By Matthew C. Brown
If you approach Alien (1979) as a single, stand-alone film, which you should, then the film’s intentions are magnified. It is a story that inks Humanity in its place in the universe: as miniscule specks in the vast dark of space-time. It traps Humanity in a bottle with a spider of its own making. There is nowhere to go, and the chances of escape are as minute as our place in the universe. Yet somewhere inside the silent scream that is Ridley Scott’s Alien, questions resound; empirical and philosophical questions of great importance about what it is to be human or alien and how we should proceed in our collective future.
Many Sci-Fi films involve either the invasion of Earth or human vessels by extraterrestrials, or the script is flipped so that humanity is cast as the invaders. Whichever way the meeting of worlds is portrayed, we are really being invaded by ourselves. We are seeing into our own eyes, our own mind. We create these projections of ourselves as visitors from other worlds because we have not yet been face to face with an extraterrestrial species to show us how the “alien other” would actually proceed or interact with us. Sci-Fi stories like these are cautionary tales that beg us not to perpetrate the horrors of our human past and present on other worlds and species in space (not to mention each other here on earth). Though they are over the top sometimes and often are poorly executed B movies, they are intended to be lessons in humility not to be taken lightly.
The concept behind Dan O’Bannon and Donald Shusett’s original story and screenplay for Alien is that of a B monster film, something that had been done before many times over and had thusly confined the Sci-Fi genre to the niche realm of the laughable, obscure, and second rate; but what Dan O’Bannon really wanted from Alien was to find a way to make a B monster film with A+ production value. If that is all O’Bannon wanted from Alien then he should be proud, were he still with us, to see that the resulting film far surpasses just brilliance in artistic technique. The film’s continued stature in the Sci-Fi genre, much like the “facehugger” inserting its Xenomorphic spawn into Kane’s stomach, cannot be detached from any debating of the greatest Sci-Fi films of all time, nor, in fact, the greatest films of all time, lest it render the debate wholly deceased.
Alien set a high bar for Sci-Fi writers and filmmakers, a bar which has never been topped. Certainly the other films that many believe make up an “Alien franchise” have not been able to reach the heights of intellectual and philosophical terror that the original film achieved, and I include in that Ridley Scott’s most recent returns to that universe, Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) .
The film begins as the Nostromo, a commercial mining vessel, whose mission is being funded by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, is returning from an expedition. When its crew is awakened from stasis, far before their destined arrival on Earth, by “Mother”, the ship’s central computer, the crew nervously goes about asking, “Why?”. It seems that somewhere in the fine print of the crew’s mission contract there is a stipulation that states that they must investigate any distress signal, or alien lifeforms they come across, and if the crew members do not assist in said investigation, they forfeit their payment (shares). Mother has detected a distress signal coming from the planetoid Acheron (LV-426), thus the crew must go down to the surface of the planetoid.
During their search the crew finds the petrified corpse of a large humanoid alien with a hole in its chest. They also find a hive of eggs, and the occupant of one of these eggs latches itself onto the face of one of the crew members. When the rest of the crew brings his still living body back to the ship, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is faced with an ethical dilemma. If she opens the door to them, she risks contaminating the shuttle and the rest of the crew including herself, but if she does not open the door half of the crew, including the captain, will die. Protocol states she should not open the door to the contamination, but in the heat of the moment, Ash (Ian Holm), the ship’s science and medical officer opens the door to the crew outside, contaminating the shuttle in the process.
Ash’s seemingly very human act of empathy and compassion for the crew members outside is revealed later to be a highly calculated, pre-programmed action in accordance with his ulterior mission given him by their employers (Weyland-Yutani Corp) who placed Ash, an android, on the ship to guarantee the capture of any extraterrestrial species at the expense of any and all crew members. There are many themes that are explored surrounding this moment and those ensuant.
The film very subtly asks us, “What is alien?”. The obvious answer is the creature, the Xenomorph, that terrorizes the ship, but there is more at work here. The concept of the “alien inside us” is also at play. An example being that the creature gestates inside the stomach and then bursts out, killing the host—On a symbolic level this represents the doppelganger of humanity being born from out of the human form. It kills the old human, as if shedding its skin. In reality, the process of traveling at length through space-time will shape humanity in different ways intellectually, adaptively, and evolutionarily. This killer creature bursting forth from our bodies is an immediate and literal representation of that biological and intellectual change, as the creature has no morality and is entirely parasitic.
The more subtle and artistic turn in the writing of the film and the real thesis of the film, though, is that the “alien inside us” is actually Ash, who is our own (humanity’s) creation, an entity that has already infiltrated or contaminated the ship. If one sees the Nostromo as a representation of the female body and “Mother” as the human mind, one can see Ash as a foreign agent that allows for the breaking down of the body’s defenses. You then see Ripley as the personification of the mechanical womb that is the Nostromo, and the bridging of biological and the mechanical which represents Humanity’s movement away from its initial form to a mechanical and amoral form. This is a theme that is explored through H.R. Giger’s erotic biomechanical production design. There is also, very prominently, a thematic exploration of Julia Kristeva’s feminist responses to Sigmund Freud’s ideas about sexuality. Something one can read more about in Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, but that I do not have space to explore the complexities of here.
The script’s approach to the character Ash and the revelation that he is an android is one of the key elements that separates Alien from your typical Hard Sci-Fi film. No film so subtly and concisely twists the “alien” entity back on humanity. Ash, an android, built by the corporation in secret to carry out a secret mission is not human but appears to be to the crew. Even his one seemingly human act of letting the crew through the door along with the creature is in compliance with his prime directive. Much like the creature that he lets onto the ship, Ash is completely amoral and mechanical in his actions and programming. The lesson and thesis here being we must deal with our own demons that we bring with us before introducing ourselves to other extraterrestrial ones.
For a long time now we have been able to see the beginnings of our corporate future in space, the same corporate future that is portrayed in Alien. Companies like Space-X come to mind in this respect. Weyland-Yutani is a fictional version of some such massive corporation (Weyland Corp was valued at $218 trillion before its hostile takeover of Yutani Corp), one which represents the rate of expansion and exploitation that is natural and inevitable within capitalism. Xenopedia states that, “Weyland-Yutani is consistently portrayed as exhibiting the worst aspects of corporate profiteering, willing to sacrifice decency and life in the endless pursuit of profits.” The term to use is no longer globalization but universalization, and we must take care not to let the face of humanity be primarily corporations bent on imperial pursuits like resource acquisition because we will undoubtedly be perceived as a threat to any conscious life forms we come across and the employees of such companies are and will be subject to the highest degree of exploitation.
The relationship of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to the crew and Ash’s presence as an android spy on the Nostromo suggests that capitalism and its corporate system represent a part of the “alien other” that we must tame in ourselves. The way the film unfolds suggests that a lack of trust and empathy coupled with Capitalistic and imperial pursuits leads to Humanity evolving past morality and allowing its darkness and myopic vision to consume itself. That is certainly one throughway that is undeniably central to the film.
While Sci-Fi fantasy films and stories such as George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune (which though brilliantly realized was never truly executed) take place in imagined galaxies far away from our native Earth, Alien, deals in known science here in our galaxy and uses that knowledge to project Humanity into the future. The film falls in the sub-genre of Hard Sci-Fi, a genre whose boundaries are blurred by many Sci-Fi worlds and works. It is a sub-genre of cautionary tales and warnings about missteps we might take as a species in the future; a sub-genre which is always being added to and needs to be explored further in order to usher in the Human future that we truly desire in space and here on Earth. Alien is a perfect example of that genre dealing practically, although darkly, with Humanity’s interstellar future.
That said, Alien, is not completely perfect. The final product, though it does not treat race unfavorably, places a woman in a powerful leading role, and features white men being overpowered and consumed first before others, could be more intersectional. As we move forward with Sci-Fi projects, particularly in a very white-washed film industry, it is important that we pull focus to the many other oppressed perspectives in Sci-Fi. There are incredible Afrofuturist and Astro Black stories that already exist and need to be released as films/TV to wide audiences. These are stories that project all of us into the future in an equitable light, working together, and living for one another and the spirit of scientific discovery. Though films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) and other prominent TV/Film ventures like Star Trek: Discovery (2017-) are opening up spaces for intersectional characters and storylines in space, a majority of the iceberg is still underwater. Ava Duvernay is slated to bring Octavia Butler’s work to the screen, and that can’t happen soon enough. But as we move forward I do hope that Sci-Fi writers, whoever they may be, will approach our imminent space future practically and realistically. I do not wish to stifle creativity, and space fantasy has its place, but we also need to grow up and work together keeping the horrors and cultures of our ancestry in mind here in the present to project ourselves equitably into the future.
In Sci Fi Fantasy films that we love, one can hear laser blasts and explosions echoing unrealistically within the vacuum of space. Those films have their place in the world of Sci-Fi and entertainment, but it is important for our growth as a species to accept the facts and foster workable ideas and solutions in the face of the immensity of space-time. There is no sound in space, and the situation and our relationship to space is much more serious than films like Star Wars would have us admit. The reality is that space gives us many things to fear. We cannot afford to fear ourselves as well. It’s a sobering thought to be sure, but our future depends on our creativity, our ingenuity, and our brave face. As we boldly go to brave the vast darkness it is important to remember the reality of the situation of which Alien warns—in space no one can hear you scream.
Matthew C. Brown is a film writer in Greensboro.