Alien: A Critical Analysis of Ridley Scott's Classic Sci-fi Horror Film
Alien was directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979. As a horror film, it explores the deep fears and desires that are usually repressed in the subconscious. In the late 1970s and 80s there was a cycle of films that collectively came to be known as ‘body horror’, because they focused on anxieties surrounding the human body. The body itself became the site of horror as its physical form was altered by disease, invasion or mutilation. Decay, mutation and transformation were depicted as horrific processes. Alien is an early example of this trend. It goes deep into the human psyche and explores primordial fears about the human body, birth and sexuality.
Ridley Scott is renowned for the visual design of his films, whether imagining the future in Alien and Blade Runner, of resurrecting the ancient world in Gladiator. His films are often criticised as victories of style over substance, but this misguided: a film’s visual style is part of its substance and is central to how the film communicates with the audience. Ridley Scott’s real talent is in creating fully-convincing worlds.
Alien was conceived as a gothic horror film set in space and the design evokes a gothic atmosphere. The film is set aboard the Nostromo, a commercial towing vehicle. The ship is essentially a giant oil-refinery, but Scott wanted it to look like a gothic cathedral floating in space. It has towers covered with intricate filigree detail like Notre Dame Cathedral. Inside, the corridors are gloomy and labyrinthine, representing a technological version of the subterranean tunnels from gothic horror films. Of course, a space ship is the perfect location for a horror film because it is a place of absolute isolation – no one can help you and there is no escape. Likewise, it forms a pressurised environment, which creates an intense claustrophobia. The tagline for the film was ‘In space, no-one can hear you scream.’ This line also indicates that the film is a fusion of the science fiction and horror genres.
The film’s production design was groundbreaking and two conceptual artists were responsible for it. First of all, Ron Cobb was hired to design all of the human environments, the ship and the hardware of the future. These are some of Ron Cobb’s designs for the bridge and the medical bay. These were reproduced as sets. Ron Cobb’s work was admired because it was logical and realistic. He approached the film as an industrial design challenge and all of his designs look as if they could actually work. He even designed safety signs for the airlocks and so on. Therefore, Cobb worked in the same capacity as Syd Mead later did on Blade Runner.
More famously, the Swiss artist Hans Rudi Giger was hired to design the alien and its habitat. Giger is a surrealist artist. He pioneered a unique biomechanical aesthetic which involves a grotesque fusion of the body and technology. This is a Giger painting entitled Birth Machine. It depicts the male reproduction system as a bizarre gun, a piece of hardware for firing weird living bullets. His work is full of sexual symbolism. This is a piece called Biomechanical Interior (1980). Human body parts are concealed in the composition. They appear almost like innuendos. So his work is a synthesis of the mechanical and the sexual. Giger studied architecture and industrial design and his work has a strong architectural quality. It features a shallow three-dimensional space with an architectural structure made up of biological and mechanical elements. This could be translated directly into production design.
In 1977 Giger published a book called Necronomicon. The film’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon saw the book and was entranced by a creature called Necronom IV. He showed this image to Ridley Scott and they decided this should be the basis for the alien. This is an alien being, but elements of human anatomy gradually appear: the head is very phallic. Giger began working on all aspects of the alien’s lifecycle and habitat.
Giger’s conceptual art included designs for the alien pod and face-hugger. Of course, this is a foreign organism, but it has echoes of human biology, which make it deeply disturbing. It looks like a foetus in the womb. The alien itself is a monstrous creature, but it is drawn in a very lascivious way with an eroticised form; the alien has an implicit but powerful sexuality. The alien actually combines male and female traits. The body has feminine curves, but the head is phallic in shape. It has a telescopic mouth which is very penetrative and phallic, but it can lay eggs and in a sense give birth to itself. The alien therefore has an ambiguous gender. Giger’s design for the alien is a key example of biomechanisation: the alien clearly is a biological creature – due to the emphasis on organic matter (acidic blood, slime and secretions) – but it has an exoskeleton that seems metallic and mechanical. The alien moves like a machine. Ash describes it as a perfect organism because all it does is kill and reproduce itself.
With two conceptual artists working on the film, the aesthetic was split between the human and the alien, and that emphasises the powerful dichotomy between these two opposing forces. The meeting place for these two forces is the ship, which is called the Nostromo. The name is derived from the Latin words nostro homo, meaning ‘our man’. This suggests that the company has sinister ulterior motives. Nostromo was also the title of a novel by Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness.
The opening sequence of the film shows the ship completely deserted. The camera explores the empty corridors. There are traces of humanity like coats and coffee cups. This emphasises the absence of human beings; it is like the Marie Celeste. The computer comes online and starts producing readouts. This suggests that the ship itself is thinking. The computer has intercepted a signal from a barren moon. It wakes the crew up and sends them down to investigate.
Alien explores fears associated with birth and sexuality. Barbara Creed wrote an important essay on the film called ‘Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine.’ The monstrous-feminine is a psychological construction generated by male anxieties about the female body and sexuality. Creed argues that Alien depicts the maternal body as horrifying or monstrous. In particular, she says that the film repeatedly examines the ‘primal scene’ – the scene of birth or origin.
There are three metaphorical representations of birth in the film. The first is the scene in which the crew wakes up from hyper-sleep. The hypersleep vault is clean, white and sterile. The crew have been cryogenically frozen for the voyage back to Earth. The ship’s computer wakes them up and in a sense gives life to them. In fact, the computer is called Mother and has a female voice; it is a maternal entity. The crew is dressed in white surgical wear that resembles swaddling clothes, which babies are dressed in. The hypersleep vault is a uterine or womb-like space, but again it is thoroughly clinical and sanitised. This suggests that in the future birth is managed by technology; it is a controlled, clean and painless process. There is no blood, trauma or terror. This is like a genuine hospital, in which technology is used to sanitise this process.
The second ‘birth’ scene is the discovery of the alien. The crew discovers the derelict craft. Again, this was designed by Giger and it’s full of sexual symbolism. The crew enters through vaginal portals. This implies they are inside the maternal body, inside the womb. The interior is a huge, cavernous space. It is dark, dank and humid. Like a womb, it supports the germination of life because it’s full of alien pods.
One embodiment of the monstrous-feminine is the concept of the archaic mother – the mother as the origin of all life. This is a notion that has existed in mythology for thousands of years. Many cultures have a legend of an ancient maternal being that gave birth to all life. In Ancient Greece, for example, there was a mother Goddess called Gaia. She was the original generative force, the parthenogenic mother that gives birth to all living things. Alien follows this tradition by representing the mother as a primordial abyss or cavern. The cave is a vast uterine space, but it has a skeletal framework, so it is also a place of death. The skeletal structure and the idea of fossilisation define the cave as ancient and archaic. The cave is the gigantic, malevolent womb of the archaic mother.
Kane discovers a leathery pod like a serpent’s egg and stares into it. It is hideously visceral, with pulsating flesh. So this is like staring into the interior of the body. A creature leaps out and attacks Kane; it forces a proboscis down his throat and implants an embryo or foetus in his chest cavity. This is a coded representation of rape. Kane is violated in an act of phallic penetration. He is clearly feminised in the process: a man becomes the passive receptacle of the alien’s fertilising agent. The facehugger was designed by Giger. It looks like an insect, but it also suggests skeletal human hands, implying that the victim is in the grip of death. Some commentators have argued that it looks like a placenta with an umbilical cord. Ultimately, the design is obscenely sexual because it is a reproductive organ.
The third representation of birth is Kane’s death scene, which resembles a horrific birth. The alien erupts out of his chest. This explores male anxieties about childbirth. Kane has been forcibly impregnated via a form of inter-species rape. The alien eventually rips itself from the male 'womb' in a horrific scene of blood and gore. The scene is a grotesque contrast to the clean birth of the opening sequence. It is violent, visceral and disgustingly organic. The chestburster, the infant stage in the alien’s lifecycle. This is very phallic in form. In psychoanalytical terms the alien is a phallus dentatus – a penis with teeth.
Alien explores primordial fears about birth and reproduction, but where do these anxieties come from? This relates to the theory of the abject. The abject is a complex psychological concept developed by Julia Kristeva in her book Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection (1980). The term abjection literally means ‘the state of being cast off.’ According to Kristeva, when a child is first born, it has not yet entered the social order and has no sense of itself as separate from the mother (because it has grown inside the womb, been attached by a placenta and fed through an umbilical cord). In order to recognise itself as a separate individual the child has to establish a psychological distinction between itself and the mother. This is achieved by rejecting everything associated with the maternal body – blood, the placenta, the umbilical cord and so on. These elements are cast out; they become abject, or vile and disgusting. Kristeva calls this the ‘mapping of the clean and proper self’. The clean surfaces of the body are contrasted with the abject elements and this permits the formation of an individual identity.
The abject marks the moment when we separate ourselves from the mother, when we first recognize a boundary between the self and the other. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. This means that on a subconscious level the maternal remains horrifying. Kristeva argues that we have a fear of the abject throughout our lives. The abject consists of all the things that threaten our sense of cleanliness and propriety. It includes anything vile or disgusting, like the interior workings of the body, bodily fluids or waste. Kristeva argues that being forced to face the abject is inherently traumatic. For example, she says that encountering a corpse is repulsive because you’re forced to face an object which has been violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a person, a subject. A corpse reminds us that we are ultimately just organic matter that will rot away. Kristeva writes:
Refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. (Powers of Horror, p3)
Barbara Creed uses Kristeva’s theory of abjection in her analysis of Alien. She argues that the film represents the female as horrific and abject. Birth is depicted as a horrifying process. The process of a male being impregnated with a creature that gestates in a being that has no womb and rips itself free in a shower of blood is one way in which this film abjectifies female roles. Alien is about humans being forced to confront the abject which they have tried to suppress. The scene in the hypersleep vault suggests that in the future birth has been sanitized and sterilized. Technology has been used to banish the abject. However, the alien, with its monstrous reproductive cycle and horribly visceral nature, forces us to confront the true nature of humanity as abject and organic.
One of the key fears in science fiction is the prospect of dehumanisation. Alien deals with that fear in two ways. Firstly, the alien threatens to absorb humanity by incorporating humans into its reproductive cycle. The human subject becomes a surrogate mother to incubate the alien. This represents dehumanisation by interspecies rape and monstrification. At the same time, the crew is threatened by the forces of capitalism. The crew works for a corporation called Weylan-Yutani, which is ominously referred to as ‘the Company’. This is a huge multi-national corporation like the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner and once again humans are being sacrificed for profit. Corporate paranoia was a major preoccupation of the 1970s. This was the decade of disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The China Syndrome, which all depicted malevolent companies that put private profit before people. This was culture’s way of working through the anxieties surrounding huge global corporations.
At the begging of the film, the crew is cryogenically frozen: they are reliant on the ship’s life support system. This hints that they’re just components of the ship. The Company does not trust the crew, so it has an android representative onboard. The Company is determined to get the alien and sees the crew as expendable. The Company represents capitalism at its most systematic, computerised and inhuman. During the course of the narrative it transpires that the character Ash has secretly been working for the Company all along; he is a ‘corporate suit’ pursuing the Company’s agenda of acquiring the alien. Ash is a fully dehumanised worker because he’s an android – he is the ultimate company man. As an android, ash is willing to sacrifice the human crew in order to obtain the alien. In one scene, Ash tries to kill Ripley. This scene resembles a rape. Ridley Scott speculated that, because he is an android, Ash has probably never had a real sexual encounter so the attack puts him in a state of sexual frenzy. He rolls up a pornographic magazine, which is associated with masturbation and sexual frustration. This turns it into a phallic symbol or phallus substitute. He tries to suffocate Ripley by forcing it down her throat in another image of phallic penetration. Thus, the humans are caught between two extremes - the mechanisation and technology of the Company and the monstrous organicity of the alien.
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