The first thing you notice when watching Ridley Scott‘s Alien is the juxtaposition between the cold, mechanical space machines and the soft, pink flesh of the crew. This is a contrast that will be echoed later in the film, when the characters come into contact with the wraith-like alien monster. Kane, almost nude, save for his white underwear, is the very image of vulnerability and humanity. He is tired, puffy-eyed and lethargic; craving much needed food and cigarettes.
Soon after the untimely awakening of the mining ship Nostromo, the audience is treated to the disjointed and overlapping banter of a group of people that have spent too long with each other in confinement (far from being comrades, the ship’s crew are irritable and tired of each other). It transpires that the ship’s computer (named “Mother” seemingly to irritate psychoanalysts) has intercepted an alien signal from a nearby planet. Contracted to respond, the crew are forced to land on this inhospitable world and uncover the source of the signal, which, as it turns out, is not so much an SOS as a warning to stay away.
This is an essay about Monsters, and how they have been used to shine a light on our darkest fantasies, revealing our unconscious desire for the uncanny and our apparent fear of some great, primordial mother.
Chapter Six: Alien
And so, the heroic Captain Dallas, the Navigator Lambert and Executive Officer Kane investigate a vast, abandoned space shuttle on the surface of the planet while Warrant Officer Ripley monitors the progress from the ship, along with the Science Officer Ash and the Engineer’s Parker and Brett. Once aboard the alien craft, the audience enjoy their first experience of the uncanny monster. Kane, exploring the ship’s immense cargo hold, discovers a lair of eggs, stretching out as far as the eye can see, beneath a thin film of blue light.
When he unexpectedly falls through this laser beam placenta, he tumbles right into the spawn, and is confronted with a large egg and something moving within. It is at this point that Kane is forcibly and graphically raped by the alien organism, as it hatches from it’s egg and takes complete hold of his body, forcing itself down his throat. This incident, as well as others- including the ‘birth’ scene- have been widely regarded as a horrific take on sex and sexuality, symbolism that seemingly points to the real terror coming from within our own psyche, nurtured and developed by our repressed sexual fantasies.
The idea that we as humans are controlled by such fantasies is a Freudian concept, as he believed that all our fears, wants and illogical behaviours stem from our repression of dangerous sexual desires. Indeed, it would seem anything and everything humanity does can be linked, by Freud, back to sexual drives.
The sexual instincts are remarkable for their plasticity, for the facility with which they can change their aim… For the ease with which they can substitute one form of gratification for another
– Sigmund Freud
Freud also claimed that every child has the fantasy of witnessing the ‘primal scene’, that is to say sexual intercourse between his or her parents. The child is unable to comprehend the reality of it’s mother not having a penis, so it invents a fantasy in which the mother does possess this missing phallus, thus creating the archaic mother, powerful, omnipotent and forbidden being that is supposedly the cause of all sadistic oral drives of the infant, who is in constant search of unlimited satisfaction.
This satisfaction, of course, can never be achieved and this is a primary contributing factor in humanities neuroses. Freud reasoned that, underneath all our natural psychosis is the base desire to kill our father and replace him as dominant male, winning the love of our mother so that she would then fulfil our desire for unlimited satisfaction. The Archaic mother is not a new concept; Gaia, in ancient Greek mythology, would fall into the category, as the primal mother of all life. Within the film Alien, the environment, the space ship and the Alien itself have all been cited as symbolism for the Archaic.
As Kane, Dallas and Lambert explore the alien ship it is difficult not to imagine the huge cavernous craft as a great womb. It is moist, dripping with slime but also skeletal, a place of birth and death. It is a cruel, malevolent place, the womb of the archaic mother. Kane is then feminised by the act of phallic penetration by the reproductive organ (affectionately named the facehugger).
When the creature finely bursts through his chest in a spectacular and violent rebirth, we are reminded of how vulnerable and human Kane is/was. His soft, pink flesh is at immediate odds with the Alien’s hard, sickly yellow body. This birth contrasts beautifully with the beginning of the film, when the crew are first awoken from their clean, sterile containers.
The primeval mother does not need the male as ‘father’, only as a host body, and the alien creature murderously gnaws its way through Kane’s body, killing him.
– Barbara Creed
In her book The Monstrous Feminine, Barbara Creed argues that the Alien is female, a manifestation of a deep-rooted male fear of femininity. However, after Kane is impregnated and forced into the roll of the mother, the child that bursts from his belly so graphically has unmistakably masculine qualities. It’s posture, it’s toothed phallic head, it’s fondness for penetrating the crew, Ripley even names it a “son of a bitch” at the end of the film.
So it would seem that Alien has an underlining theme of sexuality, amidst a battle between the antagonistic male monster and the heroic Ripley, who is female. Ripley certainly has the right qualities befitting for a hero, she is similar to all her crew, but stronger than each. Not only is she logical (perceived to be a typical male trait) she is also passionate and emotional (a female trait) and so she is a more rounded individual than her shipmates (who, needless to say, all die).
Ripley’s relationship with the Alien is riddled with highly sexualised undertones, and sometimes-blatant eroticism. This could largely be attributed to the creature’s designer, artist H.R. Giger whose darkly fetishist work is inspired by his sleeping disorder and feverish nightmares. In that sense it could be argued that the Alien itself was born straight out of the subconscious, indeed the look of the monster is almost identical to that of the paintings Giger had made (save for the removal of the eyes, which Giger insisted upon later during the production).
Alien is almost a Beauty and the Beast style love story, as the Alien fulfils some darkly fetishist desire within Ripley, indeed it would seem at times that she is ‘turned on’, given that any contact with the Alien results in her panting out of breath, heavily perspiring and often groaning. At the literal climax of the film, as Ripley escapes the Nostromo moments before it’s destruction, we observe her in an almost orgasmic trance as she lolls, slumped back in her seat.
And then she proceeds to strip, so that she is almost naked, leaving very little to the imagination. This scene in particular has been argued as voyeuristic, acting as a relief, after our experience of the terrifying Alien. Barbara Creed has said that, “Ripley’s body is pleasurable and reassuring to look at. She signifies the acceptable form and shape of women”.
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