Friday, March 25, 2011

Critical Analysis: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

'In space no one can hear you scream' is the tag-line of Ridley Scott's (Blade Runner and Gladiator) 1979 classic, Alien. Widely respected amongst the film community as one of the most thrilling and visually unsettling monster films of all time, the commercial and critical success of Alien spawned three sequels; Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Alien3 (David Fincher, 1992) and Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997). The features of this critical analysis will highlight the conceptual and thematic concerns presented throughout the film; notably the features of the Alien organism, comparisons between the Nostromo and the Alien planet, Ripley's femininity, the mother and child dynamic and the array of techniques utilized throughout by Scott to express these themes.

One very successful feature of Alien is that it has found a niche amongst multiple genres. It is rare works such as Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) that can find a place in both the science fiction and horror genres, as they employ iconography and key conventions that can be found in both. The setting of the story in outer space, the elaborate advancement of technology and the investigation of mysterious planets is true to the science fiction genre, while Scott infuses fresh life into this storyline, paying homage to 'creature films' and the earliest examples of horror film. The fact that Alien gives rise to the non-pleasurable emotion of horror is ultimately enjoyable for the viewer because of the 'mastery' over and 'relief' from these anxieties, or the recognition that it isn't happening to us. As an audience throughout the film, we have distinguished terror towards the threat posed by the Alien's mode of being. It attacks the crew because they threaten its survival and because they provide the means for its continued survival.

Outside of the Alien vessel where it is discovered, Kane is exploited into giving it the opportunity to live a life. It does what any other organism would do, to utilize all possible resources to enhance and prolong this opportunity. The point in the film when the Alien first appears it is less a creature than a disruptive 'event' oriented toward a future of its own elaboration. There is a distinct destabilization of the film's boundaries and the character's identities that must be reasserted at the conclusion. The Alien disrupts these boundaries and all events that occur for the remainder of the film are centered on the impending threat of the Alien.


Barbara Creed in her article 'Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine' develops some interesting theories from the film that link to the representation of the 'primal scene' where she provides three important representations. The 'birth scene' (as described by Creed) at the beginning of the film begins with the camera exploring the inner body of the 'Mother Ship' and culminates with a long tracking shot down one of the corridors, ending in a womb-like chamber. We see the characters slowly awaken from their sleep almost as children of the spaceship controlled by the computer system called 'Mother'. By exploring this space, we are revealed the environment that will enclose the lives of these characters for the rest of the film, while also possibly providing a metaphoric indication of the insignificant space that humans have occupied since the conception of the earth an incalculable number of years ago. We are also quickly asserted the fact that advanced technology will play a role in the film as we are filled with incredible imagery of strange looking devices and buzzing computer machinery. We are first introduced to the recognizable face of John Hurt, whose star title at the time was the biggest name to appear among the film's acting credits. In what is an almost uncanny parallel to Janet Leigh's character in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the audience is made to believe that he will be the human centre of the film. But after the 'event' featuring the arrival of the Alien, this easy presumption is shockingly proven incorrect.


Creed contrasts the first 're-birthing scene' with a second representation. The horseshoe shaped Alien craft on the planet is first seen from the left hand side in a series of long shots. Later there is a cut to another long shot facing the centre of the horseshoe as if between the legs of the craft. This suggests a body; its outstretched legs positioned either side of a 'vaginal' entrance, through which we see the small figures of Dallas, Kane and Lambert enter. Compared to the atmosphere of the Nostromo, however, the ship is dark, dank and mysterious and full of mutilated organisms, notably H. R Giger's design of the disfigured human discovered by the investigating trio. In this incredible set piece, a ghostly light creates ominous shadow; there is a compete absence of an accompanying score and the sound of their movements echo through the caverns. After curiously examining an egg discovered within the ruin, the face-hugger attaches to Kane's face. This can be interpreted as a punishment for his violation of the Alien space as he penetrates what appears to be a force-field barrier that surrounds and covers the eggs.


The birth of the Alien from Kane's stomach plays on what Freud has described as a common misunderstanding that many children have about birth, being that the baby grows in their mother's stomach from which it is also born. The dinner sequence is one of the most jolting moments in motion picture history. To the sound of shredding flesh and a cracking rib cage, Kane's torso ripples with blood, heaves violently upwards and the creature bursts from his chest, spraying blood and bodily substances all over the rest of he crew. An incredible feature about this scene is the fact that none of the other actors were made aware of what was going to happen to Kane and their reactions to the emerging Alien were completely natural reactions of horror. The initial presentation of cleanliness and sterility dominates the interior of the Nostromo, while the threat posed by the Alien is explicitly presented as one of contamination. The dinner sequence is brightly lit, the table is white and the characters are wearing white uniforms. This purity is violently disrupted by Kane's convulsing and the splatter of blood by way of the emerging Alien. This scene is an attempt to appropriate the procreative function of the mother, to represent a man giving birth. The Alien is referred to later in the film by Ash (Ian Holm) as 'Kane's Son'. It is also interesting to recognize that often in horror films when man creates life, he gives birth to monsters and almost always results in an unleashing of evil. Another notable film in this genre is David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986).

Each of the members of the crew come face-to-face with the Alien in sequences where the mise-en-scene is coded to suggest an intense feeling of isolation. Apart from the scene of Kane's death, all of the other sequences occur in tightly enclosed, dimly-lit threatening spaces reminiscent of the giant hatchery where Kane first encounters the eggs. The technique of parallel editing underscores the rupture between the futurism of the ship's operational quarters and the swamp-like catacombs of the cavernous cargo areas and claustrophobic air shafts and makes the attacks of the Alien in these parts more dramatic. In these sequences the terror of being abandoned in the depths of the Nostromo is matched only by the fear of reincorporation. One notable feature is the fact that each of the characters dies because of a care for each other. The Alien would not have been brought on board had they not wanted Kane to live and Parker chose not to shoot the Alien with Lambert still in his line of fire.


The Alien is conceived as a predatory, threatening monster in appearing to penetrate the female in all three of its incarnations (face hugger, chest burster and full grown 'dragon jaw'), which suggests the outline of the masculine member. Alien is actually a disturbingly sexual film and Giger's creature can be described as the first 'interstellar rapist' captured on film. The Alien dispatches each male crew member with gruesome speed, but leaves Lambert and Ripley to the end. It is also possible to see the creature playing with Lambert in her final scene. The tail rears up underneath her in an act of penetration/rape and her anguished cries are audible over the intercom. This observation can be linked to the final sequence where the creature rears up on a scantily clad Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), after having spent a few minutes in the pod watching her undress. Unlike the heroine in most horror films she hasn't shed her clothes for a male antagonist, but the for the Alien tormentor. Like any woman who feels threatened under the male gaze, the first thing Ripley does is climb into a protective suit and cover herself up. Ripley's vulnerability is also raised by Cosima Urbano, in which she says that Ripley submits to the monster and returns its gaze in order to eliminate its horror. The pain and discomfort experienced during the watching of the film is considered necessary and inevitable in order to achieve what she calls the 'final victory'. Creed solidifies this idea in saying that "scenes of gore satisfy a morbid desire to see as much as possible before we are forced to look away."

Stephen Mulhall argues that it is the Alien's monstrous representation of human sexual difference that most fundamentally drives the plot of Scott's film and he raises a sense that Ripley's final, isolated confrontation with the Alien is something to which she is fated from the beginning. Only at the very conclusion of the film when she strokes the cat and begins to get undressed is Ripley solely allowed to express her femininity, an identity she is unable to express amongst the masculine environment of the Nostromo. Alien connects the orality with Ripley's experience of the human world she inhabits, by underlying the degree to which her voice fails to register in that world. When she forbids Ash from opening the hatch to allow Kane to be brought back on board, he acts as if she had not spoken and allows the 'contaminated' party to enter. When he attempts to kill her later, he does so by forcing a tightly rolled magazine (pornographic?) down her throat. Ash's action in this scene are an imitation of the Alien and its penetrative actions on Kane.


The true outstanding feature of this film is H.R Giger's extraordinary design for the Alien monster, which remains one of the most disturbing creations in the history of cinema. It is a terrifying creature that changes shape as it transforms into a mature life form. While highly intelligent and sadistic, it is both biological and mechanical state and appears to be indestructible. In the later installments of the Alien franchise, there are multiple Alien attackers, but the humans are blessed with higher-powered weaponry to better counter the threats. The Alien has 'no remorse' for its actions and is sexual, instinctive and malicious.

In Alien, the dominant gaze is the object and appearance of the Alien itself, which is distinctly uncanny as we only see the creature fully in its entirety on few occasions. The gaze creates space for the the spectators to position themselves within the film and we feel the fear of the characters as we are also blinded to what we are witnessing. The director manipulates the audiences' vision through the altering of the gaze, which takes the form of Jonesy, Parker and Lambert as they witness the attacks off screen. Scott eliminates the use of extreme gore, but instead creates the sense of paranoia in that we know the characters are dead, but we are spared the true horrific extent of their deaths.

Overall, Alien is one of the most visually rewarding science fiction/horror films ever conceived. Thematically, the film is a very dense project and the film and especially its key character, Ripley, will continue to be an important topic of debate for film analysts into the coming decades.

My Rating: 5 Stars


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