In a film packed with iconic, quotable lines that have been uttered in pop culture repeatedly for more than 30-years – and some that have become movie titles like Game Over, Man! (2018) – Lieutenant Ellen Ripley’s “Get away from her you bitch!” in Aliens (1986) remains the most memorable. Not just because of the delivery from the patron saint of the franchise, Sigourney Weaver, but the context. Much has been said of the maternal themes in Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979), with the screenplay by Dan O’Bannon leaning heavily into that. The mechanism of the alien itself - the transition from face-hugger to xenomorph – was designed specifically to be the inverse of female conception and pregnancy: it was representative of male rape. The subversion extended further, with the actual creature design supposed to invoke visions of a distorted femineity: vagina dentata. For those of you playing at home: a vagina with teeth.
It’s not lost on many that the design of the full-grown alien saw phallic symbolism favoured by German surrealist H.R. Giger pitted against a lone female survivor in Ripley. This was all subtext, of course, but the subtext rapidly became text with James Cameron’s sequel Aliens. As not only a pioneer of filmmaking technology but one of the most successful commercial filmmakers of all time, it’s safe to say subtly has never been his style. The themes of motherhood, naturally, were brought right to the fore and feature throughout much of his filmography (Terminator franchise, Avatar (2009)). In the director’s cut, we learn after Ripley wakes up from extended cryo-sleep that she had a daughter, who grew to adulthood and passed away all while she was floating in outer space. This scene was trimmed from the theatrical version, meaning that her maternal bond and defence of the character Newt (played by Carrie Henn) felt more nuanced and less on the nose.
However, by the film’s conclusion, the core themes are increasingly evident. With her parents dead, Ripley fulfils the mother role for Newt so much so that she’s willing to risk her own life and dive into the depths of the xenomorph nest in order to save her. She’s pitted against a mother of a different a kind, the being that gives birth to not just the alien Ripley and the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo encountered initially, but all of them. After having killed a number of her children, the Mother seeks to kill Ripley’s child equivalent – Newt – and the final showdown takes place between two seminal maternal figures … despite one of them having acid for blood. “Get away from her you bitch!” underlines not only that specific moment, but every moment like that in real-life where a mother will do anything to save their child: whether that’s lifting a car off their baby or donning an exoskeleton to fight an extra-terrestrial.
– Maria Lewis