What’s it about?
Space truck drivers have relayed to a remote mining colony and are returning to earth; large bladders on the underside of the Nostromo are pregnant with ore like a cow’s utters. The conglomerated, highly diversified (bio-weapons too), corporation that funded their trip employs a vaguely agricultural symbol for its corporate logo.
The crew is: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Kane (John Hurt), Ash (Ian Holm), and Parker (Yaphet Kotto). Our team exhibits the espirit de corps of the working class, never so happy as when the coffee is fresh, the cigarettes are lit fresh, and the boss is within eye line. The only real outsider here is the anal retentive science officer, the exceedingly bourgoise Ash.
These are our heroes. They are co-workers first and foremost, although there is some animosity about the impregnable contract terms concerning premium overtime payments. At the end of the day though, underneath all the steam and grime, these are folks who have each other’s backs.
En route to earth, The Nostromo intercepts a signal from a remote, spectral planet with the bureaucratic moniker LV-421, as if this planet was only mapped because of a mathematical anomaly on a computer printout suggesting orbit and matter by the margin of error in the gravitational matrices of surrounding stars. “LV-421, I guess,” thinks the astronomer, having labeled four hundred similar patterns before; the next pattern LV-422, the next LV-423, and so on.
Anyway we’ve all seen Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, Aliens vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. Alien 3 is probably my favorite, but you gotta see the director’s cut for the simple fact that it’s the most literary installment in the Alien franchise.
Anyway back to Alien — the crew of the Nostromo lands on LV-421 and John Hurt is attacked by a face hugger that plants a seed in him which later rips through his chest during “soupy spaghetti night” on the ship. It grows into the “xenomorph,” envisioned by the late H.R. Geiger of Switzerland.
Over the course of the film’s 120 minutes Ellen Ripley’s character emerges as the de facto protagonist; everyone else is either picked off by the xenomorph or short circuits from the stress.
So what is this film – Alien (1979) – actually about? Nothing at all? Is it merely a haunted house movie in space? Is there is no underlying message? Is the theme merely to scare the audience? The ends justify the means, theory and practice are the same thing, roll credits and pay your taxes? Is that what’s going on in Alien?
What’s it really about?
I have this weird theory about the movie Alien, one might even go so far as to say it’s sexist – “misogynistic” is the word that boardroom people would probably use. But I think that the underlying message of the film is something that Scott himself has wrestled with in the ensuing decades finally coming to the conclusion that perhaps he went to far. Prometheus may be the counterweight to the subtext of Alien. Similarly, Steven Spielberg, has come under fire for some of the undercurrents in Jaws. To wit: “Jaws is a misogynist tract that revels in the opening sequence death of the sexually-liberated Chrissie Watkins” (source).
Interestingly, Alien also came out during the 70’s, a high water mark for feminists. More women going to work, wearing funny pants, having it all, etc. “That streak of misogyny is an attitude shared by other American films made during the period when the women’s liberation movement was threatening male prerogatives” (source). Incidentally some feminists who have attributed misogyny to Jaws have also denigrated the novel by Peter Benchley and I think that is way off the mark. Jaws is an excellent novel, and the themes are far more adult than anything seen in the film. There is an adultery sub-plot, in particular, that really deepens the metaphor of the shark. If you haven’t read the book you should (source).
Prometheus, although a much different picture than Alien (*cough* RNA replicase *cough*) is actually in some respects an answer to its themes, almost a mea culpa on Ridley Scott’s part to apologize for the aggressive sexism of Alien. Think about it. Prometheus is all about what? That’s right, motherhood. How do we know this? Have you seen the film? Try watching it again and working it backwards in your head.
So why the hate?
The thing is that back in the 1970’s both Scott and Spielberg were hungry, young filmmakers who wanted a Maserati. They didn’t want beer in the fridge and a barefoot woman in the kitchen, and they were bound and determined to succeed in a big way.
You see the same thing with young male artists across the spectrum of entertainment. Their early stuff is always more raw-boned, rough around the edges, meaner, angrier, and more aggressive. This is how they get their foot in the door and get paid.
If it weren’t for Spielberg going overboard he never would have been in a position to replace guns with walkie-talkies, and Scott would have never been able to put out Prometheus. Isn’t that a fact?
The question then becomes is it disingenuous of them to turn around and cover their tracks? It reminds me of a story from college. I went to a school where we had a drinking game called “Newman Day,” where the object of the game was to drink 24 beers in 24 hours. Not easy in and of itself, but the practice actually elicited a grouchy letter from the late Mr. Newan decrying our festivities. He said, and I’m almost quoting here “I can understand having a few beers after a day of doing charity work but what you’re doing is out of line and I don’t want to be associated with it.” But from what I understand Paul Newman was actually thrown out of college for bar fighting. How does that work?
Alien was ultra-violent and so was Jaws back before the cigars and Kate Capshaws came along. If you see footage of theater-goers watching Jaws in the 1970’s you see people literally screaming in the theater. So what? They feel guilty now about their success? Who knows.
With that out of the way I want to posit that there is an overarching negative treatment of fatherhood in Alien (1979) that is exhibited through metaphors which engage several of the male characters. Maybe all of them.
I think the alien is a symbol of male identity being subsumed and mutated by becoming a father. Or perhaps it is the fear of fatherhood itself—that these directors who are gunning for the bells and whistles of life think subconsciously it will all be taken away from them once they cross the finish line but before they rev up the Maserati’s engine. Is that paranoia or rational? I don’t know.
Ash calls the xenomorph “Kane’s son.” Let’s start there.
Kane is impregnanted by the face hugger. The face hugger’s extremity resembles the female uvulva (not pictured). This is the father character who has given birth through congress with the female to his progeny. Something that, ultimately will destroy him. This is “Kane’s son.”
Brett’s death scene resembles the impulse towards sex. He is seen chasing a cat around a hanger bay, which represents female sexuality. He then looks up into “rain” – a symbol of fertility – actually some kind of coolant duct throwing off moisture. He is snared by his desire for sex completely unwitting of the consequences of his hunt.
Ash is the male who has become a robot, stifled by the demands of the domestic life. Routine, bills, whatever. The baby bedroom imagery of the scene where he tries to kill Ripley is indicative of the constraining forces that fatherhood has placed upon him. His powerlessness (impotence) is amplified by the “nesting” imagery of the scene. The fact that he tries to kill Ripley with a magazine is certainly suggestive of pornography. He has been reduced by the demands of family life.
Dallas is the idealist, the captain, it is his soul that the alien/baby takes here. His only admonition, “kill me.”
Parker represents the working class male who is skeptical of management but follows orders and keeps his head down. He lasts longer than anyone else which suggests Scott’s own affinity for the working class, but at the end of the day his attempts to cling to a simpler way of life also leads to his death. Not even the routine of scrums with management, pay days, pay offs, overtime, and other hallmarks of everyday lower middle class life can save him from the jaws of death.
Scott himself is always chomping on a cigar, a millionaire, he likes fast cars and hot chicks. He started out doing car commercials and the only reason that Tony Scott got into the business was because he saw what kind of lavish lifestyle Ridley could afford – dames, cigars, and maseratis and shit.
No kidding. I once took this pretty girl out on a date and she told me she had been on a date recently with some guy who had a Maserati. She saw my apartment and said I needed to “upgrade,” and I never saw her again. She was damn fine too. So I get it. I do. I want a Maserati too, apparently. Nice, pretty gal there. Bout…twenty one? In a Maserati? Ooooooooooohhhhhhh *snap* ok…..I’m like: “I’m still gassy from eating mac and cheese, what’s a Maserati?”
The movie Alien is really about how much contempt Scott has for males who let themselves be both unsexed and brutalized by domesticity, whereas if they just had done something with their lives instead of following their libidos they could have been living a healthier existence. Some may argue some antiquated crap about how married life balances men, but human beings aren’t really balanced creatures, are we? It may not be politically correct to say what would be best for men from a purely physiological standpoint. Then again I could be wrong. I’m just telling you what I see in Ridley’s film. And I did think maybe it was a crackpot theory until…
I saw Prometheus and saw how being rich for three decades had softened the edges of Ridley’s message. Of course he mellowed out a bit, but if you think that Alien and Prometheus don’t dialogue with each other then you don’t understand the subtext of the film. Prometheus is actually also about RNA replicase and some of the philosophical questions that are raised by origin of life research, but it’s also just about motherhood. And isn’t it interesting what happens to Naoomi Rappaci’s symbolic husband in that film? INDEED!!! (*twirls mustache*)
What do you think?
Notice the reference by Parker to . . . well . . . um . . . (*runs away*)