Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sensor Scan: Alien

I actually went back and forth a bit on whether to cover Alien or not. It is certainly one of the most important movies from this period and a landmark in its genre: I'm not disputing that. The influence on Star Trek, at least of this particular film, is tenuous at best, but it's not like that's ever stopped me before and Alien does do many things right that subsequent science fiction works should emulate more frequently. The catch was never whether Alien was an important movie worthy of discussion, but whether or not it was an important science fiction movie, because in spite of its futuristic outer space setting, Alien is actually more properly thought of as a horror movie.

However, there's simply no getting out of talking about the sequel in 1986 and there's another movie related to this one I'd kind of like to talk about a bit once we reach the 1990s, so to LV-426 we go.

Like Star Wars before it, Alien is a movie about which I have extremely little to add to the discourse that's already out in the wild, and this time I don't have an especially meaningful personal story to relate to make up for my lack of erudition. Its setpieces are, of course, iconic, and all of its most memorable themes and scenes have been analysed and re-analysed countless times over. I'm reasonably confidant anyone reading this knows what this movie is and what it does, so there's not a ton of new material to build an essay out of here. But there is some. There are three primary things I'd like to discuss about Alien and its impact: The first is that, as horror movie expert James Rolfe points out, Alien is fundamentally a slasher movie set in outer space. More specifically, it's a throwback to the old haunted house movies that characterized the early 1930s, where a group of ill-prepared travellers show up somewhere they're not supposed to, come into contact with some kind of supernatural horror and get picked off one by one.

Alien's major innovation in this regard is that the slasher villain is an extraterrestrial and the haunted house is a crashed spaceship on a foreboding planet on the edge of outer space in the far future. But while the trappings are horror, the plot is very heavily indebted to B-movie science fiction of the 1950s, namely It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which Alien is, plot-wise, essentially the exact same movie as. This is both completely intentional and completely forgivable: Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, who we'll be talking a great deal about in this entry, flat out said “I didn't steal from anyone. I stole from everyone.” in regards to his script for Alien. Forgivable firstly because that's so charmingly glib, but also because Alien is a case study in how actually unimportant plot is to crafting a successful and influential work of fiction. Alien is of course legendary for the way it conveys narrative through atmosphere and setting, and director Ridley Scott and designer H.R. Giger get a lot of credit in this regard, as well they should: Scott's direction gives the film a dark, claustrophobic feeling and Giger's designs for the ships, the landscape and the alien itself are famously nightmarish and twisted.

There's also a significant class aspect to the setting that's very much worth commenting on: The Nostromo is explicitly a floating refinery and ore processing unit, and its crew are miners and engineers in the employ of the massive Weyland-Yutani corporation. Alien isn't quite the first time such overtly working-class space travellers were depicted, but it is the first time they're given such explicit focus in a massively populist work of blockbuster Soda Pop Art, especially when they're so clearly meant to be the sympathetic heroes: Weyland-Yutani was ready to sacrifice the entire crew to bring back one of the aliens so they could use it as a doomsday weapon, and sent the android Ash in disguise as a science officer to ensure the plan went off without a hitch.

Treating its employees as expendable worker units, not to mention attempting to weaponize something as horrific as the alien, marks Weyland-Yutani as obviously evil, but the fact they didn't install any oversight apart from one android supervisor to oversee such a delicate operation marks them as pretty incompetent too. This means that, among everything else it does, Alien also manages to get a fairly comprehensive and damning critique of the corporatist mentality on actual movie screens in 1979, the dawn of the greed-and-misanthropy fueled Neoconservative revolution, which is a truly remarkable achievement that ought to be considered among the rest of the film's substantial legacy.

Alien is also known for its feminist motifs and examination of gender roles. Most people like to point to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, the first motion picture action heroine, as the prime example of this, but she's actually a feint (in fact, she was supposed to be a man until a last-minute rewrite). Alien is, in fact, a sexual horror movie, and this informs everything it does in regard to gender. The idea is not as straightforwardly bizarre as it might seem: There is a shared malaise and uneasiness in regard to sexuality, a genuine fear of sex, in Western culture that Alien deliberately plays off of: As I mentioned in the context of “Mudd's Women”, because of the network of taboos associated with sexuality, sexual desire and nudity in Western societies, there's an accompanying sense of guilt and confusion that winds up stunting emotional growth and leads to many of the problems with attitudes toward sexuality we see today. And, perhaps fittingly, this is where the film's feminist themes come through as well. Not strictly from Ripley herself, though she's a part of it: No, the real feminism in Alien comes from a far more disturbing place: Its lurking, predatory sexual imagery.

Everyone comments on H.R. Giger's famous sexually-charged designs, such as the extremely phallic alien head, mouth and tail, Space Jockey seat and starship, as well as the facehugger, which resembles a cross between a penis and a vagina. Then there is, of course, “Mother” and the climactic chase through a darkened tunnel where a woman in torn clothing is being chased by a drooling, mindlessly violent penis monster. It actually goes even deeper than that, however: The interior of the Space Jockey ship has very vaginal-shaped openings and tunnels, and Scott shoots the scene where the crew inspects the cargo of alien eggs a very specific way. Crucially, however, Alien doesn't make its monster a stand-in for straightforward sexual desire, either to explore Western sexual fear or as an act of subversive rebellion (that's the next H.R. Giger sci-fi horror movie): Rather, it takes a specific cultural narrative about and attitude toward sexuality and depicts that as horrifying and monstrous.

And this is not Ridley Scott's doing. This is the work of Dan O'Bannon (with help from Giger), and this was in truth the entire impetus for Alien in the first place. And O'Bannon is not shy about this in the slightest-In a retrospective interview about the entire franchise, O'Bannon describes his goals for the original Alien like this:

"One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex...I said 'That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually. And I'm not going to go after the women in the audience, I'm going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.'"

Much has been made about the underlying rape motifs in Alien and the overtures it makes to rape culture. And this is all perfectly valid: Alien is *absolutely* about rape culture. But Alien doesn't *subscribe* to rape culture, not in the slightest: Rather, it takes the rape culture of men and throws it back in their faces. It forcibly subjects men to the fear, shame and depersonalization they put women through on a daily basis. There's the famous part with Kane and the facehugger, but what's not picked up on as often is that this was totally telegraphed. That scene I mentioned above, where the crew goes to inspect the alien eggs for the first time? Kane is the character in that scene too. But the other side of that scene we're supposed to notice is that Kane was implicitly “raping” the Space Jockey ship. Kane makes his way through the vaginal doorways to the ship's “womb”, which is full of alien eggs, where he finds the one that promptly hatches. Kane is, in fact, a sperm cell, and his very presence is what fertilizes the alien egg and causes his undoing, and, by extension, that of the entire crew.

(I'm not the only one who's noticed this, by the way: Cracked even did a whole article on it, for which I am quite grateful.)

This is where Alien's haunted house trappings come back into play: Just as the hapless travellers are not supposed to be in the haunted house, the Weyland-Yutani corporation (and they are the ultimate villains here, not the crew they sent on this doomed mission: Blaming them would be akin to blaming spermatocites-Spermatocites too frightened to understand what's going on) is not supposed to be on LV-426. Its presence and overtures are flatly not welcome, and its persistence is directly responsible for unleashing the horror of the alien. Weyland-Yutani, the idealized masculine corporate body of late capitalism taken to the extreme, is a rapist in more than one sense: Its treatment of its workers and plans for the alien are evil, so when it all backfires thanks to its incompetence it's at once grotesque and cathartic to see its attempts at greed and domination brutally undone. But if Alien is an anti-corporatist screed, it's still primarily an incidental one, and it's important to remember the movie's real target is institutionalized rape culture in all its forms. And that means that anyone who has partaken in rape culture is equally as guilty and frightening as Weyland-Yutani and the extraterrestrial monster who stalks helpless victims through corridors.

This is where the film's true strength becomes clear: Its reappropriation of the rape culture narrative. Did you ever notice how, in spite of being unbelievably phallic, the alien must by definition be female (or at least partly female), because it lays eggs? This is the end result of Alien's systemic inversion of the rape culture narrative, and how O'Bannon was able to tap into every man's subconscious fear-A monster with the single-minded violent determination of a male rapist, but who's actually female. A female entity capable of dehumanizing and subjugating men with the same effortless power men have traditionally asserted over women. Alien, and its titular monster, is the collective nightmares and evil emotions of patriarchy given form and will and unleashed to terrorize the minds and bodies of the masculine oppressors to show them the true depths of their monstrousness...and to remind us how destructive such attitudes ultimately are.

It is impossible to overstate how important this is. And, despite Alien not actually being fully sci-fi, this has tremendous repercussions for any sci-fi work made in its wake. Science fiction as a genre, unique even among a lot of other kinds of fiction, is appallingly glib and capricious about rape. Any number of the B-movies Alien itself lifts from freely and happily engaged with it, another thing that makes referencing them such a genius movie on O'Bannon's part. Star Trek itself has been guilty of some shockingly inexcusable acts of rape culture already. Hell, we just came off of “The Child”, which, in spite of the strives it makes with its conception of Deltan sexuality, is still mired down in rape culture. And, in a post-Alien world, this is simply no longer acceptable. Well, I mean it never *was*, but now a cultural shift has occurred where this fact at least should be more widely understood and accepted. There's a target on the back of anyone who might dare to engage in rape apologia from now on.

It's long past time for our culture and cultural artefacts to grow the fuck up.


  1. One thing: the names "LV426" for the planet, and "Weyland-Yutani" for the corporation (which is simply called "the Company" in 'Alien') come from Cameron's sequel, in line with its dunderheaded tactic of naming and explaining as much as it can from the mysterious original.

    I hate to nitpick such a superb article, but I'm finicky about the distinctions that should properly exist between the original (which I passionately love, and which stands alone) and the other films, especially James Cameron's crashingly awful sequel, which totally misunderstood pretty much everything about the original, and basically dug up the original film in order to desecrate its corpse.

    1. I respect Jim Cameron's Aliens as a very well-made sci-fi-action movie. But, like you Jack, I consider it, philosophically, the worst of the four Ripley-Alien films. They're each very much dominated by the strongest creative forces in their productions, for better (Dan O'Bannon, David Fincher, Joss Whedon) or worse (Jim Cameron). We have this inversion of rape culture, a meditation on the stark nature of death and suffering, and Whedon's first crack at the theme of how the continuation of a story breaks its ethical narrative coherence, which he'd revisit in Buffy.

      Reading back the continuity points invented later is sometimes sadly typical of science-fiction. It was a habit of my own when I was a teenager, believing that the most fascinating thing about the sci-fi worlds I loved were all the details about its world. World-building is an impressive sci-fi feat, but more often than not, it detracts from what is truly remarkable about the stories. In the case of Alien (or rather, now that it's become the Alien universe), Cameron probably thought he was doing the film a service by making its world more specific by giving the worlds and companies specific names. He was world-building.

      A problem Star Trek will certainly face as the Vaka Rangi project continues is the weight of retroactive continuity constraining the types of stories that a writer can tell in a given sci-fi world.

    2. Fair enough. It should tell you how ingrained those continuity points have become that I still wound up using those names from Aliens even though I went out of my way to avoid mentioning the word "Xenomorph" everywhere else in the piece. It can be a bad habit since the mere "having a name to refer to" part makes things more analytically handy.

      Fun to see some people rake Aliens across the coals for the exact same things that used to get leveled at the movie I'm actually far more interested in talking about, which we can't discuss until the 1990s even though I'm already planning that essay. (For the record, the only reason Aliens is getting covered is because of Vasquez and the toy line).

    3. If I can vent about one of the things that annoys me about Aliens (1986), it's that they changed the reproductive method of the creatures in a way that made for a better climactic fight sequence but a less existentially terrifying implication. There was a scene deleted from the theatrical cut of Alien (restored on the DVD edition in the Quadrilogy box) that shows Ripley encountering the crew members who were disappeared by the alien, but whose deaths were never explicitly shown. They were embedded in, and being transformed into, alien eggs. The implication was that the previous alien invasion of the Space Jockey ship laid eggs in almost all of that crew, which is why the creature that emerged from John Hurt resembled the Space Jockey. Presumably, if Ripley hadn't put Tom Skerritt and Harry Dean Stanton out of their misery, they would have been turned into gestating face-huggers inside the eggs, which would, in turn, create xenomorph creatures that resembled humans in parallel. Instead we get a fairly normal analogue of insect reproduction which isn't nearly so creepy and terrifying.

      Skerritt and Stanton were also both fully conscious during this conversion process, which makes it all the more dreadful. I can see why this was cut from the theatrical release, because I can see how this made the average studio executive simultaneously vomit and soil his trousers. But it's a shame, really.

      However, Aliens' (1986) relation to Alien (1979) does make for an excellent depiction of precisely how the cultural shifts of the 1980s had terrible effects for all the progressive art and film of the 1970s, which is one of my favourite eras of cinema.

    4. "If I can vent about one of the things that annoys me about Aliens (1986)..."

      I mean if you want, and you obviously did...But we're going to be talking about Aliens itself in the not-too-distant future and that whole essay is going to be about how it's different from this movie. least to me it would make sense to save those rants for that discussion. But who am I to say? Go wild if you want.

      I seem to have stumbled onto something of a hornet's nest with this movie. Well, if nothing else, this gives me confidence that the essay I have slotted to kick off book 5 isn't a mistake or personal indulgence then.

    5. "Weyland-Yutani" for the corporation (which is simply called "the Company" in 'Alien') come from Cameron's sequel

      Actually the name "Weylan-Yutani" (with no D, though I argue here that that's best understood as essentially a typo) is visible on the ship's computers in the first movie; it doesn't come from the sequel.

      While I'm at it I'll plug the rest of my piece about Alien.

    6. Well there you go. He who lives by pedantry, dies by pedantry.

    7. Christ, until I read this I thought I was the only one who thought Aliens was a low point of the series.

      I mean, it's not that it's a terrible movie. Taken on its own, it's a well-constructed action movie with some cool lines and a couple of great performances. I only started to hate it when I got the Alien Quadrilogy box set and watched all four movies in a row - the Special Editions / Directors' Cuts in each case. Compared to the first movie, which elevated its basic haunted house plot with a Lovecraftian sense of unknown and inexplicable horrors just beyond the bounds of normal human experience, Aliens was just an action flick, with all sense of the numinous, the spiritual, the philosophically disturbing sandblasted away in the name of more efficiently moving from plot beat to plot beat. The best example is the scene in the director's cut where Newt's family stumble across the alien spacecraft. In the first movie, the reveal of this strange and disturbing construction is rendered as a near-mystical experience, as it is glimpsed from afar half-hidden by storms and electronic interference before being eventually revealed in all its glory like a cathedral to some god of sexual horror. In Aliens, it's a quick establishing shot - look, the alien ship, let's go there - and that's your lot.

      I will, however, give props to Bill Paxton, who among this crowd of actors given tedious stock parts to play, at least works hard to give his character some level of dimensionality.

      But back to Alien. It's Giger's artwork brought to life, of course, but as much praise should also be given to Ron Cobb, who designed all the human bits of the environment. It's the best realisation I've ever seen of a sci-fi spaceship that actually looks like a thing people have built to fly through space in. You really feel that every wall panel has wires and ducts that actually make the ship work. The aesthetic triumph of Alien - and it is above all a movie in which horror is achieved through aesthetics - is the collision between the ultra-credible designs of Ron Cobb and the disturbing inhuman logic of Giger's visual world.

    8. It's hard for me to call Aliens a "low point" when AlienCubed, Alien Resurrection, the AvP series, and Prometheus all, y'know, exist.

      On a philosophical level, I will happily concede that Alien is the superior movie, but I do feel compelled to mention that there was a period when I was a kid, around 10-12, where a lot of friday nights, my mom would put on one or the other around eleven o'clock at night and I'd lay down on the floor and watch with her, and when it was Aliens, I watched the whole thing, and when it was Alien, literally every time, I'd nod off before the dinner scene.

    9. Watching them back to back, I enjoyed Alien 3 much more than Aliens. It's a flawed movie, but it has at least some of that sense of cosmic horror and philosophical attack that Aliens abandoned. I much prefer an intermittently successful attempt to achieve something good than the slick and efficient achievement of bugger all.

    10. I would also hesitate to call Aliens a low point, given the horrors of Alien Resurrection (which fumbles and banalizes some potentially interesting ideas) and the AvP movies... but I'd defend both Alien 3 and Prometheus. I think Prometheus is a flawed but interesting movie with lots of good stuff in it... it may even be part of that tiny pantheon of Hollywood movies that genuinely - if accidentally - says subversive things. Alien and Alien 3 similarly. I think Alien 3 is a much-underrated and misunderstood movie. Again, flawed, but also rather wonderful in many ways. It's one of the few artefacts of 90s grimdark to still stand up. There are bits of it that actually get into my personal head-pantheon of Favourite Bits From Movies Ever. The Whedon mess is my least favourite (Aliens as at least a watchable actioner) of the main series. AvP hardly registers for me. But then I think the entire series is much better viewed as a sequence of films which all exist in their own seperate and irreconcilable continuity. Alien 3 ends rather magnificently, but it isn't how the Ripley from Alien should end up... and Prometheus, whatever its virtues, rubbishes the original Alien if permitted to be a prequel. Luckily, it fails to convince as a prologue to Alien. The original movie - which belongs to that select group of films which have permanently rented space inside my head - is so rich, strange, perverse, individual and weird (even almost Weird with a capital W) that it remains permanently apart from all the others.

  2. Again this is a response beginning that is triggered from memory, as seems appropriate for the essays you are producing which are moving sequentially through slices of my childhood entertainment timeline.

    I must have been about 9 years when I first saw this film and I have never forgotten that night, despite the fact I hardly saw it. I was on a holiday with my parents and grandmother in a dreary little caravan park on the Northumberland coast, England. My parents were out for the night and my brother and sister were in bed. I was up with my gran and she was not really bothered what I was up to. The wind was howling, rain lashing in from the sea and all I had was little black and white TV with a tiny ariel. Somehow I had heard of Alien and got the TV working and sat up and watched this bizarre film (for 9 year old) made more odd by it made to appear noir-like in B&W, and that I was only able to see snippets of it in between blasts of fuzz and static on the TV, sitting cramped in one corner of the caravan. My gran even was roped into help me to set the ariel better and not surprisingly muttered disapproval at what she did see.

    It was exciting watching something that seemed forbidden, made even more dramatic by the weather and the setting and for that reason this film, and its sequels hold an emotional charge for me - even if the ideas are diluted in some of them. A powerful piece of work whose strength still echoes into the future versions of itself - so thanks for such a great trilogy of posts Josh!

  3. Might be a silly question, but I always thought that the Nostromo picked up the signal at random. Apart from the fact that Ash is a company stooge, where is it shown that the company was complicit in directing the Nostromo there?