Alien as a Tale of Sex and Horror

Ridley Scott's Alien is a movie that begins with images of sterility: an apparently lifeless ship, the Nostromo, drifting through deep space. We are shown shot after shot of empty corridors, unused and inactive machinery, and nearly featureless walls. Our first shot of the crew of the ship shows them asleep, clad in white, androgynous and indistinguishable. Nearly all of them will be dead by the end of the movie, killed seemingly senselessly by the alien they will bring on board. They are seemingly more intelligent than the alien, more technologically advanced, more familiar with the terrain, their ship, on which the battles take place. Why do almost all of them die? It is not because Alien is formulaic, in the "heroine being pursued by monster must trip at least once" style. Their deaths are fairly believably carried out, on both physical and symbolic levels. The crew members die because what they are faced with is truly alien, a creature whose biology, actions, and methods of attack are totally unfamiliar. More than threatening their lives, the alien threatens them with a sexual violation of their self-imposed sterility.

Throughout the film, the characters remain nearly as androgynous as our first, still view of them. They refer to each other by surname: Dallas, Ripley, Lambert, Kane. The two women of the crew, Ripley and Lambert, are both masculine in several respects, Lambert sporting inch-long hair and Ripley - a role originally intended to be played by a man – as an emotionless and authoritative second-in-command. The crew dresses alike in sexless jumpsuits, further instilling a sense of androgynous uniformity. The characters who are presented as most admirable, Dallas and Ripley, are nongendered and nearly indistinguishable in manner. The two characters who are the most gendered, Lambert and Parker, are less central to the plot and the ship. Lambert's “feminine" hysteria dismisses her from holding a more important role, while Parker's "masculine" arrogance and macho let's-go-get-'em attitude makes him more laughable than effective. Obviously, success aboard the Nostromo lies in asexual living and relationships. This is not entirely surprising or unreasonable; this is, after all, a crew that must spend extended periods of time away from civilization, with only each other for company. Under the circumstances, sexual tension is more likely to be a liability than an asset.

The alien, on the other hand, is a highly sexualized creature. The appearance of the alien, its eggs, its reproductive cycle, and its means of attack are patterned after the drawings and ideas of H. R. Giger, an artist who describes his own work as "biomechanical," a mixture of technology and flesh, and who is known for his dark erotica. Apparently, Giger's designs were changed several times because of their blatant sexuality: the tops of the eggs resembled vaginas too closely. In the final cut of the movie, the eggs still remain reminiscent of female genitalia, and the full-grown alien similarly looks strongly sexual, with a smooth, eyeless, phallic head, permanent leering grin, and its apparently constant moistness.

The conflict between the asexual crew and the sexual alien is partially a reflection of the film's status in the genre of horror, in that sex traditionally equals death, a pattern displayed in a movie range as wide as that from, say, the slasher flick Slumber Party Massacre III to Hitchcock's classic Psycho. The alien kills by forcing sexuality on the asexual. When the first three explorers from the Nostromo, set out to investigate the abandoned alien ship, they are bundled in spacesuits, the woman indistinguishable from the two men. The horror begins when crew member Kane finds the aforementioned eggs, with their wetly glistening apertures. A spider-like creature jumps at him, and we discover shortly afterwards that he has been inappropriately penetrated; a tube extends from the creature far down his throat. The alien is using him to reproduce, and its terrible birth scene, where it bursts from Kane's abdomen, is another reminder of both the highly sexualized nature of the alien and the androgynous nature of the crew. It is as though the crew, because of their denial of sexual difference, must be made to suffer the full repercussions of that denial. A man has been made to act as a woman, a receiver rather than a giver of sexual activity, and a carrier of the resulting offspring. In the same process, the alien's sexual behavior is placed straddling two mythic views of sexual activity: its sexual activity is both the oft-celebrated creation of new life and the archetypally-feared destruction of the sexual partner. This latter idea usually appears more metaphorically, the idea that women are lessened by male sexual demands, but is unmistakably present in Alien in all its gruesome glory.

The remainder of the movie's conflict echoes this first scene of horror. The adult alien continues to attack the crew with methods that are symbolically sexual in both archetypal feminine and masculine ways. It draws its victims in towards itself, lifting Brett from the floor to disappear into the recesses of the ceiling and embracing Dallas literally with open arms and drawing him into some deep part of the ship. In a scene filmed but cut from the original release, Brett and Dallas are both later found by Ripley, begging for death and slowly changing into the sort of eggs we observed at the beginning of the movie. The alien envelops them, exemplifies symbolic female sexuality by swallowing them up, or at any rate causing them to be swallowed up by the ship, and quietly creating new life with what it takes. The deaths of Parker and Lambert, which occur nearly simultaneously, demonstrate the alien's contrasting masculinity. Again, it indiscriminately penetrates a male, killing the male Parker by thrusting its second set of jaws into his body. We do not see Lambert's death; we see instead her horrified reaction to the alien's presence and watch in sympathetic horror as the alien's curved, ridged tail snakes its way up her leg in a grotesque parody of an unwelcome sexual advance. As Ripley runs towards the dying Parker and Lambert, shouting to them over the intercom, neither she nor the audience hears screams of horror or pain from her two dying shipmates. Instead, a wordless, frantic panting is the reply, as if Parker and Lambert have been forced against their wills into some sort of terrible sexual release by the alien's unstoppable virility. Their deaths are the result of symbolic masculine sexual action; they are penetrated and violated seemingly without reason, as the alien does not appear to eat them or use their corpses for any sort of furtherance of life.

The crew has nothing to compare with these obscene attacks. They use weapons that resemble guns, suggesting a penetrative and therefore masculine approach, but which produce only electric shocks or flames, quasi-feminine engulfing approaches. The combination renders them impotent. Unknown to them, their actions are being directed by the android posing as Science Officer Ash, who is inhuman and completely non-sexual. His methods are manipulation of the great, cold machine that is the Nostromo and are effective only to a point; they lose their effectiveness as soon Ripley discovers them. Damaged and helplessly programmed to carry out his mission, Ash malfunctions and begins to use the most successful tactics of the movie: the alien's sexual approach. As is revealed when Ripley later reanimates Ash's head, the android knows a great deal about the alien and describes it as the perfect killing machine; it is no wonder that he tries to imitate its methods in order to silence Ripley. His failure can be blamed on his unfitness, as a totally asexual creature, to perform such an act. His attack on Ripley, which appears to consist of his shoving a rolled-up stack of paper down her throat, is more bizarre and ludicrous than frightening. Nevertheless, he almost succeeds in killing her, seemingly because of the confusing nature of his attack and the corresponding confusion and slow response by Lambert and Parker.

Perhaps it is this attack that ultimately saves Ripley. She is the only character to strongly display her own sexuality and that of others, and she does not do it before Ash attacks her. If Alien seems to fall into the predictable horror-flick mode of equating sex with death, its predictability is irrevocably shattered when Ripley is unable to reverse the ship's self-defense sequence. Terrified and enraged by the uncooperative ship's computer, which is nicknamed "Mother" and given a feminine voice, she screams at it: "You bitch!" This outburst is a shock, a vicious attack on the supposed sexuality of a machine carried out by a character previously supposed to be asexual. It is this moment more than any other in the film that first signifies Ripley's positive chances of survival. She is, it seems, capable of the sort of sexual thinking required to defeat the alien. If we still had any doubts about Ripley's reluctance to openly display sexuality, they are negated by her actions on the escape pod after she has successfully escaped the self-destruction of the Nostromo. Believing herself to be secure, she strips down to her underwear and comforts the bewildered cat rescued from the ship. It is the most highly sexualized view of a human we see throughout the movie. Ripley is revealing her intrinsic biological gender by exposing much of her body to our view. More importantly, she declares and accepts her socially defined gender by expressing stereotypically maternal and feminine characteristics when she cradles the cat.

This is not to say that Ripley's final defeat of the alien is completely sexual. Instead, she reaches a compromise between her sexual nature and her asexual capabilities that allows her to prevail. Upon discovering that the alien is aboard the escape pod, Ripley immediately sheathes herself once again in an asexual disguise, a space suit from the pod's supply locker. After strapping herself firmly in place, an imitation of the passive position of female sexual activity, she unleashes her first sexual weapon by opening the airlock door. In the resulting vacuum, the alien shoots towards the door, inexorably drawn into consuming space just as the alien dragged its helpless victims into the deep recesses of the ship. Not yet defeated, the alien clings to the pod until Ripley shoots it with some sort of spear gun she has also claimed from the pod's locker - the only way she can defeat the alien is through versatility to match its own, and she has shown herself capable now of both feminine absorbing and masculine penetrating attack. The final blow is when she turns the crew's chosen asexual weapon of fire on the alien as it dangles outside the pod, blasting it with flames from the ramjet engines. In conjunction with the other two attacks, the alien is finally unable to withstand the sort of approach Ripley is most adept at, one that allows her to be androgynous and removed.

Alien is more than a stereotypical horror movie; - it is in the end a movie about rape and the ability to recognize and effectively combat a sexual attack. Neither is it merely a film in the boldly feminist strain, trumpeting femininity's triumph over masculinity. Instead, it serves as a warning about and a monument to the human ability to transcend sexuality while embracing it. We cannot rely on purely rational androgyny, as It may be easily consumed by the mindless sexuality which has become alien to it.

Works Cited

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto. 20th Century Fox, 1979.

Alien: 20th Anniversary Edition. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

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