An unexpected thought weaved its way through my experience of seeing Alien at the Trylon: Haven’t I seen this before? At first, this seemed silly: of course I had seen the movie before. I remembered it well. I knew the characters by name and could still brace myself for the jump scares. But something felt unnerving in my rewatching, déjà vu laced with dread. I knew the film would end well for Ripley and Jones, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety. It felt like a familiar nightmare was being projected onto the screen.
One of Hollywood’s oldest tropes is the everyman-turned-hero. We are all familiar with the ordinary man (it is almost always a man) who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rises to the occasion to save the day. From Richard Hannay to Bilbo Baggins to Ash Williams, these are the characters who inspire a glimmer of hope that you—pedestrian you—could be the hero of the story given the chance. Ellen Ripley is a personal favorite and one of the rare examples of a woman inhabiting this trope. Not only did she become the unlikely hero of the movie, but she did so in an era and genre notorious for mistreating women or ignoring them entirely. Ripley also stands out because of the way Alien plays with audience expectations of what is ordinary. When the film was released in May 1979, manned spaceflight was still rare and miraculous: only 29 humans had ever left low earth orbit. Watching astronauts on a glorified tugboat complaining about their menial work was delightful in its strangeness.
The exceptional-turned-mundane setting is the perfect backdrop for Ripley to emerge as a hero. She is introduced as a warrant officer of the unremarkable Nostromo, neither in command nor the lowest ranking crewmember. Her role seems purposefully unspecific. We see her interact with everyone from the maintenance workers to the science officer to the captain. She assists in a bit of everything and does it competently. This fluidity helps connect her to a broad audience: no matter what job you imagine having on the Nostromo, you feel like Ripley would be right there with you.
Against this backdrop, the crew meets its fate. As they perishes one by one, Ellen Ripley remains. Over the course of the movie, she transforms from capable but ordinary shipmate to victorious survivor, becoming one of the most iconic characters in film history. The Nostromo’s mission may have collapsed into disaster, but it somehow feels right that Ripley makes it through. She’s the quietly adept one, the one you couldn’t take your eyes off, the one you saw yourself in. Of course she has to survive.
Sometime during the second half of the film it hit me.
I was born more than six years after the Challenger disaster, but it has always had a strange power over me. There have been many national tragedies during my lifetime, including several on larger scales and others that I watched unfold in real time. However, the one that causes me the sharpest grief is the Challenger. The hope and death of Christa McAuliffe hits close to home.
She and I are both from Concord, New Hampshire. She taught social studies at the high school I graduated from. I grew up nine houses down the street from Steve, her widower. Though she died a decade before my earliest memory, the connection I feel demonstrates how deeply rooted her legacy is within the Concord community. Every January 28th we would turn on the regional news to rewatch the launch, the explosion, the slow horror of realization in the crowds below. Every five year anniversary, when the story again became noteworthy, we could watch the same footage on the national news. But to us, Christa McAuliffe was always relevant. I was raised to be like the community around me: forever proud, forever in mourning.
It was McAuliffe who made the Challenger a national spectacle before any tragedy. The president announced the Teacher in Space competition on live television. Eleven thousand teachers applied, ten were chosen as finalists, and one would become the first civilian in space. Of the millions of Americans that followed the selection process, how many felt a kinship with McAuliffe? Like so many others, she was the kid who fantasized of becoming an astronaut, but whose adult life took a different path. Now she had been given the opportunity to fulfill her dream and leave the bounds of earth. The story we had seen so many times in fiction was coming true: the ordinary person was going to become a hero.
And so I found myself unexpectedly overwhelmed, connecting dots between the Challenger and Nostromo that exist perhaps only to me. Seven astronauts: five men, two women. What was supposed to be a simple mission turned into a life and death struggle. At the center, one crew mate draws the most attention. She’s earnest and competent and easy to spot with her jumpsuit, wide smile, and mop of reddish-brown curls. She’s the one you can see yourself in. Of course she has to make it out.
In the dark of the theater, I watched as one triumphantly survived but felt myself still in the shadow of the one who didn’t.
Edited by Shivaun Watchorn
The Trylon played Alien as part of this summer’s Magnificent Desolation series. If you missed it, don’t worry! It will come around again soon. In the meantime, check out our fall programming here.