In Ridley Scott’s outstanding cosmic-horror film, Alien (1979), Sigourney Weaver brought to life a tough heroine in the character of Ripley, the film’s sole human survivor. (The ship’s cat, Jones, survives through all of the first three Alien pictures, for all we know, thanks to his rescue by Ripley.) After touching down on a distant, barren planet and enduring the horrors of being hunted by an alien aboard the working-class ore-hauling spaceship, the Nostromo, she escapes the ordeal aboard a shuttle called Narcissus, where she enters stasis, called hypersleep, for the long journey back to Earth.
I doubt anyone involved in the production of Alien meant it this way, but Ripley’s visit to that alien planet and her experiences in the crucible of the Nostromo were the catalyst for her apotheosis. She entered hypersleep as a mortal woman—entombed like a pharaoh with a cat—but she emerged in James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens (1986), as something more. This essay looks not at Ripley, the survivor of Alien, but at Ripley, the heroine of the special-edition cuts of Aliens and Alien 3 (1992).
This Ripley is a mythic figure, a goddess both imperfect and powerful, whose searching and suffering are grounded in human motives and pain but played out on a grand, cosmic stage with the fate of humanity at stake.
The mythology of Ripley’s galaxy is not exactly the same as that of our Earth. Important figures take on different guises and forms in outer space than they did in the classical world, and not every facet of the future is mythic in attitude or scope. Sometimes a pulse rifle is just a pulse rifle.
To be clear, this is a reading of a cinematic universe as it exists in the eyes of one viewer—me—not a speculation on the intentions of the filmmakers. Put another way, this is quasi-academic bullshit. I’m asking you to consider another way of looking at Ripley, not arguing for one “true” interpretation of these films. This way of looking at Aliens takes us back in time, not to the productions of Aliens or Alien, but back past antiquity into the shadowy prehistory of legend, to a story older than the Olympians…
Part 1: Mythic Roles
The Demeter Myth
Demeter is an old goddess. Her story has been told in the vicinity of the Mediterranean since ancient days. She was incorporated into the Olympian cosmogony as a sister to Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus.
Not to be confused with her grandmother, Gaia (the earth), Demeter’s purview was not the earth itself but rather its generative power, its seasons and fertility, and the harvest. Demeter taught mortals the secrets of agriculture. Notions of fertility and the harvest put the cycle of life and death into her portfolio, too.
The earliest rites honoring Demeter became the Eleusinian mysteries, ceremonies from Mycenean Greece (c. 1500 BCE) that commemorated the tale of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone—a tale of loss, woe, and reunion to explain the earthly seasons. The Eleusinian mysteries were kind of a big deal, initiating mortal folk in a grand and holy cycle that conferred the promise of immortality, via the afterlife or an existence elevated beyond the mortal sphere as immortal gods. The mysteries, like the tale they venerate, were about death and the cycle of life. Their secret traditions survived for long centuries (until about 400 CE) and, of course, the story of Demeter and Persephone is still told.
Like any myth, the tale lives in variations. Different versions of the myth, from ancient days to the Homeric hymns to modern interpretations, choose to dwell on different details. Here’s the gist of it:
Demeter and her brother, Zeus, had a daughter called Persephone, sometimes called Kore (“the maiden”). Hades, lord of the underworld, wanted Persephone to be his bride. Zeus gave Hades his permission to one day take her as such but Hades chose not to wait. (Notice that Demeter was apparently not consulted.) When Persephone was out gathering flowers, Hades kidnapped her back to his home in the underworld.
When she could not find Persephone, Demeter became distraught. She would not eat or drink or bathe until she found her daughter. This is the first stage of the myth: the loss and the descent.
She searched across land and sea. She asked mortals and gods alike for answers but found only ignorance and lies. In some accounts, Hecate, who overheard Persephone’s capture but did not see it, comes to aid Demeter in her search. During the search, Demeter’s journeys bring her to various locales and into numerous tales, depending on the teller. She came to Eleusis and taught the people there how to worship her, thus beginning the Eleusinian mysteries. She taught agriculture to the mortal, Triptolemus, and bade him to spread knowledge and grain across the earth. This is the second stage of the myth: the search.
Still, Demeter, furious and heartbroken, denied the earth her power. Crops died. Nothing grew. Winter came to the land.
Zeus, fearing an ill fate for mortal kind, intervened. Zeus dispatched Hermes to Hades with an order to send Persephone home. Hades, sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes with a grin, obliged his brother, Zeus. Persephone and Demeter were reunited. This is the third stage of the myth: the ascent.
Alas, while in Hades’ realm, Persephone ate a number of pomegranate seeds. (Sometimes it is just one, in other tellings it is four or six seeds.) Having tasted the food of the underworld, Persephone must return. Even Demeter accepted this was the way of it. So Persephone lived in two worlds, dividing her time between the underworld and her mother.
Thus the cycle was made. When Persephone is with Demeter, Demeter is glad and the earth is fertile and crops grow. When Persephone is with Hades, Demeter is forlorn and winter comes to Earth.
Thus the annual, seasonal cycle of life and death becomes a tale of mothers and daughters, of divine beings with earthly emotions and pains, of gods with broken hearts. And the tale over time gets told and retold, its characters adapted and interpreted and alluded to until, eventually, Persephone becomes an interstellar colonist and Demeter becomes a heartsick astronaut.
Ripley Is Demeter
Aliens is a new interpretation of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. It is reorganized, remixed, and renovated, but all the essential components are there. Sometimes those components are contorted, sometimes confounded, but the elemental substance of the story is on screen amid the starships, flamethrowers, and androids.
Ripley is Demeter. She doesn’t go through any literal transformation during her 57-year voyage from the Nostromo fireball to Gateway Station in orbit of Earth but she goes through an important figurative change. Ripley transforms from the human being she was in Scott’s Alien to a figure both human and supernal in Cameron’s sequel. We might say Ripley’s defeat of the alien in the first film was her symbolic initiation into some stellar version of the Eleusinian mysteries, raising her up above mortal ken, or we might simply attribute it to Cameron’s authorial vision for the character. However you choose to look at it, Ripley’s supernal quality is there on screen in her reintroduction near the beginning of Aliens, in a shot that transitions from Ripley’s face to an image of the Earth.
Granted, that transition carries us from the escape shuttle, Narcissus (a flower sacred to Demeter), into Ripley’s post-traumatic nightmare rather her reality, but that’s fitting both as a cinematic device and as a means of underlining that Ripley’s deification is symbolic. This establishes that her role in the story is divine but that her powers and vulnerabilities are those of mortal humans. (This also establishes Ripley’s reasons for both turning down the Company’s call to adventure and for answering it, later on, but remember: Ripley’s tale is not the archetypal hero’s journey but rather that of the Demeter myth.)
Not every role in this telling corresponds directly to a single figure in the source myth, though. Newt is a Persephone in this version of the myth and so is Ripley’s deceased biological daughter, Amanda. Each Persephone plays a subtly different and important part in Ripley’s myth. (The presence of multiple Persephones also proves important to understanding the mythic mire of Alien 3.)
Bishop, meanwhile, takes on some of the duties of Hecate, the magical companion of many and varied aspects—both man and machine, advisor and servant—but is also Hermes, the bearer of messages and the one who flies into Hades’ realm for the purpose of returning Persephone. He brings Ripley true news when he reveals that Company man Carter Burke has called for the transport of the alien facehuggers back to Earth but, as a representative of the Company, Bishop is also a target of Ripley’s ire and distrust. Understandable, after having been previously lied to, imperiled, and denigrated by the Company and its android agents. As Demeter was wroth with those who kept Persephone from her with lies or obstructions, Ripley is angry with Bishop for the lies and perils that caused her to miss all her daughter, Amanda’s, many birthdays.
The many colonial marines—Hicks, Vasquez, Apone, Hudson, et al—stand for mortal kind. They demonstrate the dangers of traveling the underworld, die during Demeter’s despondency, and dramatize the bloodlust of Hades and the aliens. They’re part of a secondary dramatic thread in the film, providing sinew and gristle for some of the story’s action and suspense beats. Ripley’s story is the beating heart of the picture. The marines and colonists provide their blood as gore. (Note, though, how little human blood actually appears on screen in Aliens, particularly when compared to the blood of aliens and androids.) Still, while the mortals of the Alien universe may be insignificant in the regard of a vast, dangerous, and indifferent galaxy, they have significant narrative power. They get us laughing and cringing and gasping as they joke and dread and die. They light up a dark planet with the muzzle flashes of M41a pulse rifles, they struggle to survive an onslaught of organisms with perfected murderous lust, and we hope and fear for them because they are us.
The mythic significance in Aliens isn’t limited to Ripley and her companions. The film is brimming with allusions that play out over the course of the film, giving new ways to read the cinematic text.
The Company, for example, is potent and pervasive, either amoral or immoral in its ambitions, yet its presence and authority is so complete, perhaps so ubiquitous, that Ripley apparently has nowhere else to go even after her experiences aboard the Nostromo. Properly called Weyland-Yutani (their slogan: “Building Better Worlds”), the Company takes action through many guises: orders relayed through arcane computers, secret android minions, and smiling executives, to name a few. Thus the Company may be Zeus, maker of the breathable air on colony worlds; Zeus, who sent Newt to LV-426 to live and, in the shadow of Hades, to dwell among the dead; Zeus, brother to Hades and alike in appetites. After all, the Company is not so unlike the alien xenomorphs. In Alien, Ash described the alien: “A survivor. Unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” The same is true of the Company.
The Company also has features in common with the alien pilot of the derelict spacecraft discovered on LV-426 in the Zeta 2 Reticula star system—lovingly called the “space jockey.” If we follow Ridley Scott’s premise, reported in director’s commentary, and see the derelict spacecraft as some kind of bio-weapons bomber meant to deliver xenomorph eggs to enemy worlds, then the Company has much in common with the space jockey. They both view Ash’s “perfect organism” as a potential weapon. And in that weaponry, the Company sees profit. Since the space jockey is an aged and mysterious creature, possibly from the distant past, its mythic role would seem to be analogous to that of a Titan. The Company, then, fits nicely as Zeus, the god who sought to wrest control of the world from his Titan father.
Acheron and Outer Space
The planet catalogued as LV-426, in the Zeta 2 Reticula star system, is also known as Acheron. On Ripley’s first visit, in Alien, the planet is an uninhabitable and chaotic nightmare of choking gases and barren rocks. Its only residents seem to be the dead space jockey and his lethal cargo. It is a place of ancient wonder and malice.
Some time after Ripley’s first visit to the planet, the Company comes and begins to transform the place with atmosphere processors. Takes decades. But it is within the power of Zeus, whose terrestrial realm is the sky as Poseidon’s is the sea and Hades’ is the underworld.
Although the Company meddles with the planet’s sky, it cannot wholly undue the nature of the place. It is still home to a payload of alien eggs. It is still gloomy Acheron.
In Greek myths, Acheron is one of the five rivers of the underworld and sometimes also a name for Hades’ own territory. Mythic notions of the underworld changed considerably over time, but the place was often understood to have several layers and regions separated by rivers like Acheron and Styx. Below Hades’ realm was Tartarus, pit and prison of the Titans, for example.
The underworld of the future is similarly layered. The cosmos themselves—the cold void of space—are part of the film’s mythic underworld, like rivers through nothingness. Acheron represents a deeper, darker domain within that underworld.
Acheron the planet, then, can be seen as a dark counterpart to Earth, as another cosmic sphere. Not everything unfolds there as it does in Earthly myths. There, for example, Hades is not a king but a twisted shadow queen and a grim distortion of Demeter.
The xenomorphs of Aliens are bleak and horrifying monsters, borne of us, dwelling in the depths of Zeus’ handiwork, the atmosphere processor. Each alien represents a dead colonist. Each alien is a mocking shade dwelling in Hades’ realm, its humanity flayed away, shed like a husk, until only its animal instincts—to eat, to procreate (the dead)—remain.
The xenomorphs are alien monsters but they are also ghosts in service of Hades. They do not attack to feed themselves but to drag the living deeper into Acheron, to make more of their own kind. They deliver the living to their alien eggs, to multiply the dead.
When Ripley and her comrades speculate about the source of the alien eggs, Ripley asks, “So who’s laying these eggs?”
Bishop replies, “I’m not sure. It must be something we haven’t seen yet.”
Hades means “the unseen one.”
The alien queen is Hades. She dwells in the dark depths of Acheron, beneath a mighty castle built by Zeus, amid the shades. Regal and terrible, she covets the living, seeing each living colonist body as fertile ground for the breeding of death. Her lair is a nest scattered with profane fruit grown from her own fertile sac: her eggs.
The queen’s eggs are the pomegranates of this Hades’ underworld. As mockeries of the food of Earth, however, the fruit of the alien queen does not wait to be eaten. It attacks the living, prying open mouths with many-fingered facehuggers, and forces its seeds down victims’ throats. The fruit of the queen gets eaten and then it eats you. Those who eat the pomegranates of Acheron linger in the underworld as shades and ghosts, transmogrified in death.
Part 2: The Two Persephones
Ripley’s First Descent
Ripley’s mythic sequence begins while she sleeps in the void of space, between planets, between eras, over a lifetime—her daughter’s lifetime. Because this is the mythic Demeter cycle, it begins with loss and descent. Because this is a 20th-century vision of the future, and Ripley is confined to a space station on the verge between the underworld and Earth, it takes place in an artificial setting—a small orbiting garden, a virtual parkland, a video forest—hinting at Ripley’s nature and home but delivering only a semblance of it.
Dressed in the corporate uniform, Carter Burke, who seems to be Ripley’s caseworker for the Company, brings her word of her family’s fate. Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, died while Ripley was away.
Even though Amanda grew to adulthood, had a life of her own, and died on Earth, from Ripley’s perspective it feels as though Amanda has been taken from her. Or, more accurately, whether or not Amanda has been taken, Ripley has lost her. That loss is real. Unlike Demeter, Ripley has no one person to blame. She can blame the Company for her mission to Acheron but she cannot expect to seek out and find Amanda. She cannot get her back.
Note that Ripley never, in the text of the film, sets foot on Earth, where she might regain peace and power. Instead, Ripley descends into anger and despair, drudgery and tears. She argues with the Company, she takes on a job in the loading docks, she wakes up sweating from traumatic nightmares, but she never returns to Earth. She stays in orbit, smoking cigarettes in a tiny apartment on the edge of space, in the fringes of the underworld. She punishes herself.
When Burke comes to offer her an assignment for the Company, Ripley turns him down. She is still in the first stage of her mythic cycle: loss and descent.
When she finally hits bottom, she calls Burke, waking him up, and agrees to a voyage back through the underworld, to Acheron, a place of death. So begins the second stage of her cycle: the search.
Ripley may not know what exactly she’s searching for—peace, confidence, closure, battle—but as Demeter she intends to roam the land of the dead looking for what she lost: her daughter. Ripley’s search is short. After meeting the marines and exploring the aftermath of the alien attacks on the colony compound, Ripley makes a fateful discovery. She finds a daughter, Newt, who has lost her mother. Each plays the mythic role the other obviously needs. Ripley, the mother, has found a daughter to rescue from the underworld.
This relationship is a metaphorical shadow. Newt is not the ghost of Ripley’s daughter and Ripley is not really Newt’s mother. Rescuing Newt may help Ripley accept a return to Earth and fulfill her role as a mother but it cannot bring Amanda back from the dead.
Perhaps Ripley can ritually consecrate her adoption of Newt by enacting the Demeter myth again? Hades is happy to oblige.
Ripley’s Second Descent
Alien warriors, the soldiers of Hades, attack Ripley, Newt, and the surviving marines while Bishop is off summoning their flying mount. Newt is separated from Ripley in a fall and ends up in the lower reaches of the colony, in what may be a river of Hades. Ripley and Hicks rush to the rescue, torching their way toward Newt, but Hades’ shades are quick. Newt is carried off to Hades’ realm.
So Ripley begins her mythic sequence again, with a second loss and descent. This time, though, Ripley has a chance to take action and save her newfound daughter. (Not a big chance, because the atmosphere processor will soon detonate and lay a nuclear winter over a Nebraska-sized region of Acheron, but a chance.) With mortal Hicks incapacitated by an alien, Ripley must count on her mythic ally, Bishop, to help her in her quest.
According to the Homeric hymn to Demeter, the goddess searched “with flaming torches in her hands,” but Ripley brings a pulse rifle and a flamethrower, strapped together.
Ripley’s second descent takes her through lightning, smoke, and fire into Hades’ realm beneath the atmosphere processor. She descends down an elevator shaft while a disembodied voice—a chorus, perhaps—warns her that time is running out, that doom is nigh. Then the elevator doors open… and Ripley begins her second search.
Ripley follows Newt’s beacon deeper in the underworld, where Newt has been bound and chained before a pomegranate of Acheron. Ripley’s search succeeds—but with a twist. She pulls her adopted daughter out of Hades’ grip before she can eat (and be eaten by) the pomegranate seeds. This is a triumph denied to Demeter.
Before Ripley and Newt can begin stage three of their cycle, however, they stumble into the monsters’ lair, wherein dwells Demeter’s awful and grotesque counterpart, the Queen of Hades, imagined as a twisted materfamilias and a parody of Ripley’s motherhood. Here we see the first true demonstration of Ripley’s wrath, of the might granted to her when her divine power is restored: she puts the fields of Hades to flame.
Leaving the alien queen to die either amid her burning brood or in the colossal explosion coming from the atmosphere processor, Ripley and Newt enact the third stage of their mythic sequence and ascend back up the elevator shaft to a nigh-climactic rescue by winged Bishop in Hermes mode. The fleeing survivors take to the air and to orbit just as Hades’ castle explodes below.
But, of course, that’s not the end.
Ripley’s Ascent: The Mothers Battle
After a quick celebratory beat in which Ripley praises Bishop as an ally, we are reminded that our ascent is not yet complete. Hades spears the magic-robot Hecate before tearing him apart. We’re not out of the underworld yet.
And so we get a final battle between the mothers—Ripley and the Queen—above Acheron, on a ship floating in the void. They battle for final possession of Newt, who was promised to Hades and, in Earthly myth, is meant to divide her year between Demeter and Hades. Out here in the starry, eldritch depths beyond Earth, where myth has been contorted already, the fight could go either way.
This does a few things: it gives us a final, breathless action beat to mimic and magnify the finale of the previous film (part of Aliens’ duty as a sequel). It also demonstrates Ripley’s heightened power now that she has ritually enacted the Demeter myth to adopt Newt. Finally, it tells us that Ripley and Newt are not safe on this side of the Acheron—Hades can still reach them here. Demeter is not yet back to Earthly soil.
In this battle, Ripley uses a skill she learned in her grief, during her first descent, while working in the space station’s loading docks, to combat her nasty counterpart. Ripley wears her grief (you know, the power-loader) like armor, wields it like a hammer (and a torch), and takes on Hades in a hand-to-hand battle like warriors of old.
After a harrowing fight, Demeter is victorious and Hades is cast back out of the boat and into the underworld.
Ripley lays wounded Hicks and broken Bishop into their beds for stasis. Reunited as mother and daughter, Ripley and Newt put themselves into hypersleep for the long voyage back to Earth. Having confronted their monsters and broken the seasonal cycle that left Demeter heartsick on Earth, perhaps they can dream in peaceful sleep.
Except. Ripley achieved one ascent after the rescue of Newt but she descended twice. Her descent and search for Newt occurred partway through the mythic sequence that was playing out when Ripley discovered Newt the first time. That first mythic sequence remains incomplete; there’s been only one ascent.
Ripley’s escape from the underworld is still incomplete. She has fled (and destroyed) the deeper lair of Hades but she is still not out of the larger underworld. The interstellar reaches between Acheron and Earth are still unsafe. Yet she must brave hypersleep and its risks again.
When last Ripley traveled from the underworld back toward Earth, she lost her daughter while she slept. What happens when Ripley ventures in sleep toward Earth this time?
Part 3: Labyrinthine Tartarus
Journey To Fury
Once again, Ripley goes to sleep and, once again, she loses a daughter. This time, however, the film is all descent and search—there’s no escape for Ripley.
It turns out that Ripley, rather than her daughter, has consumed a seed of the underworld and, thus, is impregnated with the daughter of Hades. Demeter thereby becomes host to a cycle of death and rebirth but, in this strange tale, it is no earthly life, no earthly cycle. Demeter’s loss and descent rattle the whole film, infusing it with madness, sorrow, and dread.
Grim twists to both plot and myth abound in Alien 3. The film twists the mythic Demeter cycle and juxtaposes it with a slew of strange and hellish allusions. Ripley told Newt it was safe to dream but Ripley awakens to a nightmare. This may be the risk of sleeping in the underworld. For Ripley, if she is not ever vigilant, if she ever rests, she loses her daughter.
This is not the mythic cycle of Demeter but it may be the mythic cycle of Ellen Ripley.
Since Ripley had not yet succeeded in her second ascent from the underworld that is interstellar space, she and Newt probably had little chance of reaching the peace and safety of Earth. When Ripley told Newt that it was safe to dream, she wasn’t altogether wrong. In hypersleep, Newt finds permanent refuge from the aliens and the Company. She transitions from sleep through water, through fire, to eternal rest. Ripley had successfully saved her from the Queen of Hades but not from the underworld.
Newt—like Hicks—is spared the sad and grisly purgatory of Fury 161, perhaps because they are innocent. Ripley, who has slain the Queen of Hades and yet carries her chthonic embryo, must be purged of sin—sin manifested by the alien presence, sin perhaps obtained by trying to defy her mythic role in previous film. At the same time, she must come to accept that she cannot have her old life back. She must accept loss, she must accept grief, she must accept that the evil that has been done to her cannot be undone. The old Ripley is gone but, sadly and powerfully, she can keep the evil from perpetuating by letting go of the mortal woman who was Ripley.
Fire and Water
The role of water and fire in Ripley’s arrival at Fury 161 is important. First, the Sulaco is compromised by a fire started when alien acid burns through the deck. Then, Newt drowns en route back to the land of the living. Ripley turns up on the oily shore of a dead planet.
(This may symbolize Demeter’s mythic union with Oceanus, the river that encircles the world, a watery body that is both river and ocean. Ripley’s entanglement with the ocean is not by choice and it leaves her skin dirty and crawling with bugs. The sea of Fury may also allude to Demeter’s rape by Poseidon during her search for Persephone (as told in some versions of the myth), an attack which left Demeter pregnant. Images of rape appear throughout Alien 3.)
Fire, in the previous two movies, has been a human tool, a weapon against the aliens. (Ripley even comments on it.) Here, even during the opening titles of Alien 3, beginning with a fire-like nebula licking down from above, the role of fire is immediately inverted. Fire cremates Newt’s and Hicks’ bodies (and Amanda was reported cremated in Aliens), perhaps indicating that they are out of reach of the aliens now. Fire burns the prisoners who try to slay the alien running loose beneath the planet. Fire has turned against us here.
Water is not much safer here. Water claims Newt’s life. Yet, at the same time, it is ultimately the waters of this strange planet that slay the alien: a bath of molten, liquid lead and a rain of cold water.
Elemental forces are at play here—primordial forces. In the hellscape of Fury 161, it is the chaotic interaction of forces—human and alien, fire and water, hot and cold—that determine the fates of everyone trapped there.
A variety of mythic elements live in the text and subtext of Alien 3, scrambled and discombobulated, befitting the chaos and discord not only of this terrible place but also of Ripley’s distraught heart. Here Ripley suffers a new loss and descent, but it’s all jumbled and messy. She grieves, shedding her hair and donning dirty clothes. She attempts to turn to physical pleasures, like sex (the only human sex in the movies up to this point), which she undertakes with a mortal who exists between states, part prisoner and part caregiver. Instead of searching for her missing daughter, though, she carries an unwanted monstrous daughter and searches for the “dragon” loose on Fury.
Fury 161 is a prison with most of the prisoners gone. In a sense, it is plainly Tartarus—pit and prison to monsters and Titans, located some great distance beneath even Hades—but in a bleak future vision where most of the prisoners have been released. (Perhaps they were released in the same way that Zeus loosed monsters from Tartarus to battle the Titans.)
A planet called Fury also clearly summons up the Furies of Roman myth, known to the Greeks as Erinyes. They were vengeful creatures embodying bloody wrath. They were invoked to punish oath-breakers but they were also jailers and tormenters in Tartarus. In some accounts, they are adorned with serpents or have the bodies of dogs, aligning nicely with the roaming alien horror in the film. (Admittedly, this works better with the dog-monster in the theatrical edition of the film.)
Here in the mad pit of Tartarus, images and mythologies clash and collide. Demeter finds herself caught in a holy space that was not meant for her—an inversion of the festival of Thesmophoria, in which the women of the age commemorated the third of the year Demeter spent alone, without Persephone. Here Demeter is alone, surrounded by men ordained in a religion not her own, where sympathy seems a rarity.
For answers, Ripley must turn to an old ally, summoned up from death: Bishop. The android takes on another form in this film: the talkative dead. He is a shadow of himself, still both a person and a possession, still both a servant and an advisor, but he exists only in spirit, summoned to a broken body by technical rites Ripley performs from memory.
On Fury, the Company changes form, too. Instead of manifesting through agents of a distant Olympian power, the Company appears as a familiar face spouting lies, flanked by faceless soldiers. The Company, seen through the smoke and fiery air of Fury, becomes a smiling, lying devil chasing its greed. It only wants the alien.
The Alien With A Thousand Faces
A lion. A dragon. A beast. The alien loose on Fury 161 is many things. To the Company, it is both peril and profit. To the mad prisoner, Golic, it is a commanding dragon. To Ripley, it’s like a lion: “It sticks close to the zebras.” The alien itself changes form in this picture, modeling itself on an ox (or a dog, depending) rather than a human. In the mythic text of the film, it is a veritable shapeshifter, taking on multiple symbolic forms.
Livestock are sacred to Demeter. When borne of an ox, the alien represents fertility and power, a mockery of Demeter’s own purview and authority. The alien sacrifices a bull to summon forth itself as a monster borne of alien and bull: the minotaur of the labyrinth that is Fury 161.
(When borne of a dog, the alien may represent Cerberus, another agent of the underworld loose in Ripley’s life, birthed in that case by an animal representing domesticity and loyalty, symbolizing the destruction of both. Ripley is now untamed, without her biological or surrogate family, without company or comrades to trust.)
Note that the alien, in this film, slays its prey rather than dragging it away to be a host for facehuggers, because this alien is wrathful, a Fury, where those in Aliens were lustful shades. In the human population of Fury 161 it finds a slew of criminals with victims to be avenged. (The superintendent dies despite not being a criminal but his aide, called Eighty-Five, is slain not by the beast but by the Company.) The alien does not target Ripley because she has been punished already (the alien might say blessed) by the presence of a forthcoming queen. Also, Ripley is not a convict with victims to be avenged, unlike the rest of the alien’s prey on this planet.
Death and Dreams
Ripley lingers on Fury, in grief, for a while, but ends up traveling through fire to the afterlife. With the dragon slain, Ripley surrenders her search in favor of a final pursuit after Newt and Amanda, through fire. This is her final, martyr-like ascent—which of course requires a fall in the twisted and backwards hellscape of Fury 161—that will permanently reunite her with her daughters in death. Thus Ripley breaks the mythic cycle of sleep and terror, of monsters and daughters, via her own death. She escapes the underworld through cleansing fire, destroying the alien daughter of Hades and Demeter in the process.
So ends Ripley’s nightmare. Alien 3 employs a kind of strange, dream-like logic throughout, combining a macabre premise with gruesome imagery and heartbreak to show us what might well be Ripley’s worst-case scenario following the hopeful conclusion of Aliens. It’s a gutsy, bloody vision of Ripley’s fears, from the lurking egg to the alien attack to the fall through space. Another daughter dies. The alien monster behaves unlike the aliens in previous encounters. She triumphs over the aliens only in death. Alien 3 is Ripley’s desolate winter—a downhearted, horrific hypersleep nightmare—telling us that no one, not the gods themselves, can travel the underworld without peril and fear.
Yet, despite the terror and dread, Ripley has made her mark on a vast, cold cosmos. She has defied her mythic role, transformed from mother to martyr, and despite the abyss of space, we have heard her scream.