My most recent posts have been about two sci-fi films, Gravity and Stalker. I tried to frame those films as belonging to a tradition of philosophical sci-fi which also includes such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Duncan Jones’ Moon from 2009. There are, of course, other traditions within sci-fi; a popular one for study, for example, is that branch which reflects audience fears. Most discussed in this vein are those American films from the fifties which reflect the fear of Communist invasion supposedly rife at that time; Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) is perhaps the most famous. Alternatively, current films like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) mirror contemporary concerns about environmental damage. These traditions seem to me to be close to the tradition embodied in sci-fi’s alternative name, ‘speculative fiction’; they use the conventions of the genre to explore ideas and speculate about possible futures for humanity.
So, there are a range of traditions or types within sci-fi. Like any genre, it is increasingly being expanded through hybridity – that is, the joining together of genres. So, we get sci-fi action films (John Carter), sci-fi comedy (Mars Attacks!) sci-fi superhero movies (X Men) and so on. One well-established hybrid is the sci-fi horror, and it was pretty much invented by Ridley Scott in 1979 with Alien. This is the film which established Scott as a major player in Hollywood (making $100 million at the box office on a $10 million budget will do that) and thirty-odd years later it remains absolutely as sharp, contemporary and terrifying as ever; it has not aged even slightly. It finds its real heirs in contemporary sci-fi horror games; if you’ve ever guided Isaac Clarke down a seemingly endless series of corridors in Dead Space, for example, you’ve got Alien to thank for every single narrative and aesthetic convention.
The action takes place for the most part on board the Nostromo, the name (and the film’s plot, pretty much) taken from a Joseph Conrad novel. (The references to Conrad’s work continue throughout the Alien series.) An encounter with an alien nest results in the alien making it on board the ship and terrorising the crew. The heroine is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley – one of the great female film protagonists.
Aesthetically, the film is in the tradition of expressionism and noir which we explored in other posts. We see a lot of the conventions of that particular mode of filmmaking – the chiaroscuro lighting and bars of light, the smoky interiors, the canted angles and extreme low shots and so on.
Given that the typical noir narrative -a protagonist is caught in a near-incomprehensible web of misfortune and must fight his or (occasionally) her way out – is exactly what happens here, the aesthetic suits the tone and mood of Alien. It was obviously a preferred mode for Scott since his next film, 1982’s Blade Runner used it again, to exceptional effect.
That expressionist style is also the foundation of horror film-making, of course, and Alien is an outstanding horror movie. (David Thompson points out that is is ‘basically a haunted house film’ but set on a spaceship rather than in a spooky house.) The narrative conventions of horror are there – just as in every teen slasher ever, the beastie starts picking the victims off one by one as they heroically, or stupidly, go off by themselves to thwart it. In many ways, it’s very conventional. But as many theorists have noted, what makes it interesting and important (and it is important – in his excellent essay on the film, Jordan Poast calls it ‘one of the most politically progressive films ever made’) is the way it differs from horror conventions. The most obvious way is in its protagonist, Ripley. Originally, she was a man; Ridley Scott insisted on changing the character to a woman, and this is what makes Alien so special. Firstly, it’s a big deal for the protagonist in such gendered genres (sci-fi and horror are both usually dominated by men) to be a female. Scott makes a habit of ‘regendering’ genres – he would go on to feminize the road movie (very successfully) in Thelma and Louise, and the army film (not so successfully) in G.I . Jane. As Proast writes, ‘the film blazed trails for female protagonists to lay claim to the male-centered cinema that had reigned since the inception of motion pictures, including the most entrenched forms, the action genres.’
But that’s not where the film’s real importance lies. It would be noble, but not especially remarkable, if all Scott had done was to switch a female protagonist for a male one. But starting from that switch, the whole film becomes a study of gender roles. We see how the crew treat each other according to gender; Ripley’s orders, for example, are ignored by the other men even though she is at that time the commanding officer on the Nostromo. Quickly, though, the men are shown to be essentially incompetent. The audience is led to believe that the hero of the film will be the ship’s captain, Dallas. But it soon becomes clear that Dallas has no more clue how to deal with the Xenomorph (the alien) on the ship than any of the other men, and Ripley has to take charge. From this point on, she moves into the centre of the action and the frame, increasingly crowding the men out. Importantly, the men are useless exactly because of the characteristics most usually associated with masculinity; they are too impetuous, too given to violent response, too confident in their own competence. Dallas, for example, acts like he’s in an action movie, and he goes to solve the problem alone; but this isn’t an action movie and his male heroics are quickly and bloodily shown to be inadequate.
The man most opposed to Ripley is Ash, the ship’s science officer. Finally, he snaps and attacks her and, in a strange and unsettling scene, attempts to choke her with a rolled-up pornographic magazine. This is a softly intertextual reference to a convention of the slasher; the inevitable scene where the female is stabbed repeatedly by the antagonist. It’s been said many times that the slasher movie is an acting out of violent male sexual desire; all those bad guys aren’t stabbing those girls, they’re symbolically raping them. The same is true here: Ash is trying to put Ripley in her place by violating her orally. Again, though, Ripley is empowered to fight back and triumph; the females are most definitely not the victims in Alien as they would be in a more conventional horror movie. David McIntee, in his book Beautiful Monsters, writes that ‘Alien is a rape movie with male victims.’ He goes on to point out that gender roles are reversed in more ways than one in the film – in the film’s most famous and shocking scene, it is a man who gives birth to the Xenomorph. If Alien is anything, it is a tribute to female resilience, caution and perseverance and a warning against male aggression and arrogance. That Ridley Scott chose two of the most male-orientated genres to make his points in (revitalising and reinventing those genres in the process) is tribute to his, and the film’s, genius.
Alien is an amazing, important, terrifying movie. It’s exceptionally well made and extremely effective. But it will be remembered, I suspect, for how it treats gender. It might be appropriate to compare it again to Dead Space, a game which effectively rips off every possible aspect of the film. But the makers of the game obviously thought the female protagonist was a step too far, even 30 years later in a post-Lara Croft world; they’ve changed the iconic Ripley to the faceless Isaac Clarke, and lost the point of the entire narrative in so doing.