“Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket.” — W. H. Auden (1)
“There is no doubt at all that today we have all kinds of scientific applications which are causing us all kinds of trouble as well as giving us all kinds of advantages.” — Richard Feynman (2)
Alien is a film that, from its very inception, was indebted to the entire history of science fiction monster-movies and pulp science fiction stories that had inspired it. The story is plainly derivative – elements from It! The Terror From Beyond Space, Forbidden Planet and The Thing From Another World appear throughout the film. Before it was exploited in the cinema, the idea of humans discovering extra-terrestrial life was already one of the most common in science fiction writing, and the theme of several seminal works. H. G. Wells had shocked readers with the possibility of Earth being invaded by aliens in The War of The Worlds, A. E. Van Vogt had charted the voyage of a deep space survey ship that discovers a derelict and haunted alien relic in The Voyage of The Space Beagle, and Robert Heinlein had imagined an intergalactic battle for supremacy against an alien species in Starship Troopers.
Says writer Dan O’Bannon:
“A lot of people speculated as to where I stole it from… the truth is I stole it from everywhere.” (3) In fact the speculation was fierce even before the release of the film, as journals Cinefantastique and American Film criticised it for its derivative nature. (4) I would argue that these criticisms have missed the point. Alien is not just another sci-fi monster movie in the tradition of so many before it; this is a text that understands and knowingly employs the conventions of the older works it imitates. The catalogue of story elements plundered from so many sources made the film into an amalgam of science fiction narratives and archetypes, evoking particularly the American science fiction cinema of the space race years (1950-1970).
“There’s a lifetime of movie-going and story reading in Alien” (5) agrees O’Bannon. What is distinctive about Alien is the way its clichéd alien encounter narrative is destabilized by a fusion of provocative themes: high technology and human sexuality.
Many critics have analysed Alien from many perspectives, but the process of analysis is almost always one of discussing interesting elements in isolation from the main body of the text. James H. Kavanagh has considered the film within a Marxist framework, while Judith Newton has reappraised it in light of contemporary feminist discourses and Barbara Creed has applied Freudian concepts of sexuality to it. (6) While these critical analyses are valuable, they contribute to a sense of the film as an ultimately incoherent whole.
I believe the writing of Vivian Sobchack offers a way forward and allows the possibility of a reading that is able to embrace all the film’s elements. Her work on American science fiction cinema has inspired much of the theory I will construct around Alien, particularly her investigation of the underlying sexual politics and psychology of American science fiction in her essay The Virginity of Astronauts. (7) My discussion is also informed by the writing of Carol Clover in her analysis of the horror genre, Men, Women and Chainsaws, and by Catherine Constable in her essay Becoming the Monster’s Mother. (8) Her application of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection to Alien is a key concept in the construction of my own argument. An alternative reading of the film is possible by reappraising the theory proposed by Constable, with reference to Sobchack and given the added dimension of historical context. The overtly sexual aspects of the film’s mise en scène and the subtler questions it raises about our relationship with technology are actually related, and can be considered together in a unified theory that acknowledges contemporary developments in science and technology.
As is so often true in science fiction, Alien is not so much about a time and a place in the future, but about the world as it was when the film was made. In looking to the future, science fiction amplifies contemporary attitudes and anxieties, often trapping in amber the social conscious and the technological zeitgeist in the process. Just as the atomic monsters of 1950s creature features reflected atomic-age anxieties, so does Alien act simultaneously as cautionary science fiction and exploitative horror, expressing the feelings of people not in the distant future, but in 1979. I will argue that Alien can be considered the preface to a decade in which emergent technologies would cause the flourishing of a new wave in science fiction literature and film. While the scenario of Alien obviously belongs to a previous era of rockets and monsters, its themes distinctly foreshadowed the works to come in the 1980s. It is a unique illustration of the ways in which science fiction can be seen to interpret and express contemporary attitudes and anxieties caused by developments in science and technology. It captures a moment in history when attitudes were changing significantly and new anxieties were emerging, and it actually represents this process of transformation on the screen by employing, subverting and exploding the previous conventions of the American science fiction film.
In her essay, The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film, Vivian Sobchack discusses why the repression of the human body – and notably the female body – in the American science fiction film is such a prevailing characteristic of the genre from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Sobchack concedes that astronauts do not feature in all science fiction films.
“Yet, astronauts are clearly those figures who centralize and visually represent the values and virtues common to all the male protagonists of the genre in a single archetypal presence.” (9) If astronauts are the archetypal male heroes of science fiction then rationality and chastity are their virtues. These films insisted that to embrace the future, we must leave behind our primitive biological inheritance and become just as cool and efficient as the technology that drives us into that future. Such attitudes were propagated in society at large, making real-life astronauts the heroes of popular culture.
“John Glenn: One Machine That Worked Without Flaw” (10) was the Newsweek headline announcing Glenn’s orbital flight of February 20, 1962. It is significant that the Soviets sent an untrained woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into orbit on June 16, 1963 as a symbolic
“defacing of the images of male astronauts”. (11) The technology of orbital flight was coded as an aggressive, penetrating, phallic force, one of the
‘extensions of man’ (12) in the truest sense. The notion of technology as an amplification of male aggression was carried into contemporary science fiction. Communication as a successful means to resolving conflict was never featured; the solution to any conflict was physical combat and the means was the use of advanced technology as weaponry. From rockets to laser guns, visions of the future in all classical American science fiction were male-oriented and distinctly patriarchal.
“The ultimate technological fantasy is creation without the mother” (13) writes Andreas Huyssen – and this fantasy was also carried into contemporary science fiction, finding form in the figures of the astronaut and the scientist. Sobchack advises us that virgin astronauts are not to be taken literally, but that:
“the virginal astronauts of the science fiction film are a sign of penetration and impregnation without biology, without sex, and without the opposite, different, sex.” (14) Women constitute a threat to this fantasy of an immaculate conception through technology because the female body, above all the sexualised female body, is a living reminder of technology’s failures. The ongoing cycle of birth and death, the physical fragility of the human being, our continuing reliance on biological reproduction – all these failures are enshrined in the physiology and processes of the female body. For Sobchack, women
“represent the Mother and the Other whose very presence points to the puny and imitative quality of male endeavour.” (15) As if this affront was not reason enough for science fiction to banish women from its narratives, there is also an older and culturally ingrained reason, described by critic Per Schelde in his discussion of science fiction stereotypes. Throughout the history of Judeo-Christian society, discussions concerning the divide between culture and nature have always coded woman as Nature and man as Culture.
“Woman the life giver, the Earth Mother, is one of our cultural icons.” (16) And in an extract from The Greek Women, Nietzsche provides a succinct example of this coding:
“Woman is more closely related to Nature than man and in all her essentials she remains ever herself. Culture with her is always something external, a something which does not touch the kernel that is eternally faithful to nature.” (17)
If woman equals nature then the fantasy of rendering nature redundant provided science fiction with yet another reason to make women redundant at the level of the narrative. Female sexual difference on the cinema screen was neutralized by uniforms, suppressed by chaste female characters and sexless relationships, or entirely displaced onto alien life forms. This implied that female procreative functions were no longer required, replaced by the creative activity of technology. In the reasons I have described for these tactics, the signifier-signified pattern of semiotics is functioning. Understanding the female body as a signifier for biology / sexuality is key to understanding why it was repressed and how the sexualised woman, simultaneously the envy and the ridiculer of science and technology, became the most feared signifier in science fiction. Our cultural coding of woman is that she signifies all the biological processes and procreative functions that technology hopes to replace, but she also implies everything that technology has failed to achieve. Furthermore, female physiology mocks representations of the human body as a biological machine, a self-determined and secure space, by demonstrating the lack of integrity of the body as a container for the physical matter of life. Rosi Braidotti writes:
“The woman’s body can change shape in pregnancy and childbirth; it is therefore capable of defeating the notion of fixed bodily form, of visible, recognizable, clear, and distinct shape as that which marks the contour of the body. She is morphologically dubious.” (18)
Female sexual difference can be seen as the battleground for representation of the body in science fiction, with the classical American examples insisting that the human body is a closed circuit, a sacrosanct and impenetrable space. The protagonists are virtuous; their minds and bodies uncorrupted by technology or sexuality, Adams and Eves in a future Garden of Eden. This was in contrast with the antagonists, particularly the creatures of the sci-fi monster movies. In her 1970 essay Monsters from the Id (19) Margaret Tarratt observed in the American science fiction film the pattern of repressing and displacing biology / sexuality onto alien life forms. The typical monster movie antagonist was a primitive and insatiable invader, overtly and repulsively biological, displaying a nightmarish amplification of human sexuality. Its aim was to procreate and to dominate the planet Earth with its diabolical progeny. These creatures represented contemporary anxieties that the ascendance of man would be undermined by primitive human biology, that humanity could be consumed and destroyed by its base instincts. They signified monstrous nature, an image of animal desires unchecked and unrepressed. As such, they were also a displacement of age-old male anxieties about the monstrous nature of female sexuality and male horror at the susceptibility of the female body to penetration and loss of integrity. The tactic of displacement was common in the monster movie because a primitive and insatiable monster was, at the narrative level, a socially acceptable signifier for the male hero to symbolically slay and triumph over. Repression was restored, the physical integrity of the human body secured and the hero vindicated. The message was a reassuring one: humanity had prevailed. In the future the message would not always be so reassuring. Continuing advances in medicine, reproduction, electronics, computing and imaging would change things. New surgical and reproductive techniques, the rise of computers and the proliferation of imaging devices would begin to threaten the human body in previously unimaginable ways, causing uncertainties about the future security of the body and anxieties about the invasion of technology into the realm of human biology.
Alien appeared on the threshold of what has been called the ‘new wave’ of science fiction – a collective description for works displaying the new sensibilities and aesthetic that emerged in the genre during the 1980s. Although it employs a familiar and traditional scenario, the themes of technology and sexuality explored in Alien anticipate the new wave, displaying a newfound interest in and concern for the human body that would become a defining feature of 1980s science fiction. It was to be a decade during which the boundaries of the body would be tested by a series of pioneering works of science fiction. In 1982 a future where machines have become indistinguishable from humans was prophesised by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner. Then in 1984 came Neuromancer, William Gibson’s novel set in a future where humans and machines are integrating; one of the founding works of the body-obsessed Cyberpunk genre. Also in the same years as these works were produced a fantasy of man-as-machine in Tron and an apocalyptic nightmare of machine-as-man in The Terminator. So in 1979 bold new ideas and difficult new questions were on the horizon when Alien appeared in cinemas. The notion that we could be ‘less human than human’ to paraphrase a line from Blade Runner, that humanity was less well defined than we thought, was new. Attitudes were being challenged, and these challenges were coming not just from science fiction, but also increasingly from real-world technology.
Many of the new ideas flourishing in science fiction can be seen as a reaction to advances in science and technology that had emerged to redefine the boundaries of our bodies. Surgical procedures such as hip replacements, organ transplants, pacemakers, open heart surgery and the first heart transplant (1967) (20) showed that the ‘components’ of the body could be repaired, replaced or augmented; the application of human in vitro fertilization (1978) (21) was demystifying and mechanizing the reproductive process; meanwhile the science of genetic engineering promised that one day we would be capable of building better humans. In the workplace, the computer terminal and the humble Xerox machine were proliferating; they introduced new possibilities for the replication and duplication of data at a time when the human body was also being reduced to a dataset, promoting the idea that human biology might become equally malleable. Opened up and examined, the body was now a thoroughly contested space.
An indication of the extent to which the boundaries between human and artificial were being destroyed was that audiences watching The Terminator had little trouble accepting the film’s machine-inside-a-man concept. Director James Cameron said:
“I think it’s just an aspect of our lives right now, that we’re so surrounded by machines, and medicine has shown us that the human body is just a very complex machine.” (22) The Terminator also illustrates the new anxieties that contemporary advances in science and technology were causing, a change observed by Susan Sontag:
“The dark secret behind human nature used to be the upsurge of the animal… The threat to man, his availability to dehumanisation, lay in his own animality. Now the danger is understood as residing in man’s ability to be turned into a machine.” (23)
Possibly the most controversial bodily invasion of the time was the mechanization of the reproductive process. Many people considered in vitro fertilization to be the violation of an absolutely taboo space, and reproductive science became a focal point for fears about the reach of technology. Although it had brought the fantasy of creation without the mother closer to attainment, it had also upset traditional patriarchal values by intruding significantly into the secure bodily interior. Male anxieties about the loss of bodily integrity had become reality, but it was the female body that was threatened and once again it was female sexuality that would be the battleground for representation of the body. Alien was a timely expression of this new and additional threat, as Annette Kuhn has noted:
“In Alien, Us/Them is unequivocally Human/Non-Human; but the non-human category subdivides further – into the techno-products of corporate culture (Ash, The Company’s android; Mother, the spaceship’s duplicitous computer system) as against the rampantly fecund, visibly Other alien, a manifestation of monstrous Nature.” (24)
Alien exploits anxieties about the integrity of the body by subverting the conventional repression and displacement of biology / sexuality in American science fiction cinema. The initial repression is extreme and intentionally made a defining characteristic of the film, while the menacing sexual imagery and the threat of foreign penetration evoke a nightmare vision of reproductive science. Similarly, the images of human bodies torn open by the Alien creature elicit horror at the sight of the interior of the body revealed. Alien portrayed the horror of bodily invasion, corruption and destruction more explicitly and violently than any of the monster movies it imitated. Amy Taubin remarks that: “Unlike sci-fi creatures of the Cold War period, who took possession of souls and minds – even when they were called body snatchers – the Alien is an invader and destroyer of the body.” (25) And in a reversal of monster movie conventions, the patriarchy aboard the Nostromo (‘Our Man’) do not triumph over the invader, but are instead destroyed by it.
In this respect, Alien is strikingly similar to the slasher movie, a genre that was thriving during the late 1970s. In her analysis of the genre, Carol Clover described it as
“drenched in taboo and encroaching vigorously on the pornographic.” (26) Slasher films are all about the destruction or invasion of the body, about the body penetrated by a foreign object. But it is not the act alone that is the focus of interest.
“The slasher evinces a fascination with flesh or meat itself as that which is hidden away from view… [and] the realisation that all that lies between the visible, knowable outside of the body and its secret insides is one thin membrane, protected only by a collective taboo against its violation.” (27) Much like the slasher film, Alien trades in the anxieties caused by contemporary transgressions of physical boundaries and gender boundaries in society, and it adopted many archetypal elements of the slasher film. Clover notes that:
“In some sense, the emotional terrain of the slasher film is pre-technological… Knives and needles, like teeth, beaks, fangs, and claws, are personal extensions of the body that bring attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace.” (28) This emotional terrain was translated literally in the figure of the Alien. There is also a notable similarity between the character of Ripley and the slasher film’s archetypal protagonist, referred to by Carol Clover as the ‘Final Girl’. She is the lone survivor who endures a climactic pursuit and confronts the killer – or in Alien, the monster.
One of the things that set Alien apart from the many films it imitated was its antagonist. “I wanted to do a film of psycho-sexual horror” (29) Dan O’Bannon has said of his script. And undoubtedly, the Alien is a tour de force of sexual anxiety, transforming a monster movie into a true sci-fi horror. This antagonist did not want to enslave you or eat you or conquer your home world, it wanted to rape you, to invade your body with its own, always killing by an act of violent penetration in an amplified and nightmarish fusion of sex and death.
To understand the relationship between the Alien, the virgin astronaut and the audience, it is necessary to discuss some of the psychoanalytic principles defined by Sigmund Freud. (30) Freudian theory considers the psyche to be two interconnected systems, the conscious and the unconscious. The architecture of the human mind is also divided into two regions, one ruled by the conscious and the other ruled by the unconscious: the ego and the id. While the ego forms the surface of the mind, driven by perceptions from the exterior physical world, the id is the core, driven by internal desires. When desires are formed that are unacceptable to the ego, they are repressed and so forced to remain in the unconscious. The site of this repression is a region of overlap where the ego and id merge, known as the super-ego or the ‘ego ideal’. It can be described as the moral censor of the unconscious mind, because it decides what is and what is not an acceptable desire for the ego to perceive. However, Freud also reminds us that:
“The repressed is only cut off sharply from the ego by the resistances of repression; it can communicate with the ego through the id.” (31) If we imagine the forces of science and technology as a super-ego repressing biology / sexuality in the American science fiction film, we might imagine the overtly biological and hypersexual Alien as the translation of those repressed desires: the monster from the id. Annette Kuhn has noted (32) that in describing the characteristics of the Alien he so admires –
‘A survivor, unclouded by conscience or delusions of morality’ – Ash is describing the id as defined by Freud:
“The id of course knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality.” (33) Yet, it is important not to over-emphasise the association. While psychoanalysis has undoubtedly influenced authors (which goes some way to explaining science fiction’s many monsters from the id), the film is not a human mind and should not be treated as such.
More useful to my investigation of the Alien is Freud’s work on the interpretation of dreams. (34) As a projection of repressed human biology / sexuality, the figure of the Alien represents a multitude of characteristics and desires. It is at once a physical composite of male and female sexual difference, an embodiment of human sexual desire and biological reproduction, and an evocation of overt, repulsive biology. In other words, the Alien is a signifier with multiple signified meanings attached to it. The same process occurs in our dreams. A single figure, object or action in the dream world can represent a multitude of emotions, desires and anxieties in the real world; Freudian dream analysis calls this process condensation. However, Freud tells us (35) that although the ego goes to sleep at night, even then it exercises censorship on our dreams. All that is repressed in waking life cannot simply appear in the dream and enter the sleeping consciousness directly. Repressed desires and anxieties must assume an alternative form in the dream world in order to evade censorship by the ego; Freud calls this displacement. In Alien the tactics of displacement are made obvious. Catherine Constable writes:
“human reproduction [in the film] is represented as scientific or sterile, in clear contrast with the alien’s physical materiality, thus setting up an opposition between the human and the monstrous.” (36)
Now we have an understanding of how the Alien relates to the virgin astronauts in the film-world, but how does it relate to the audience? In her analysis of the film, Catherine Constable proposes that the Alien is a horrifying figure “because it presents the spectacle of inside as outside… raising the spectre of a viscous physicality that has been rejected.” (37) Her interpretation applies the theory of abjection devised by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror. (38) Kristeva terms the abject as that which transgresses the border between the familiar and unfamiliar, seductive and repulsive, being both at once. Abjection is our reaction of horror to this transgression, and it is caused by our inability to reconcile the two states. The abject does not validate our ideology as the Other does, because unlike the Other it does not function to define what we are not. What the Alien defines is the Other inside us. It represents an utterly breached body, a tangle of organs and limbs, interior and exterior confused, the boundaries indefinable. Freud termed creatures like this composites and noted how
“The two representations are superimposed and produce something in the nature of a contest between the two visual images.” (39) Parker seems to recognise this when he says of the Alien in disbelief
‘It’s like a man’ – but the impossible man, a man turned inside out.
The Alien can be seen as a response to contemporary anxieties caused by the emerging medical technologies opening up the body. This biomechanical horror is the projection of a nightmare future image of the body compromised. More specifically, the Alien is a representation of anxieties concerning reproductive science. Its nesting instincts and predilection for concealing itself in dark damp spaces coiled in a foetal position identify it as a parent, a breeder, while the bundle of pipes on its back is like a set of externalised fallopian tubes. But its gender is ambiguous. Amy Taubin observed that:
“Its toothy, dripping mouth was hermaphroditic: while the double jaws represented the inner and outer labia of the vagina dentata, the projectile movement of the inner jaw was a phallic threat.” (40) It is no coincidence that the Alien’s hardened exterior and biomechanical form suggest that it is also in part a technological monster. It embodies the same
“ooze of biology” (41) we see everywhere inside the derelict spaceship, but in the figure of the Alien this fecundity has been transmuted into a weapon of revenge. In its representation of the consequences of the bodily interior violated, the Alien relates to and feeds on fears about the aims of in vitro fertilisation and reproductive technology. It is the disastrous result of an attempt by the patriarchy to usurp the role of the mother and become the lone parent.
The Alien gives form to repressed female physiology but – even more terrifyingly for the patriarchy – it also threatens the integrity of the male body. It preys on males for most of the film and the dire consequences suffered by those violated male bodies are the focus of attention. The Alien’s violent penetrative attacks imply an act of inter-species male-on-male rape, evoking predominantly male fears of bodily intrusion. While Catherine Constable considers Alien to be a dramatization of an age-old abjection to the hidden interior of the body, I view it as a specific reaction to anxieties caused by contemporary advances in science and technology. These anxieties are expressed in Alien by the use of biological / sexual imagery to construct an intricate system of representation around the figure of the virgin astronaut. I will now discuss this process in a scene-by-scene analysis of the film.
Prior to the discovery of the derelict alien spaceship, the film details the repression of human biology / sexuality in its many forms aboard the Nostromo, in what can be seen as a summary of the tactics of repression employed by the classical American science fiction films it imitates. In the first sequence, the electronic chatter of a distress beacon awakens the ship’s computer, Mother, and it initiates the rebirth of its human children from their technological hyper-sleep. The serene rebirth of the seven virgin astronauts is mechanized and synchronised, lit by cool white fluorescence. The astronauts emerge from their capsules fully grown and immaculately clean, their modesty protected by standard-issue underwear, the science fiction equivalent of fig leaves for the Adams and Eves of deep space. Barbara Creed notes of the scene:
“There is no blood, trauma or terror.” (42) This is technological wish fulfilment, as Mother usurps the role of the womb. Although not capable of that ultimate fantasy – an immaculate conception through technology – Mother is capable of rebirthing its children into the interior space of the ship’s pressurised hull.
Every interior environment in the film is represented as the interior space of a body, whether biological or technological, so that the imagery of bodily invasion is evoked merely by our presence in a location. Specifically, the use of reproductive imagery codes these environments as womb spaces and emphasises the significance of their invasion. There is an abundance of biological and sexual imagery in the interior of the derelict alien spaceship, and even inside the overtly technological Nostromo, we can hear the constant organic rhythm of a heartbeat pulsing through the ship. Immediately obvious throughout the habitation deck of the Nostromo is an atmosphere of sterilisation and sanitization similar to that in the hyper-sleep vault, as if to minimise the stigma caused to the interior of the ship by the human presence. Interestingly, the engineering deck is not subjected to similarly strict environmental controls. Carbon dirt and lubricant – the bodily fluids of the machine – are acceptable. This is not an issue of defilement, but of foreignness; the humans are foreign entities in the technological womb of the Nostromo and their presence there constitutes the threat of contamination, just as their presence inside the derelict alien spaceship will threaten to contaminate and corrupt that space.
In the scenes following their rebirth, the crew are clothed in standard-issue unisex flight-suits as they first eat breakfast in the mess and then discuss the situation. It is important to note that the only feature marking Ripley as a woman at this point in the film is her long hair. Lambert, the other female member of the crew, has cropped hair and appears androgynous in her flight-suit without this feminine marker. No sexual interest is shown in Ripley or Lambert by any of the males, or vice versa. They are all falling perfectly in with the archetype of the virgin astronaut. The dominant trio of males – Dallas, Kane, Ash – also form a patriarchal triumvirate. Dallas delegates and leads with an air of quiet and assured authority, Kane is the embodiment of the intrepid virgin astronaut and Ash is the cerebral man of science. The presence of this power structure and the images of sanitized biology / sexuality in the rebirthing sequence make it clear that the Nostromo is a domain of patriarchal authority. The women, Ripley and Lambert, are compliant, as is Bret. Only Parker causes trouble, asserting his territorial claim on his place at the table and then arguing about his share of the bonus. He does not fall in with the archetype of the virgin astronaut because he represents probably the most disenfranchised minority in science fiction – the black labourer.
The patriarchy may be dominant aboard the Nostromo, but still it is subservient to the distant authority of ‘the Company’. This is illustrated when Mother calls Dallas into the computer interface room to receive new orders and he responds at once. The Company represents the force of science and technology, a force that drives the actions of the patriarchy aboard the Nostromo. The fact that the ship’s computer is called Mother and speaks with a female voice does not mean it is a maternal figure. Catherine Constable writes:
“She simply mouths the commands that comply with the aims and objectives of the Company.” (43) With this in mind, the orders Mother relays to reroute and investigate the derelict alien spaceship are significant. Mother’s shortcomings may account for the Company’s interest: there on the alien planet, held in that ship-womb are the secrets of automated mass-reproduction.
The moment the giant landing feet of the Nostromo imprint the barren surface of the planet, this technological colossus is rendered puny by the howling storm raging around it. Lashing winds challenge the hull of the inert ship in a display of the immeasurably greater power of nature. The crew study the composition of the atmosphere as they wait for sunrise. It is primitive,
‘Almost primordial’ observes Ash. The alien planet – the very air – represents the immense power of nature in its most ancient and elemental form. The landscape is charged with the dark imagery of biological reproduction and sexual desire; it is a ‘psycho-sexual’ landscape. In Alien, sex can be seen to function as a signifier for both sexuality and biology, evoking through sexual imagery all the most powerful signifiers of biology: the human anatomy, sexual difference, procreation, flesh, blood, and bodily fluids. When the expeditionary party journeys through this landscape they are journeying through the censored interior of the body.
As soon as Dallas proposes an expedition to the derelict, Kane immediately volunteers himself, and he is continually the most aggressively curious of the party during their exploration. The expedition sequence is replete with sexual imagery and innuendo, as the expeditionary party unwittingly re-enact the basic microscopic processes of human conception and fertilization. James Kavanagh comments that as they enter the derelict, the party are
“collectively imaged as three clumsy spermlike figures entering the vaginal opening between the upstretched ‘legs’ of an alien spaceship.” (44) They traverse the ship’s interior passages, through the taboo regions of a massive and seemingly archaic alien body. They navigate vaginal openings and ribbed corridors that glisten with moisture, looking like
“mechanised birth canals”. (45) The derelict seems to be alive; its internal surfaces resemble hardened skin wrapped taught over bone. These surfaces are covered in the signs of condensation, of respiration, of life. Signifiers of sexuality / biology are everywhere; for the repressed virgin astronaut there is menace in the fertile landscape.
As the party approaches the place of impregnation they find the remnants of a previous conception. Appropriately, it is Lambert, the only woman in the party, who recognises this menacing reproductive landscape as a threat, because the body represented by the derelict and being invaded by the expeditionary party is a female body. Unaware of the danger, Dallas inquisitively probes the fossilised corpse of the ‘space jockey’ and Kane pursues his forceful penetration deeper inside the alien ship. Eventually Kane, the single successful sperm, is lowered into the cavernous egg chamber. Inside he is unthinking in his aggression, disruptive in his eagerness to invade the womb of the ship. He touches an egg and the creature inside stirs.
‘It seems to have life – organic life’ he relays fervently to Dallas. It would seem that the virgin astronaut has finally mastered nature, has returned to the primal scene to seize the process of conception and claim it for his own. But then the process reverses in a way he could never have imagined – the act of penetration is performed not by Kane, but by the egg. The censored body of this space-suited virgin astronaut has only one unconcealed orifice, the mouth, and so it is through the mouth that the creature impregnates him. His aggressive violation of the body of the derelict is repaid with a fantastic invasion of his own body.
The physiology of the ‘face-hugger’ that impregnates Kane is noteworthy. Resembling a hand covering a victim’s mouth as if suppressing a cry for help, the creature evokes the nightmare imagery of rape – or in other words, a typically male violation of the female body. Throughout the film there is a close correlation between bodily invasion and the act of rape. Notably, the first invasion was perpetrated by the males in the expeditionary party upon the female body of the derelict, and I would argue that in their spacesuits they are coded as technological invaders. Invading the derelict can be seen as a metaphor for the invasion of the human body by advanced surgical and reproductive technologies – with particular reference to the process of in vitro fertilization. Subsequent to Kane’s impregnation, the film consistently presents its horror in terms of physical and sexual attack, as illustrated in the shocking birth of the Alien. The crew sit around a white table in the Nostromo’s mess to eat the insipid space food dispensed by Mother. The setting has the familiar atmosphere of sterilization and sanitization that pervades the habitation deck. Kane suddenly begins to convulse and the crew clear the table in panic and try to hold him down. Kane’s convulsions and obvious agony become worse, until blood seeps through his white T-shirt. The Alien bursts through his ribcage and emerges from his chest. The pink flesh of its skin resembles the internal tissue of the intestines or stomach, but the Alien is phallic in appearance.
This scene has been interpreted in many ways. James Kavanagh considers the phallic symbolism of the Alien and the gynaecological confusion caused by its emergence to be the most notable aspects of the scene. Barbara Creed has interpreted the scene as a visualisation of Freudian observations concerning the riddle of origins. Catherine Constable proposes that it constitutes the horror of the inside becoming outside. (46) Mark Kermode has proposed yet another interpretation:
“The violent arrival of the Alien dramatises fears about pregnancy and child birth, giving horrendous form to shapeless anxieties about the alien transformation which human beings regularly undergo in the process of reproduction.” (47) Obviously, the meaning is very dependent on perspective.
In the context of Ripley’s previous attempt to deny entry to the expeditionary party and the violated body of Kane, we can see how the scene represents the subsequent loss of bodily integrity that she feared. With the emergence and escape of the Alien, the secure boundaries both of Kane’s body and of the Nostromo are now thoroughly breached. However the imagery of the birth is also recognisably similar to human childbirth, as Kermode proposes – and the unfixed bodily form of the pregnant woman is a traditional cause in males of the anxiety about bodily integrity that Constable proposes. Certainly the scene is trading in more than one representational trope; it is not just about the fear of bodily invasion, but also about the innate horror of Kane’s own ruptured body, of his own innards revealed. A part of Kane, which should remain unseen, has suddenly and violently been made visible. Constable remarks of the birth:
“It is as if Kane’s intestinal coils had taken on a life of their own” (48) – a show of the internal organs of the human body, an exercise in dissection. It is also a sex education; the emergence of the Alien is an evocation of human childbirth – with all the spasms, pain and blood involved in that process – as well as a graphic representation of the routine trauma endured by women during each menstrual cycle. The sight of Kane’s breached body is an uncompromising reminder of the monstrous, repressed, very real nature of human biology. I believe the often cited phallic symbolism of the emerging Alien is in this scene merely a concession to visual continuity (while the later Alien is intentionally phallic headed). That the Alien’s victim is Kane, however, is significant. He provoked this retribution by his pursuit of the technological fantasy of usurping nature.
Were this a classical narrative of American science fiction, the combination of advanced technology, personal bravery and cool competence would be sufficient to neutralize the threat. But in Alien first the virgin astronauts prove themselves ineffectual and then the technology reveals itself to be just as hostile as the monster. The former occurs when, after the loss of Bret, the crew decide to pursue the Alien into the ship’s ventilation system with the aim of trapping it and blowing it into space. Dallas goes into the vents to drive the Alien into the trap, but his competence and stubborn cool in the face of danger begin to fail as the Alien evades and then outmanoeuvres him. Lost in a technological labyrinth, Dallas is eventually caught in his own trap. The lesson of this failure is that the Alien cannot be outthought – it is a superior predator acting on pure instinct and no amount of human scheming can outwit it. The captain of the ship, the archetypal hero, is dead, and with him dies the myth of human superiority. It seems that the patriarchy has released a threat it is incapable of neutralizing.
With the loss of Dallas, Ripley assumes command of the ship, fighting off an immediate challenge to her authority from Parker and deciding that the plan to destroy the Alien will proceed. In an unlikely alliance with Parker against Ash and Lambert, she is resolute: the solution is not to study the Alien or to run from it, but to kill it. This scene marks an important change in our perception of Ripley. Having already established her ability to be callous and individualistic when she refused entry to the expeditionary party that returned with Kane, she now establishes her equal ability as a leader. Lambert begs the others to abandon ship, but she is reminded that four of them remain and the shuttlecraft only takes three people. The idea of drawing straws is not acceptable to Ripley – she will fight to save everyone rather than sacrifice any of the crew. This domineering Company woman is emerging as an alternative hero figure for us to invest our hopes in. Ripley may not be the cool-headed male hero we were expecting, but as Carol Clover writes of the Final Girl, she certainly acquits herself
“like a man.” (49) With the others or alone, she has the steel to survive.
Ripley goes to Mother in search of information, and in her subsequent dialogue with the computer we discover the evidence that the technology is unable or unwilling to protect its children. Ripley is repeatedly frustrated in her attempts to get answers until she uses an emergency override and she is finally allowed to view ‘Special Order 937’, marked for Science Officer eyes only:
“NOSTROMO REROUTED TO NEW COORDINATES. INVESTIGATE LIFE FORM. GATHER SPECIMENS. PRIORITY ONE INSURE RETURN OF ORGANISM FOR ANALYSIS. ALL OTHER CONSIDERATIONS SECONDARY. CREW EXPENDABLE.”
Ash appears beside Ripley at the console. He is the embodiment of the characteristics necessary to serve the cause of science and technology: Thomas B. Byers notes that like Deckard in Blade Runner, Ash is
“strong, intelligent, competent, and above all without qualm, fear, or any other human emotional response.” (50) And like Deckard, we discover that Ash is not human at all. Whereas Deckard’s deficit is symbolic, with Ash it is literal. The last survivor of the triumvirate is revealed to be an agent of the Company, which we now see absolutely in terms of its opposition to the humans. He pursues Ripley when she tries to leave, blocking her escape and trapping her in the mess room. They grapple and then, nose bloodied, Ripley confronts him. She realises to her horror that Ash is also bleeding – not human blood, but a synthetic substance. Ash is a man not gestated inside a womb, but wired into existence by a robot. There is more than one monster aboard the Nostromo, and while the Alien is in part a biological horror, Ash is entirely a product of technology. He responds to Ripley by embarking on an astonishing physical and sexual attack. For him, there is no primal scene, no moment of conception. His rape-like attack on Ripley can be seen as ‘womb envy’ inherited from the technology that created him. Apparently without reproductive ability, he simulates impregnation using a rolled up magazine as a phallic symbol, in an act that replicates the oral impregnation of Kane. Parker and Lambert come to Ripley’s rescue just in time. Parker attacks Ash first hand to hand and then using a fire extinguisher as a blunt weapon. Lambert drags Ripley aside as Parker strikes Ash again and knocks his head off his shoulders. More horrific than the exposure of Kane’s bloody innards, Ash’s exposed interior reveals to us the horror of a body utterly corrupted by the darkest ambitions of science and technology. Far from the invulnerable super-human ideal of technophile science fiction, his body looks pathetic. Haemorrhaging sap and filled with bundles of fibre optics, he is a grotesque parody of human biology.
Parker and Ripley are finally reconciled and allied against the Company and the Alien – but their alliance is fleeting. Parker is a physically powerful man with a weapon, and as such he is too closely aligned with the heroes of adolescent technophile science fiction. Per Schelde summarises this:
“The hero, gun in hand, wins the heroine through acts of bravery and killing.” (51) This fact necessitates Parker’s speedy death, engaged in suicidal unarmed combat with the Alien as he tries to defend Lambert. His sacrifice is in vain, and Lambert dies because she remains a sexually repressed virgin astronaut, frigid and androgynous, frozen by her hysterical fear of the Alien’s sexual advance. It is appropriate that Ripley is spared from the massacre by her detour to find Jones the cat – this display of the instinct to nurture explicitly codes Ripley as a mother. Throughout the film, Jones functions as Ripley’s child and as a symbol of innocent biology. The significance of this coding soon becomes evident. After initiating the self-destruct sequence, Ripley finds her path to the shuttlecraft blocked by the stalking Alien and she is forced to return to the engine room to cancel the sequence. Ripley completes the procedure moments too late and the action is not successful. Infuriated, she cries:
‘Mother, I turned the cooling system back on.’ But the countdown continues and so she screams in rage:
‘Mother, you bitch!’ Mother has none of the nurturing instinct of Ripley, the biological mother, it has none of the warmth nor the love. The message is that technology makes a bad parent. Ripley’s fury at this final betrayal by Mother, an agent of the Company so bound by its programming that it cannot act to save her or itself, is the moment when the rejection of science and technology in the film is most absolute.
During the countdown sequence we witness Ripley’s sudden metamorphosis from virgin astronaut to woman. In flight, terrified and drenched in cold sweat, the revelation of her body to the audience – the vitality of her laboured breathing, of her muscles trembling and her skin glistening in the strobe lighting – is a shockingly potent sensual / sexual / animal image in a film that until now has been so devoid of these images in human form. The shots of the Alien regarding Jones the cat in this sequence again illustrate the nature of its threat, one of bodily corruption to the innocent biology of the animal. Ripley has no choice but to return to the shuttlecraft before the countdown completes and she is destroyed along with the Nostromo. Her decision to once again burden herself with Jones on her return journey to the shuttlecraft is an indication of her kinship with the animal and her affection for it. Strapped into the cockpit of the shuttlecraft, Ripley blasts off and watches as the receding Nostromo is vaporised by a blinding nuclear meltdown.
‘I got you, you son of a bitch’, she whispers to the Alien she believes has been destroyed, indicating an awareness that the actions of science and technology (
‘Mother, you bitch!’) are to blame for the horror visited on the crew.
After the shock wave has passed, Ripley unbuckles from her seat and strips out of her flight suit. This plot device affirms the opposition between her desirable body and the abject body of the Alien prior to the final confrontation. Her exposed skin clearly defines Ripley’s familiar contours as against the Alien’s hideous foreignness. Additionally, Carol Clover asserts that:
“Whatever else its functions, the scene that reveals the Final Girl in a degree of undress serves to underscore her femaleness.” (52) Just as her show of maternal concern for Jones coded her as a mother, this show of flesh codes her as a woman – a reminder for the audience, should we be in doubt after her manly performance up to this point. This moment of physical vulnerability should weaken Ripley, not only because of what we suspect is her false belief that the Alien has been destroyed, but also because she has exposed a ‘frail’ female body. However what we perceive in this moment is strength. Vivian Sobchack proposes that:
“In becoming a woman at the level of the narrative, Ripley is clearly marked as a victim; however, in becoming a woman as a fleshy representation of biological difference, Ripley takes on the concrete configuration of male need, demand, desire and fear, and she commands power at a deeper level of the film than that of its story.” (53) She has revealed herself as Woman, signifier of monstrous nature and threat to patriarchal values. However the attempts of the patriarchy to slay the Alien have been ineffectual and disastrous, leaving her as their last remaining hope. Exposing a female body sets up the opposition between Ripley and the Alien, but it also sets the terms of the final confrontation: monster-to-monster. For the patriarchy, Ripley is merely the lesser of two evils.
As Ripley follows the pre-flight procedures, the Alien emerges from a recess in the dark interior of the shuttlecraft to threaten her once again. What happens next is interesting. Before she confronts the Alien, Ripley first withdraws into a closet and seals her exposed body inside a spacesuit, retreating into a self-imposed repression of her female biology / sexuality. The editing intercuts Ripley climbing into the suit with the probing jaws of the Alien. Clover has noted the willingness of the male slasher film viewer to
“throw in his emotional lot, if only temporarily,” (54) with a woman, and we can see a similar process at work now. Ripley may be a woman, but she is the only champion the patriarchy has and she is compelled to act in its interests. Catherine Constable has described how the visual intercuts
“juxtapose a body re-barriered through the pristine white suit with the vicious physicality of the Alien.” (55) By climbing into the spacesuit, Ripley has effectively thrown in her lot with the patriarchy by neutralizing the threat of her own body. She then ejects the Alien, blasting it out the airlock and using the shuttlecraft’s engines to propel it into oblivion. Her actions secure the technological environment of the shuttlecraft for her and Jones, but they also ensure the continued repression of female biology / sexuality for the benefit of the patriarchy.
In the film’s closing sequence Ripley diligently notes the loss of Company employees and assets in a final log entry before she goes to hyper-sleep. She has (r)ejected the monstrous biology / sexuality that threatened the mechanisms of repression and she has again made rigid the naturally flexible boundaries of her body. Now she is portrayed as a soporific, reassuringly maternal figure as she coddles her cat and conceals her body under the soft lines of a silk dressing gown. James Kavanagh is actually close to the true purpose of this characterisation when he writes of it satirically:
“Gary Cooper goes home to his little boy, and Sigourney Weaver goes to bed with her kitty-cat.” (56) Clover’s analysis of the Final Girl’s climactic transformation is also valuable:
“We are, as an audience, in the end “masculinized” by and through the very figure by and through whom we were earlier “feminized”. The same body does for both, and that body is female.” (57) In order to draw on the power traditionally granted only to male heroes, Ripley transformed temporarily into a masculine figure during the final confrontation – if proof were needed then her use of a blatantly phallic dart gun provides it. Once the Alien is destroyed, she reverts to being a feminine, and above all, a maternal figure. In this context we can see how Ripley’s fractured identity is re-stabilised in this penultimate shot by the presence of the cat, an affirmation of her femininity and a reminder of the recurring theme throughout the film. It is an image of mother and child.
In this essay I have argued for an alternative reading of Alien that constructs a unified theory by applying specific historical context to the analysis. I believe this context has been lacking, although not entirely absent, in the previous critical analyses of the film. Carol Clover has identified the studied application and subtle manipulation of slasher film conventions in Alien, (58) and the influence of the slasher genre is an indicator of the extent to which the film can be considered as a product of the zeitgeist. Clover has shown that the slasher genre has considerable historical specificity, and I believe the same is true of Alien. However critics have often been reluctant to investigate this aspect of the film – and when they have broached it they have discussed broad relations only, preferring to limit the discourse to a specific theoretical framework. James Kavanagh, for example, presents only conjecture:
“Alien seems to take up rather enthusiastically the ideological semes of feminism and to reproduce them in an interesting form.” (59) In my opinion, this does not do justice to the intricate system of representation that the film constructs. This essay has attempted to develop a theory of the film that interprets it as a complex expression of contemporary anxieties about the new technologies opening up and invading the human body, with specific reference to reproductive science and in vitro fertilisation.
Unlike Alien, the subsequent three films in the saga have been analysed with the reference to historical context that the first film has so far been denied. Aliens (1986), is cited as a film that submits to the vocal pro-life movement and dominant conservative politics of America in that era. Considered by Constance Penley (60) to be a regression from the egalitarian principles and the sexual equality introduced in Alien, Amy Taubin similarly regards it as:
“A Pentagon-inspired family-values picture for the Reagan 80s… New Age assault rifles and grenade launchers are fetishised, as is the nuclear family.” (61) Taubin has also proposed a reading of Alien3 that considers the film in the social context of the Aids epidemic, gay activism and women’s struggle for abortion rights. Themes of gestation and contagion are explored, as the Alien preys on and decimates the outcast population of Fury 161, an off-world prison colony operated by the Company. Taubin writes that:
“Aids is everywhere in the film. It’s in the danger surrounding sex and drugs. It’s in the metaphor of a deadly organism attacking an all-male community. It’s in the iconography of the shaven heads.” (62) Likewise, Catherine Constable has made an analysis of the imagery of morphology in Alien Resurrection and argued that the film references the emergent technologies of cloning and genetic engineering to explore alternate models of identity. (63) It gives the film an unexpected relevance with regard to contemporary anxieties about how these technologies will affect the future of the body as a unique and self-determining entity.
Filmmakers and critics alike have recognised the Alien’s potency as a representation of body horror with the power to evoke a multitude of anxieties about human biology. As the critical analysis of the Alien saga reveals, the precise nature of the horror changes within the context of each film, and this is what makes the Alien so powerful and enduring – and so problematic. Each film has been able to derive new meaning from the figure of the Alien, its presence transforming the terrain into a fertile landscape in which contemporary issues relating to the body can be explored. J. P. Telotte has argued that the ‘specular space’ of the screen and the ‘blind space’ of the psyche are combined to greatest effect in the genres of science fiction and horror.
“Specifically, the normal locus of desire – the human body – assumes a new significance as both the most natural presence and potentially most menacing image in the genres’ specular field.” (64) Alien and the three films that followed it are among the most effective examples of science fiction using the blind space of the psyche to express contemporary attitudes and anxieties about human biology. It is a saga of the body in the age of advanced technology, a continuing dialogue between cinema and society. As attitudes and anxieties change, so does the Alien evolve.