Blog Directory CineVerse: Wielding new weapons of terror: biology and sexuality

Wielding new weapons of terror: biology and sexuality

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Ridley Scott's "Alien" set the bar high for sci-fi horror, introducing a terrifying new extraterrestrial creature into the pop culture lexicon, plumbing the depths of body horror, and incorporating elements from the slasher subgenre to heighten the scare factor. The movie was a radical departure from audience expectations for horror/science-fiction, infusing fascinating thematic elements that leave a lot to think about long after the credits roll. Here's CineVerse's take on this late 1970s fright film gem:


  • Its crew is quite different from other spaceship human crews depicted in other films; these folks aren’t clean cut, young, adventurous or scientifically curious; most are middle-aged, and they’re blue collar types concerned about getting paid and going through the routines of doing their jobs. 
  • It caught audiences off guard in that the handsome captain, played by top-billed Tom Skerritt, isn’t the final survivor; instead, a woman is. This movie continued the trope of “the final girl” who outlasts all other victims and eventually vanquishes the villain, a trope earlier established in horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. 
  • It deviated from the clean and antiseptic look of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “The pristine technologism that dominated interstellar interior decoration since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gave way to a raw grittier view, with the ship being designed as all dark corridors and exposed, dripping conduits. Ridley Scott loves this textural bombardment and the ship’s look is one of the most exciting works of junk fetishism to grace the postmodern science-fiction movement. The look was influential – after Alien, the design schema of interstellar travel forever left behind the 2001 look of clean, white antiscepticism where technology would triumph over humanity, and took place in a gritty, rundown world inhabited by working stiffs.” 
  • It plays as both science fiction film that embraces plausible realism (consider the sequence featuring documentary-style live video footage) as well as slasher horror film conventions in which the monster picks off the cast one by one with shocking kills. 
  • This was a completely new and unique kind of extraterrestrial creature—one that stood as a biosexual monstrosity and aberration of nature, thanks to its inspired design by H.R. Giger, an artist known for his disturbing blend of the sexual and the mechanical. 
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “’Alien’ uses a tricky device to keep the alien fresh throughout the movie: It evolves the nature and appearance of the creature, so we never know quite what it looks like or what it can do…the alien is capable of being just about any monster the story requires. Because it doesn't play by any rules of appearance or behavior, it becomes an amorphous menace, haunting the ship with the specter of shape-shifting evil. Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, calls it a "perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility," and admits: "I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” 
    • This kind of alien stood in stark contrast to the benevolent aliens shown in Spielberg films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and, later, “E.T.” 
  • The suspenseful pacing is superb, forcing us to get acquainted with the crew and the ship for 30 minutes before any real action transpires. 
  • Like Jaws and Halloween before it, it doesn’t reveal what the monster looks like or show it in full form until we’re well past Act 1. 
  • Dehumanization: consider how the Weyland-Yutani corporation values alien life forms over its own human crew, and how humans are used as reproductive fodder for the aliens. 
  • Biological and sexual fears: The film is replete with symbols and acts suggesting how terrifying male and female reproductive organs are. Consider how: 
    • The alien’s head and inner jaws, as well as a newborn chestburster alien serve as threatening phallic symbols 
    • The strange ship the crew explores looks like two open legs and its interiors resemble a body cavity or uterus 
    • Many creatures and characters seem to be committing substitute forms of rape or biological violation, including the facehugger alien that forces entry inside the mouth; the chestburster that emerges from the torso; the fully formed alien that kills Veronica Cartwright (we see his tail pointed between her legs, insinuating a rape of sorts); Ash the android attacking Ripley in a rape-like action, wherein he uses a porno magazine to try to kill her; and the last scene where the alien attacks Ripley after she strips off her clothes. 
    • Male fears about the female body and childbirth: Kane becomes “feminized” and symbolically raped when he is impregnated by the facehugger, and later he exploits anxieties about the pain and viscera of birth when the alien pupa bursts from his chest. 
  • Primal fears: Slate critic Michael Agger wrote: “The staying power of Alien lies in the way it dredges up primal fears. Scott's long shots emphasize the vastness of space, the sense of being marooned in a hostile environment. The spaceship interiors were designed for maximum claustrophobia. And the alien itself, created by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, is not completely foreign. It's a corruption of nature—an intelligent insect—both comprehensible and terrifyingly unknown. Then there's the way many scenes play like a sophomore biology-lab experiment gone awry: Ian Holm poking at the glistening organs of the alien body or Skerritt cutting one of its fingerlike appendages with a laser saw, releasing a spring of acid blood.” 
  • Birth: There are several symbolic depictions of birth or conception in the picture: (1) when the crew rises from hypersleep; (2) when the ship untethers from its “umbilicas”; (3) when the crew explores the alien ship, entering through tunnels designed to resemble the female reproductive system; (4) the chestburster scene. 
  • The theory of the “abject”: Knoji essayist wrote: “The film represents the female as horrific and abject” (the theory of the abject refers to “the state of being cast off” and “marks the moment when we separate ourselves from the mother, when we first recognize a boundary between the self and the other”). “Birth is depicted as a horrifying process. The process of a male being impregnated with a creature that gestates in a being that has no womb and rips itself free in a shower of blood is one way in which this film abjectifies female roles. Alien is about humans being forced to confront the abject which they have tried to suppress. The scene in the hypersleep vault suggests that in the future birth has been sanitized and sterilized. Technology has been used to banish the abject. However, the alien, with its monstrous reproductive cycle and horribly visceral nature, forces us to confront the true nature of humanity as abject and organic.” 
  • The Thing From Another World 
  • It! The Terror Beyond Space 
  • The Quatermass Xperiment 
  • Jaws 
  • Halloween 
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars 
  • Species 
  • Event Horizon 
  • Mimic 
  • The Relic 
  • Deep Rising 
  • Virus 
  • Supernova 
  • Pandorum 
  • Apollo 18 
  • Blade Runner 
  • Thelma and Louise 
  • Gladiator 
  • Blackhawk Down 
  • Matchstick Men

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