mrs. Vale is showing love to her daughter when it appears to everyone else that she is destroying Charlotte’s life. Charlotte views the way her mother treats her as abusive and intolerable to the point of her mother not even wanting Charlotte around. When Charlotte mentions that, “I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides” (Now, Voyager), she is accepting the fact that not only does her mother treat her like the least valuable member of the family but she did not even want her to be born. Charlotte feeling this way has also led her to not want to be born herself which proves that mothers have an ever-lasting effect on their children, whether it is positive or negative.
In the film Alien, instead of a physical mother, the film uses its technology to its advantage by adding a computer that acts as a mother figure. The crew of the film’s ship, the Nostromo, look up to “mother” as a guide and mentor for their mission. However, as the film progresses and disastrous events occur, “mother” turns out to be against the crew and places the mission of returning the alien specimen over the lives of the crew members. When Ellen Ripley, one of the members of the Nostromo, decides to take matters into her own hands and revolt against the mission, the “father” of the ship, Ash, steps in for “mother” and attacks Ripley. In this crucial moment of the film, Ash reveals himself to be a machine himself, like “mother”, causing him to take a parenting role and stand by “mother’s” decisions. While Mrs. Vale in Now, Voyager goes out of her way to emotionally control her daughter, the technological “mother” and “father” in Alien control their crew members so much that they would physically harm each one of them to the point of even murdering them.
Not only does the Nostromo feel like home to the crew members and acts as a mother figure, but the alien specimen, known as a Xenomorph, treats the ship as almost like a mother figure as well. The Xenomorph was birthed inside the ship so it is almost as if the alien treats the ship as its second home and each crew member as its parents. But, in reality, the alien specimen riots against the Nostromo crew by killing them off, one by one. At the end of the film, the last remaining crew member, Ellen Ripley, faces off against the alien by shooting it out of the ship after singing “You Are My Lucky Star”. By her singing this song, it is almost as if a parent is singing to their child as a way of peace and love. However, Ellen is only singing this song to calm herself down when preparing to kill the alien. When the alien is shot out of the ship by Ripley, it clings onto its “mother” by the rod from Ripley’s gun. The rod that attaches the alien to the ship resembles an umbilical cord that keeps the alien in connectedness with part of the Nostromo, its birthplace. By Ripley defeating the alien and sending it back into its natural habitat, she is bringing the motherly saying and cliché of “I brought you into this world, I can take you out” to life. Even though she did not personally birth the alien, one of her fellow crew members did so she feels partly responsible for giving the alien life so she must do the deed of destroying the specimen and “forcing” it to leave home, which is the opposite of the Vales in Now, Voyager.
Similarly, Ripley and Charlotte act as disobedient children. However, they both have valid reasons for why they act rebellious against their so-called parents. Charlotte Vale’s mother acts in a cruel controlling manner towards her daughter. She wants her to look and act in the way she wants. When Charlotte returned from Dr. Jasquith’s institution, she has changed dramatically, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. Mrs. Vale notices her daughter’s drastic changes and attempts to control her once again by hurling herself down a flight of stairs. Charlotte’s mother acts tyrannical to try to let Charlotte know her mother disagrees with Charlotte’s change in personality. However, Charlotte does not seem to fall for it when she thinks about it back at Dr. Jasquith’s institution by stating, “Dr. Jasquith says that tyranny is sometimes expression of the maternal instinct. If that's a mother's love, I want no part of it” (Now, Voyager). Charlotte has been led to believe that tyranny is the only exemplifying characteristic of a mother causing Charlotte to not want a mother at all.
As in Alien, Ripley commits a rebellion against “mother” by destroying the ship altogether. When she tries to save “mother” by trying to stop the destruction, “mother” reacts harshly by continuing on with the detriment of the Nostromo. Ellen Ripley demands for a response from “mother” on her change of heart in the ship’s destruction by communicating to “mother” by desperately claiming, “Mother! I've turned the cooling unit back on. Mother” (Alien). Ripley repeats “Mother’s” name in a way of calling out for forgiveness for going against the mission and attempting to destruct the ship as like when a child repeats their mother’s name when they are begging for some means of comfort. Although Ripley is pleading for safety and comfort, “Mother” ignores her appeals. When “Mother” repeats back that the ship will destruct soon, Ripley replies by calling “Mother” a bitch. Ripley curses against her mother like a selfish teenage girl does when she receives an Android instead of an iPhone. However, she does not curse against “Mother” in a selfish way. She curses in a way of knowing there is no one left to help Ripley, not even the “Mother” she learned to rely on.
While normal children rebellion against parents end up in forgiveness or giving in to what the child wants, neither Now, Voyager nor Alien possess the quality of forgiveness between a parent and child. There just seems to be a downwards spiral for the relationships in both films. In Now, Voyager, while the child, Charlotte, improves her personal surroundings, her relationship with her mother only worsens to the point of her mother’s ultimate death and departure from the film. However, it is ironic that Charlotte’s life only improves when her mother is not in the picture. As soon as her mother died, Charlotte was able to find love and a possible future that she would have not had if she stayed in her mother’s home for the whole film.
In Alien, the relationship between Ripley and “Mother” are just fine with “Mother” helping out and guiding her through the mission and life in space. However, the relationship heads south as soon as Ripley discovers “Mother’s” true intentions in caring more for the alien than Ripley’s own life. Both Mrs. Vale and the “Mother” in Alien seem to abandon their children constantly throughout the film. Mrs. Vale seems to want to be there for her daughter but only ends up depriving her from the life she has always dreamed of having. “Mother” is supposed to act as a savior and mentor for the Nostromo crew but only ends up stating that the crew is “expendable” meaning the alien must return safely whether the crew returns dead or alive.
Both films bring up the issue of child abandonment in harsh and uncivilized ways. When mothers are inserted into a child’s life to nurture and love and help balance their spawn’s emotional standing, Mrs. Vale and the machine of “Mother” make sure to go out of their way to tip the scale making their children uneasy and fearful for their future lives. Now, Voyager shows a parent-child relationship in which the mother tries to make a complete clone out of Charlotte with no love life, no future, and no social interactions with the outside world. Alien shows the relationship by having machines take the place of parents that end up trying to destroy their spiritual children rather than support them. While both films show different sides of a dysfunctional relationship between parent and child, they both seem to state the same fact that mothers will not always be our guiding grace to help us through our toughest times.
The ways Charlotte Vale and Ellen Ripley are treated by their matriarch only show that they were better off not having a mother at all. As soon as Charlotte and Ellen depart from their mother in the films, their lives and future in the films soon improve as Charlotte finds love and Ripley defeats the alien creature. One would expect their mothers to have hearts and care for them every step of the way. However, in Now, Voyager and Alien, the motherly figure we have all come to know and love is not present. There are only dictators telling their “slaves” what to do and how to perform. Mrs. Vale makes an exact replica of herself in Charlotte while “Mother” leads the Nostromo crew to their deaths when she was supposed to guide them back to Earth safely. Where there is supposed to be a heart in Mrs. Vale and “Mother”, there is emptiness. Bodies and machines appear in the films to be mothers but in reality, they end up being empty bodies with no souls or hearts to care for their spawn. The hearts in Mrs. Vale and “Mother” are never found throughout the course of the films; all that remains are the hollow bodies and prosthetic hearts that do not beat even a little.