I'm Still Not Over... Ripley's elevator ride to hell in Aliens
Still crying over a fictional character’s death from a movie you saw years ago? Grieving a canceled-too-soon show? We are, too. So with "I'm Still Not Over...," EW staffers pay tribute to something in the pop culture world they’re, well, still not over. Below, James Hibberd celebrates Ripley's tense elevator scene from 1986's Aliens.
In 1986's Aliens, badass trauma survivor Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has just 19 minutes to rescue a young orphan before their outpost becomes “a cloud of vapor the size of Nebraska.” She loads up on all the high-tech fighting gear she can carry, and is dropped onto the platform of a power station that is melting down. She gets in a cargo elevator as she prepares to descend to the station’s lowest floor where she will fight a legion of killer creatures.
What happens next is one of the all-time greatest moments in action cinema: A 75-second elevator ride to hell as Ripley prepares, physically and psychologically, to do battle.
On one level, the scene is simply a riveting piece of suspense building. It’s a clear segue from Act II to Act III, with director James Cameron expertly ratcheting up the tension with each passing floor. There are sirens and strobes and wind and steam, all while James Horner’s rousing score goes into overdrive, the music continually rises and descends like, well, an elevator. That the elevator is largely an open and exposed space helps, too — it shows the viewer the constant descent and keeps Ripley looking exposed.
A classic method to generate suspense is to have some sort of countdown device in an action scene, like a ticking clock. Here Cameron employs, not one, but two countdowns — at the same time! There is a verbal countdown as a calmly impassive robot voice intones how long Ripley has to reach a minimum safe distance and a visual countdown on the elevator panel displaying each floor number as the elevator falls.
“The elevator descends,” reads Cameron’s script. “Bars of light move rhythmically across her as Ripley stands facing the doors, watching the landings go by. The heat grows more intense. Pipes glowing cherry-red pass by. Steam hisses and billows … Ripley removes her jacket and dons a battle harness directly over her T-shirt. Her hair is matted, and she glistens with sweat. Her eyes burn with a determination that holds the gut-panic in check … This is the most terrifying thing she has ever done. She begins to hyperventilate, soaking with sweat. Her fingers slick and slippery on the rifle.”
But the genius bit comes right before the end, and it’s due to Weaver’s performance. Ripley finishes all her weaponry busywork and takes a moment to collect herself. She closes her eyes, gets centered, and then gets her game face on. Like: “This is going to be horrible and I’m going to do it anyway.”
The moment is, oddly, relatable. None of us have ridden a cargo elevator to fight aliens. But that “preparing for confrontation” feeling, that moment of resolve in the face of doing something you really don’t want to do, is universal.
In many films since Aliens, lead female action heroes show their toughness by beating people up — a kick-ass heroine is proved by the character literally kicking ass. Ripley doesn’t hit or kick anybody in Aliens (other than shoving the loathsome Carter Burke against a wall). Ripley's toughness is in her intelligence, resourcefulness, and bravery. She’s not fearless, she’s smartly fearful while surrounded by foolishly overconfident Marines. But then she does the noble thing despite her fear.
Weaver was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Aliens, but lost to Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God. After 34 years, Weaver's performance holds up as an incredible performance that transcends the genre.