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"Get Away from Her…": The Power Behind One Line in Aliens

Written by Patrick Pilkington.

Photo from the article Interior: a spaceship hangar. A young girl crawls around beneath a metal gridded floor. She scrambles to escape the attentions of a monster who rips up individual grids then swipes at her with its talons. Suddenly a door leading onto this space opens horizontally, and from behind it emerges a woman ensconced within a mechanized exoskeleton, the "legs" of which begin to move in accordance with her own as she approaches the creature (and the viewer). She draws closer, the tremendous thudding of her vehicle/armour the only audible sound. Finally her face fills the frame, and she unleashes her battle cry:

"Get away from her, you BITCH!"


For me, the pleasure of the blockbuster resides not in the feeling of awe but in the feeling of "awww yeah", those moments in which our hero's status as hero is cemented and/or reinforced through a decisive action and corresponding line of dialogue. These run the gamut from Brody's (Roy Scheider) "Smile you son of a bitch!" in Jaws to the post-knockout quips of any number of James Bonds and hyper-masculine 80s action heroes. But perhaps the quintessential instance of this trope, and my own personal favourite, is the moment in Aliens outlined above. There are plenty of explosions and effects shots in Aliens, and indeed even this scene is nestled in amongst the series of remarkable action sequences that comprise the film's final act. Yet it is that line that we remember most, and I would like to consider the elements that make this moment such a powerful and cathartic one, one that performs the blockbuster's function of uniting a wide audience in a shared feeling of wonder.

This involves firstly considering how the preceding two hours of Aliens has brought us to this moment and imbued it with such force. Aliens is an unusual blockbuster in its reliance upon a single performance. Sigourney Weaver, as Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of the events of Alien (1979, Dir: Ridley Scott), returns, Aliens opening with her escape pod finally being picked up 57 years after the events of the first film (a hypersleep pod has kept her alive - and unconscious - in the meantime), and she is in nearly every scene thereafter. The characterisation of Ripley in the first act of Aliens emphasises her fragility. She is not a superhero, but rather an individual who has survived a horrifying ordeal and now exhibits several of the symptoms of PTSD - namely, nightmares that relive the traumatic events of the first film and a consistently agitated state that makes her prone to outbursts of anger. A succession of sequences convey with economy the impossibilities of re-adjustment Ripley faces (despite the sci-fi trappings, the parallels with any number of returning veteran narratives are obvious), and the glimpses of her 'home' life we are given - the small, cramped apartment, its outer corridor scattered with litter, dishes piling up in the sink - do not suggest an individual who is thriving in any sense. Rather she is a displaced and traumatised individual, whose skills fail to register in a cold, bureaucratic future.


Ripley's more exceptional qualities and eventual heroism are revealed gradually, mostly with the intensifying calamities that befall her in the latter half of the film, after she makes the decision to return, with a squad of marines, to the planet where the alien was first encountered - and where, inevitably, she will encounter this nemesis again. Amongst the first of Ripley's stand-out qualities to be established is her efficiency with the power-loader, the mechanised exoskeleton which is introduced early in the film. Her expert control over the vehicle constitutes the first time this outsider is able to impress the marines and begin to win their respect. Much later, she proves adept with advanced marine weaponry after a quick training session from Hicks (Michael Biehn). We can imagine an (admittedly less thrilling) version of Aliens in which Ripley charges out of that door in the climax with gun in hand. But it is imperative that for the moment in question we return to her first skill, something she has been capable of before not only her impromptu military training but, we can infer, before even the events of the first film took place.


Weaver performs Ripley throughout Aliens with an authority that nevertheless remains recognisably human. Her heroism is grounded in a constant awareness of one's potential for fallibility, a conscious contrast with the bluff and bluster of the marines whose collective gung-ho identity is swiftly revealed to be highly performative (after Weaver, the most memorable performance in Aliens must be Bill Paxton's Pvt. Hudson, whose macho arrogance gives way to childish whining once the shit hits the fan). Ripley, in contrast, is initially nervous, reticent. When she first starts exploring the alien planet's terrain with the marines, numerous moments capture her being startled by noises or sudden movements; her agitation is registered. And even when she shifts into full-on warrior mode in the film's final act, Ripley continues to flinch, jump, scream, and grimace through the house-of-horrors series of obstacles leading to and from the alien nest. I emphasise this for several reasons. Firstly, it underlines that Ripley is essentially one of us, a 'normal' individual whose eventual heroism is a contrast to the professionalised heroics of the marines. Secondly, it also begins to distinguish Ripley from a mode of characterisation in the blockbuster action film that asserts the invulnerability of its protagonist from the outset, allowing them to progress through a series of dangerous situations while maintaining a steady and preternatural cool. Although this is not an invalid mode of representation, I am more partial to the heroics of Ripley, or John McClane (Bruce Willis) in the original Die Hard, when the toll and struggle of doing the right thing is given more attention. This distinction is, I think, vital to the specific inflection and power of 'Get away from her' as a blockbuster moment.

Of course, Ripley's remarkable ingenuity, intelligence, and personal bravery is made evident as the narrative of Aliens progresses. The motivation for her brave actions towards the end of the film, and the source of the character's emotional arc, is Newt, the young girl menaced by the alien queen at the climax. Like Ripley, Newt (Carrie Henn) is a survivor, the last remaining human colonist at this base, and Ripley acts as protector towards her, heading back into the alien nest to save her in the film's last act. Susan Faludi, in her seminal feminist text Backlash, has argued that the surrogate maternity Ripley enacts with Newt reduces her to a single trait - the maternity in question - that makes the film anti-feminist. However it seems to me that it is this reading which is reductive. Conventional Hollywood narration overwhelmingly pivots around goal-oriented characters with strong motivations. Ripley's protective instincts do not massively diverge from the endless stream of masculinist action films in which protecting a more vulnerable character motivates the protagonist, and 'saving the child' is as clear an indicator of a character's heroism as any other trope - Ripley simply does what any hero would in the circumstances.


Nevertheless, the showdown with the alien queen is of course inflected to some degree by this maternal dynamic. Not only is Ripley protecting the daughter figure, she is protecting her from a second 'mother'. "Bitch" is a gendered term that places the conflict on this level - female vs. female, mother vs. mother - the inter-species component downplayed through the choice of insult, "bitch", a word that is gendered and thus by extension humanised. The appeal of this moment derives in part from the relatability of this particular dynamic and its presumed instinctual qualities - the mother will protect the child - and emotional connotations - this time, it's personal. But these aren't the only terms on which the moment operates, and we should consider the maternal and personal components alongside the broader appeals of a conflict between clearly-delineated poles of good and evil, man and beast, hero and villain.

We should also consider how simply and effectively the moment is presented. The set-up is perfect - our star moving towards us steadily but with great power, presented in one largely static take (barely perceptible reframings work to keep Weaver's face central) so that all of the agency and motion is hers. James Horner's (brilliant) score is momentarily absent. Instead, the only sound is the movement of the power loader as it draws closer. The time it takes Ripley to reach her close-up creates the expectation for a line of dialogue. Considering how the moment is presented, perhaps we would have cheered regardless of what she says. But then that does a disservice to the line, and to the actor. What removes this line in part from the glibness of so many Bond one liners is the force of Weaver's line reading, which does not strive for cool but instead emphasises a rage both recognisably human and suitably heroic. The rage situates her, the individual, not the machine, as the source of her power. Of course, the power loader itself is a spectacular object, but we already had a series of shots linger fetishistically on its design and mechanics during its first appearance. Then, we admired the machine - now, we admire the human. We know Ripley can take on the alien, and the series of literally superhuman feats she enacts in the following moments (culminating in her ability to withstand the force of the alien queen, the power loader, and the unceasing vacuum of all of space) feel entirely earned, if not particularly plausible.

In choosing to focus on a single moment that takes up mere seconds of screen time, I fear I have neglected so much of what makes Aliens an excellent blockbuster. But I also think it is productive to consider how a film that absolutely (and effectively) subscribes to the 'bigger is better' sequel model can derive arguably its most crowd-pleasing moment from a much smaller set of elements, and a fundamental centrality to narrative and character. A single take, a close-up and a line of dialogue (and a fairly impressive prop in the power loader - one cannot argue that the moment is completely lacking in spectacle!) underline a character's simple but sincere motivation (one survivor protecting another) and the remarkable actions she will undertake in order to achieve her goal. As the Alien franchise continued, Ripley would be reconfigured firstly as an extremely vulnerable figure (infected - doomed - from the outset in the fatalistic Alien3) and later as a mostly inhuman and more traditionally 'cool' action hero (the half-alien clone of Ripley in Alien:Resurrection). But it is the interplay of humanity and heroism enacted in this brief moment in Aliens that remains the iconic image of the character, the film, and a certain kind of blockbuster.

This article was published on August 23, 2014.

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