The ALIEN Film Cycle
It would be easy to dismiss the Alien film cycle (1979-1997) as merely another blockbuster, emerging from the Hollywood industry. True, it is that, but it is something else too.
There are several underlying messages in the film, each pertinent to our times. Put altogether, they are explosive.
The most obvious one is held within its title. The Alien. In a century shaped by the worst expression of xenophobia as recorded by human history, a film which centered around the threat which is coming from outside is deeply typical of common fears.
The Alien is the ultimate stereotypical immigrant: it doesn't speak the language of the indigenous people, but it learns to survive very quickly in its new environment. In fact, after an initial period of adjustment, it seems to know the local environment better than the people who inhabit it. The Alien looks weird, but not totally unlike human beings. It has a head, legs, it moves across the floor, it eats, shrieks, wiggles its tail. It is intelligent in a way which is totally unfamiliar to humans. Its intelligence is frightening but also respected and somewhat envied. And of course, the Alien, like all good immigrants, is dark skinned!
The Alien encapsulates the most sensible explanation for xenophobia, or any other phobia of the Other, that I know of. It comes from within. The Alien explodes out of the bodies of human beings. It is the foreign presence within the human form which cannot be contained, cannot be held, that needs to be projected. It is the embodiment of all the horror, all the fear, all the hatred, all the aggression which humans cannot integrate into their psyche.
The origin of the Alien is most telling in this xenophobia tale. Initially, a scorpion-like creature is found on a remote planet by a team of space travelers. This colonial team comes across the cluster of strange looking domes which turn out to be the habitat of these scorpion-like creatures. One of those attaches itself to the face of one of the humans, straddling his head, and thus beginning the process of insemination, or contamination. It is a head fuck, the result of which is the birth of the Alien.
If this team of space travelers had not arrived upon this planet, they would have never encountered these creatures which later are presented as the worst threat to the future of civilization. The encounter with this life form is the result of human's expansionist tendencies. In an attempt to colonize another part of the cosmos, these travelers have come across something which might prove to be too big for them.
It is a reversal narrative of what actually took place in the history of Western colonization, especially in North America, where the white travelers brought with them a different kind of
an Alien in the form of several varieties of viral diseases to which the Native Americans were not immune. Those viruses were then responsible for more deaths then brought upon by the war that the conquerors waged against the Native Americans.
We don't know how dangerous this mother scorpion-like creature is in itself. It is the encounter with the human form which releases its aggression. Its later aggressive actions are also a form of a paranoid defense mechanism against the invasion of the humans into its territory.
The Alien which it breeds inside the human body can only be seen accurately as the result of the interaction between the two forms of life. It is a message which the film tries to gloss over but which is nonetheless important to realize. The Alien grows inside the human body, perhaps not unlike a cancerous cell. The human which holds it, has to take at least some responsibility towards its later action, as it is partially made up of human tissue, upon which it nurtures presumably during its embryonic stage.
This interaction is seen as a contamination in the film. The echoes of certain race purity theories are not hard to pick up here. The human form is seen as superior, although temporarily at a loss at how to deal with this very physical form of life.
Essentially, the Alien is an animal, and interpretations along the lines of the human as the higher form of life and the Alien as the lower, animalistic form of life, are very tempting. But
It is not enough, as the Alien is not merely an animal from the animal kingdom which can be placed somewhere within the context of Darwinian evolution. It is outside it. It is what humans always desire but also fear most. It has an intelligence from outer space, capable of making communication with humans but on its own terms. In fact, it is the result of the communication with the outer space intelligence, the scorpion, which produces the Alien.
The Alien then is not really that alien to humans. It is a product of their invasion into something else's culture. It is a product of physical mingling with another life form. The Alien is how the film sees the possibility of two cultures mingling. The implications are disastrous. As long as you stick to your own, you are okay. Mix with another culture and see hell break loose.
Here we arrive at the second layer of symbolism in the film. As well as being a xenophobia movie, the Alien cycle also carries with it a strong misogynist message generally but one which is particularly aimed against the process of birth.
The place wherein the Alien moves and grows is a womb. The womb motif appears in the film in two forms. The first is the more obvious one and is the cavity within the woman, or the man, where the Alien grows, awaiting the moment it can come out into the world, in what must be the most violent and brutal of Cesareans births ever experienced in the universe!
The second appearance of the womb is in the general place where the plot of the film takes place. In all films, the Alien co-habitat with humans within a limited space. the physical
characteristics of this space are quite similar, may the place be a space ship or an abandoned factory on a remote planet. The place in contained, almost totally inaccessible from the outside, dark, damp, full of strange apparatus, loose piping. It is a subterranean area. Within it the Alien moves, looking for its next victim. It moves about leaving behind it a slimy trace. What is this place, this dark cavity, this damp chamber, within which the female protagonist and her helpers are trying to contain the beast, if not a womb?
The Alien itself resembles a small baby in more than one way. It is pre-verbal but uses sound to express emotions. It demands from its 'parent' figure nourishment in regular intervals, nourishment which it takes orally. Even its figure is vaguely reminiscent of a baby, with its over-sized head. It is also reminiscent of Francis Bacon's impression of human beings, with their inner experience taking over their out experience and giving them a distorted look. The Alien, like a
baby, is not able to moderate its needs at all, and is totally focused upon getting them met. It is as desperate as only a baby can be before its next meal.
The Alien cycle comes to its conclusion with the female protagonist sacrificing herself after realizing that she is carrying within her the Queen Alien which is capable of producing
thousands more Aliens who, once born, might mean the end of civilization. She decides to sacrifice herself and jumps into the furnace. Her act is described as a heroic one, as one of
empowerment, despite the immense loss involved.
The individual dying for the sake of the collective is not a new theme but is certainly a useful one to rehearse in a time where states might be making demands upon citizens to take up arms and fight for their country. At the end of the day it is the individual, the female protagonist, who must pay in her life for the misadventures which her culture, the company which sent her colonial team into space, had generated in its attempts to conquer the universe.
Having to sacrifice oneself for society or for God, is a well-worked theme. It begins with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. It tells us that there is a higher value than life in itself and that is the future of the nation. The one must be ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the many.
And in this case, it is the woman who must do it, the one who is obviously responsible for the appearance of the Alien in the first place. Her responsibility is both as an individual but also
as a symbol for reproductivity. In order to maintain the future of the human race, she has to eliminate her faulty reproductive system, the one which was contaminated by a penetration from another culture.
These three themes combined, the xenophobia, the anti-womb and the human sacrifice make a powerful message which is transmitted almost unmediated to the depths of the sub-conscious.
Horror films work on a very physical level. They jar you into alertness by awakening deeply seated fears of death. I would assume that most people reacted like me when first seeing the
Alien appear on the screen: with a start. Later, you get used to it, and your body loses some of its tension. But this tension is also a healthy defense mechanism.
The body recognizes that what films like Alien transmit to us is damaging and attempts to defend itself. After failing to alert us to the danger, that is if we stay in our seats and watch the film through, we have to make adjustments to it.
Like the baby who learns to smile towards its parent even when this parent is the same one which inflicts small amount of pain upon it, so we learn to translate the message of horror of the film into ones of pleasure. We must in order to justify the experience to our bodies. In this way, what is essentially a painful experience is read as a pleasurable one by our minds and we walk away from the cinema, a little less human then what we were before, a little more accustomed to suffering as our fate in life, a little more ready to inflict pain upon others, a little more ready to be masochistic and to sacrifice ourselves for a 'superior value'.