As soon as Mad Max: Fury Road premiered, critics leapt to paint Charlize Theron’s Furiosa as a throwback to another, legendary action heroine: Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien franchise. Even Mad Max co-writer and director George Miller has acknowledged the looming shadow of Ripley, though his thoughts on the comparison are somewhat half-baked: “Ripley … is probably close, but that’s so different,” he told Entertainment Weekly ahead of the film’s premiere. “All I know is, I cannot think of another female character in cinema who’s like her.”
Even in 2015 there are so few examples of female protagonists in action and sci-fi movies that the comparisons between Furiosa and Ripley were perhaps inevitable. But is Miller right to hold Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character at arm’s length, or does Furiosa owe more to her than he’s willing to admit? Just how deep is the influence of the trailblazing Alien character? I revisited the first three Alien movies to see just how similar these female action heroes really are.
To begin with, the characters are motivated by pretty different forces. In the first Alien, Ripley’s motivation is simple: survival. In the second and third films, her motivations are slightly different: survival in climactic moments, yes, but also a broader desire to save humanity—Aliens finds her trying to rescue the colonizers now living on the same planet where she encountered the Alien and its eggs the first time, 50-odd years earlier. And in Alien 3, an emotionally defeated Ripley (carrying an alien embryo) sacrifices herself in order to finally bring down the Alien Queen.
Meanwhile, Furiosa’s motivation in Fury Road is to improve her life, while seeking vengeance. It’s likely that her character could have remained in the Citadel with the other oppressed citizens, desperate for water and all the small things we consider undisputed necessities, but her determination to reach the utopic Green Place is what drives her the most. She wants a better life, for her and the wives of dictator Immortan Joe, whom she’s stolen from him, and will let no one stand in her way.
Also, while we’re thrust into Furiosa’s perspective from the beginning of Mad Max, our identification with Ripley builds more slowly and tentatively. Ripley is not an obvious protagonist at the beginning of the Alien series—Weaver is billed second, behind Tom Skerritt (who plays ship captain Dallas), and Dan O’Bannon’s deliberately paced script emphasizes the small ensemble of crew workers on the Nostromo for much of the film. Ripley’s position as the character we root for and sympathize with becomes clear over time: As third in command behind Dallas and executive officer Kane (John Hurt), she bumps heads several times with the others, questioning their decisions. Anyone familiar with the science fiction genre or narrative storytelling in general will probably recognize that the lone dissenter usually tends to be the character we should trust, and by the end of the film, as the sole survivor of the Nostromo who must face off with the Alien, Ripley fully realizes that role. In later Alien films, she remains at the heart of the story.
But while Fury Road briefly suggests that we’ll identify with Max (Tom Hardy)—whose gravelly, ominous monologue punctuates the first few minutes of the film—it’s not long before her character is onscreen, racing toward her coveted Green Place while doing battle with Immortan Joe and his cronies. Max is largely relegated to sidekick almost immediately. During that initial road war, he spends practically the whole scene as Dude in Distress, shackled to the front of a tricked-out roadster. We don’t see Furiosa forced into the role of action hero by circumstance; she’s already claimed it for herself.
Before his death in 2009, Alien screenwriter O’Bannon explained that every member of the crew was deliberately written without any indication of gender (he always envisioned it as a “co-ed crew”), so it’d be unfair to suggest that Ripley’s slow rise to focus was an intentional way of “priming” audiences for the all-too-rare female action hero. Ripley may be a tough female character, but the feminism in the first film is far from overt.
Take the scene in which Ripley first asserts her dominance in a major way: After Kane is attacked by a “facehugger,” she refuses to let Dallas and navigator Lambert bring him back on board the ship, citing quarantine regulations. The haughty science officer Ash ignores her orders and lets them on anyway. Later, she confronts Ash about his actions, calmly but sternly, declaring, “When Dallas and Kane are off the ship, I’m senior officer.” Ash chastises her: “You do your job and let me do mine, yes?” Ash clearly doesn’t respect Ripley. (He barely makes eye contact with her in the first few seconds of their conversation.) It’s less a story of female world domination than a parable of workplace sexism.
Fury Road, in comparison, offers up a very different kind of feminism—a raging, rough one that relies on giving Furiosa stereotypically masculine markers. Her character is immediately placed in an overt position of dominance—she has impeccable gun-toting skills and car-handling abilities, even with only one real arm to work with. In one scene we see her contrasted with one of the dainty pregnant wives struggling to break the chain attached to Max. Furiosa, evidently impatient with her friend’s struggles, pounces on him in order to engage him in a fight instead.
And her shaved head isolates her from what Theron has called the “young, pretty girls,” in a way that makes her seem almost androgynous. (Recall that in Alien 3, Ripley also sports a close shave, though her haircut—as Thomas Doherty has noted in an essay for The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film—along with her weakened, embattled state, more closely resembles that of a “concentration camp victim” than the badass-ery Furiosa’s look is clearly supposed to convey.) She’s also unable to have children. So in some ways, Furiosa’s perceived and actual strength as a warrior are tied to her complete lack of any sort of typical “feminine” traits.
But in the first three Alien films, Ripley’s identity as a woman is never fully hidden; she spends part of her final scene in Alien stripped down to her thin, white underwear, exposing the outline of her nipples and her butt, for instance. And in Aliens and Alien 3, she must try to defend herself from those attempting to profit from her alien-birthing capabilities (a sort of precursor to the heavily monitored female clones in Orphan Black).
So it makes sense that George Miller is hesitant to credit Ripley for Furiosa; in some ways their characters could hardly be more different. Yes, the two are both rare examples of a kick-ass female action hero at the center of her own story, but each is very much a product of a particular moment in movie history. Even while fighting off extraterrestrials, Ripley’s identity as a mother and a woman who could birth alien babies was a key part of her identity in Aliens and Alien 3. Flash-forward 30-ish years later, and we get Furiosa—a protector of delicate pregnant women who is willfully unfeminine herself. As debate rages in the public sphere over who has the right to control women’s bodies, Furiosa feels like the perfect action heroine for our times.
Of course that’s not to diminish Ripley’s massive influence. Miller’s original Mad Max, a pretty blatant macho-fest, was released the same year as Alien, and in the years since, Ripley has clearly become a touchstone for the whole action genre. So regardless of how dissimilar the characters may be, Ripley still inevitably paved the way for Furiosa—an unprecedented, gender-bending warrior who isn’t just content with surviving in a terrible world; she’s on a quest for happiness.