by Laura Sanden
The big hit of the summer has been casually written off by critics as an old-fashioned scare movie and a space-age Jaws. Monster, a magazine geared toward the adolescent reader, gleefully credits it with a record 13 mass audience gasps. But before dismissing Alien as just another overproduced piece of schlock, aspects other than the horror factor should be examined. For the filmgoer who can distance himself from the occasional gore of the first viewing, or who can sit through it a second time, Alien furnishes more than simply an opportunity to scream in unison with a couple of hundred other people. Irwin Allen, the producer of disaster films, may disagree, but people do go to movies for reasons other than a desire to be scared out of their seats.
The basic purpose of any film as an art form is twofold—to reflect the society that enables it to be produced, and to affect the way in which that society in turn views itself. Alien is an uneven film, i.e., its ability to initiate change or increased social awareness is limited in lieu of instant audience reaction. Unfortunately, many who see it will get nothing out of it except an increased adrenaline level. But Alien does reflect today’s mores to a surprising degree by portraying a futuristic milieu with contemporary protagonists and contemporary themes. It is therefore neither a truly futuristic film nor an old-fashioned one.
The screenplay is disconcertingly simple. In some future time, ostensibly in the 21st Century, an alien life form with remarkable environmental adaptability is inadvertently brought aboard an earth- bound space freighter. Only one out of seven crew members survives the creature’s unwelcome visit.
Alien does not conveniently fit into the science fiction format. Space fantasy films, from the Buck Rogers serials to Star Wars, extol the wonders of technology, usually spending a considerable amount of screen time displaying gadgetry at the expense of characterizations. Following the lead of 2001’s computer Hal, Star Wars carried technology to the extreme by personifying robots and underexposing real humans. Alien uses its share of terminal-screens and sophisticated apparatus (including an onboard computer), but, with the exception of the hypersleep capsules that enable the crew to artificially hibernate, no equipment exceeds present-day technology and humans never play second fiddle to it.
Initially one is more impressed with the efficiency and matter-of-fact attitude of the five male and two female crew members than with their complex surroundings. Not surprisingly, they act like astronauts, but these men and women with at least a century of progress beyond contemporary earthlings are rooted in our time. There is more than the mere need of audience identification at work here. Three of the crew are smokers. Lingering shots of them engaging in this obsolete activity repeatedly call it to the viewer’s attention. The captain wears a beard (which is mentioned in Alien’s novelization as a holdover from the past and a sign of individuality). Kitsch objects appear in the crew’s living quarters (bear in mind that these items would be antiques to the spaceship’s inhabitants). The engineer and his assistant continually gripe about wages, and the keen professionalism that was so impressive at the film’s beginning gradually breaks away under stress.
Alien may berrying to depict blue collar tastes and attitudes of tomorrow inasmuch as the crew members are basically technicians in a space “tug” and are not the highly skilled astronauts of their time. It is more likely, however, that the makers of Alien realized the ease in portraying the technology of the future and the difficulty in portraying the people. The problem is comparable to a traveler taking a supersonic jet to a foreign country and being unable to speak the language. It is almost impossible to imagine a higher social order among humans, although some day it must occur if the species is to survive. Such a state would undoubtedly display a greater degree of harmony between individuals than we now have, or those in Alien posess. In viewing them one wonders how humans could have changed so little and still have weathered the aggression and disunity of this century plus another 50 years or more. What Alien explicitly points out is that, regardless of equality in race and gender, if people work together in the distant future as poorly as we do now, they will not survive.
Much has been made of the alien monster and the recent trend toward organic, slime horror. In Alien the birth and metamorphosis of the strange invader seems designed to disgust as well as terrify. Donald Sutherland’s pod birth in Invasion of the Body Snatchers aims at the same effect. The Amityville Horror features a slime-oozing door. Movies have gone beyond the blood and guts stage to include the mucous membranes. The aversion toward exposed tissue and the inner workings of organisms is not unusual. Young children apparently have a greater capacity for repulsiveness than the rest of us. Toy companies now sell a green “slime” and kits to make plastic, slippery “creepy crawlers.” By the time they reach adolescence young people use the word “gross” to describe just about anything. An almost pathological preoccupation with cleanliness in this age of prepackaged meats, blemish-free vegetables and scented toilet paper leaves us with very little that can be described as “dirty.” Even machines have become clean. What could be more antiseptic than a computer? (Demon Seed failed miserably to make a monster of one. It was simply too greaseless to be frightening.)
The slimy creature in Alien emphasizes the contrast between the sterile, computerized interior of the space vehicle—a world which we find increasingly familiar—and the organic, chemical world to which we really belong. Obviously, the alien monster also represents the most overused Freudian reference in films from Méliès to Hitchcock—the ever-popular phallic symbol. The sexual allusions did not creep into Alien accidentally. Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon, Walter Hill, and David Giler fashioned a reptilian-like animal that forces humans into a “strange sort of physical union.” Swiss artist H.R. Giger, known for his bizarre and erotic paintings, designed the alien and the skeletal landscape from which it originates The sexual imagery pervades the film to such an extent that even the spaceship itself takes on phallic proportions. Nor is the symbolism limited to the male anatomy. The alien first adopts the shape of a crablike creature that attaches itself to a crew member’s face. Later when this parasitic form is abandoned, the ship’s science office^ examines its underlying folds with all the relish of a zealous gynecologist. The alien assumes blatantly phallic dimensions in the violent death of the first crew member before evolving into a large animal that resembles a lizard with a horizontally elongated head that contains at least three set* of overlapping teeth. It perfunctorily strangles in a non-sexual way the male crew members to whose fate the audience its privy. As the alien’s size increases, only- parts of its body are shown, and its perverted sexuality becomes more pronounced. The two women on the ship are destined for an especially diabolical fate. The way in which the monster’s slimy tail moves in from the right side of the frame to slowly encircle the female navigator’s body leaves no doubt that a violent seduction is about to take place.
Finally, one crew member remains to elude and somehow destroy the creature By this time the audience is well aware that Alien is yet another movie about a female in distress. The difference this time, however, is that our lone heroine is a strong woman relying upon her wits, and with no man in a white space suit waiting to rescue her. What many feminist thought would be a compelling statement turns into a bitter sweet declaration of female equality and strength. Ripley, the woman in question, has been depicted throughout as a forth right, competent, and courageous individual. If her advice had been taken originally, the alien would never have beer brought aboard the ship. In one scene of a vicious fight with the science officer, she is practically choked to death when he literally tries to shove a girlie magazine down her throat, as if to force her to comply with the outmoded image of women.
Ripley is the kind of self-sufficient female the movies have lacked for too long. In a film conceived, written, and directed by men, her character is truly impressive. Some feel that the final scene of Alien negates the positive image of Ripley that has been built up earlier in the film. In it she undresses down to her skivvies, seemingly for the benefit of the voyeurs in the audience. The scene is not gratuitous when viewed in the entire context of the film. Symbolically Ripley has been engaging in various forms of sexual activity since the movie’s opening frames. There is a definite link between her and the male imagery of the spaceship. In the opening shots of the shuttlecraft hovering over the alien planetoid, the craft’s engines vibrate the bridge where five of the crew members direct its movements. In closeups of each individual only Ripley is vibrating as well. If this example appears to stretch the point, there is a more obvious instance of a sexual relationship between Ripley and the spaceship when she arms the craft to self-destruct in order to blow up the alien in it. The process involves manually extracting large, phallic cylinders from the vessel’s floor. As she speeds away in the shuttlecraft to get as far from the exploding spaceship as possible, a head shot shows Ripley perspiring at the temples and panting in exhaustion and anticipation. The explosion occurs too near, and the shuttlecraft shudders. Ripley moves her head from side to side as bright colors fill the sky, not once but twice. Woman and machine are spiritually one.
The euphoria is shortlived because the alien has been hiding in the shuttlecraft all along. Mistakenly believing she is safe, Ripley at her most vulnerable point, disrobes and prepares to enter the hypersleep capsule for the long journey home. The camera assumes the eye view of the creature and thereby implicates the audience in the impending assault. A typical rape scenario has been established with the viewer in the role of the peeping tom, but allegiance has already been pledged to the potential victim. It is Ripley with whom the audience overwhelmingly identifies, not the alien. One could argue that unanimous empathy with the woman occurs only because the creature hiding in the shadows of the shuttlecraft is a monstrous, perverted phallic representation. But identification with the creature, regardless of how disgusting it may be, has not been unheard of in the past. Even Mia Farrow’s violation by the devil monster in Rosemary’s Baby contains indulgent erotic overtones in favor of the agressor.
In Alien the audience has been witnessing, as the saying goes, a “private party” in which Ripley needs no one but herself. This statement of sexual independence and the audience’s concurrence with it supersedes the voyeurism foisted upon the viewer.
Alien pulls off a clever switch in not only having a woman as the dominating force in a typically male survival situation, but in the casting of an unknown actress in the most important role. Sigourney Weaver, a newcomer to motion pictures, plays Ripley. Ms. Weaver is trained for the stage, but let’s hope she doesn’t stay there. As a film overly concerned with the visual effects. Alien does not provide the opportunity for her to engage in any sustained monologue. She obviously can act, but in this first movie appearance her persona already speaks more eloquently than any script. A face like hers, so adaptable to the medium, seldom reaches celluloid. Physical beauty is irrelevant, although the contours of her features seem created especially for the camera. It is rather the intelligent intensity in Weaver’s eyes and the self-assured grace that achieve their full impact only when magnified on a movie screen. A young teenager watching the first few minutes of Alien succinctly demonstrated the effects of Weaver’s magic. Unaware that she would become the movie’s heroine and disregarding the possible ribbing from his friends, he leaned forward in his seat as if to move closer to her image on the screen and said simply, “I love her.”
The basic downfall in Alien is not the acting, which is uniformly excellent, the screenplay, or the unusual and stimulating sets. Ridley Scott’s direction has nowhere near the potency of his previous film The Duellists, which created a big splash at Cannes a few years ago and promptly sunk after its release in the United States from underpromotion. Scott was at one time the most successful director of TV commercials in Great Britain. What made The Duellists so impressive was that the film allowed the plot to develop at a realistic, sometimes even leisurely, pace. With Alien he has regressed to the rapid, unvarying pace of television. Although the tactic works on young viewers who have syncronized their inner stop watches to the quick editing of the small screen, it comes off as cliched to experienced filmgoers. The suspense never builds to an unbearable point as it should, and every anxious moment resembles the previous one with too much visual information in rapid sequence being shot at the viewer. Overall, Alien resembles a 30-second “Coke Adds Life” commercial— slick, bloated, and unnecessarily busy.
To his advantage Ridley Scott serves as his own camera operator. (More directors, instead of emulating Hitchcock, should look through the camera once in a while. It is amazing how many obviously do not think in visual terms.) Scott has a good visual sense but oftentimes attempts overly ambitious shots that only succeed in being pretentious. There is one such shot of the alien taken from behind the ears of the crew’s pet cat. Instead of an over-the- shoulder reaction showing the cat’s point of view, the shot signals an impossible source of the subjective eye—like the cliche of the camera inside a fireplace.
Alien is not a great movie, but it may inadvertently set the tone for subsequent films of its kind. Space fantasies can now speculate about the future of the human race without resorting to a worship of technology. The authority figure, the captain in Alien’s case, can be killed off in the middle of the film without the risk of the audience losing interest in the fate of the other, “lesser,” characters. A black man can last until nearly the end instead of being a daring but expendable decoy. The final fade-out can be on the face of the victorious woman. Anyone can be the hero, not just an unemotional white man. The strong, silent type is dead. May he rest in peace.
Cinemonkey, 18-19, Summer/Fall 1979, Volume 5, Number 3/4; pp. 46-48