I can remember growing up watching as many science fiction movies as I could. I love the genre. As a child, the whole idea and concept of being able to go into space, escaping this world, finding new technologies and planets and life-forms was just amazing. One of the film series that I always loved for the difference in life and, to be honest, the scare factor was the Alien franchise. I think that I was 9 or 10 when I first saw the movie at a friend’s house. I remember it being late, (probably about 8 or 9 o’clock at night) and laying on the floor with snacks and my friends and being in awe of this fantastic xenomorphic alien and at the same time being scared that one was going to burst out of a friend and start killing us all. It was amazing. There was something about being out in space, investigating an unknown signal and then being hunted by a ruthless animal-like alien that was fascinating and terrifying at the same time. I loved it. Little did I know as that child that I was actually watching someone’s slightly pornographic-through-representation version of the sexual sadism of humanity.
There have been many analyses and interpretations of Alien and its subsequent sequels done over the years, and most of them come to the same conclusion; Dan O’Bannon had some serious sexual issues. I will concern myself primarily with the philosophical review as done by Stephen Mulhall, ‘Kane’s Son, Cain’s Daughter: Ridley Scott’s Alien’, and the movie itself for this essay, but will draw on other material if needed for support. In a 2002 documentary entitled The ‘Alien’ Saga, O’Bannon stated himself what Alien was all about. He said, “One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex... I said 'That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually. And I'm not going to go after the women in the audience, I'm going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.” This is a rather bold statement and sentiment to have and make. To me, it comes across as just having some sort of grudge against the men that would be watching his film. In any case however, it is only prudent at this juncture to have a look at what exactly philosophically is going on and being represented in the film.
The opening sequence of Alien is rather non-eventful in my opinion. There is space, there is a spaceship, and there is technology depicted inside it. To me, this is still just exactly what it looks like; space, a spaceship, and some technology. There are those who will wax poetic about the possible connotations of the vastness of space, and how insignificant humanity is in relation to it, and how this magnifies humanities vulnerability, but I think that is just taking things a little too far. Eventually, the crew land on the planet to investigate a strange signal, and discover and alien spacecraft. This is where the subtle and almost subliminal sexual connotations come into play through the combined visions of O’Bannon, Swiss artist H. R. Giger, and Ridley Scott. The spacecraft appears as a U-shaped cylindrical body, pointing upwards, erect from the ground, with a slightly larger end than there is shaft of the body of the ship. Clearly, this is a phallic symbol. This is very reminiscent of Giger’s artwork in his book The Necronomicon from 1977. This type of feel and dark sexualisation is also the reason that Giger was given the job of set design and creature design for this movie.
When the crew members finally make their way to the alien craft, the entrances that they find are very reminiscent of a female vagina. Thus, the representation of the sexual continues, making the humans appear as sperm, and the ship as the vagina and womb, and is finalised by finding fertile eggs inside. It is at this point that the ‘horror’ side of this movie begins.
When Kane approaches one of the eggs in the ship, it splits open invitingly, but then an alien facehugger flies out and attaches itself to him. This is the manner in which the Aliens reproduce; through oral fixation they impregnate a host as an incubator. As Mulhall explained it, the Alien uses a nightmare version of sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and birth to reproduce. A long, flexible member is forced into an orifice of the host and a version of itself is deposited to become a foetus and then forces itself out in a bloody and violent type of birthing. This is the beginning of the homosexual rape that O’Bannon said that he was going to use in the film. This is a perversion to us as humans; something that is contrary to our nature of man and woman, something that does not function as we believe that it should, and history is full of examples that show us that when something is different than what we believe that it should be or that we as humans are comfortable with, we don’t like it.
Let us look for a moment at the Alien itself and how that showcases philosophically the fear of sexuality. The Alien is fixated primarily on oral stimulation, both actually through the acts of impregnating through the mouth of the victims and killing with its teeth, and through suggestion, as its mouth is always shown prominently. The fact that from the beginning the Alien had been forcibly putting itself onto the humans to fulfil its reproductive and, by association sexual needs, brings to mind more aspects of the masculine versus feminine identity. The Alien would take one the role, through its forcible nature and multiple phallic=like aspects, of the masculine; refined down to just the basic. This then would mean that the humans, irrespective of gender, would assume the role of the feminie; the ‘weaker’ sex. The usage of the mouth being excised upon throughout the movie depicts, according to Mulhall, the perceived relationship between man and woman where the woman needs to have her mouth gagged or stopped to be rendered mute. He also continues to say that the need for the silence is echoed in the absence of sound in the soundtrack, but I believe that he is just reading too much into that aspect.
This also signifies the taking of roles by the humans and the Alien in the feminine and the masculine, respectively. Through its suggested sexual violence, the forcible penetration, and the sheer masculinity depicted, the Alien is completely masculinity incarnate, but a nightmarish version. Likewise, the humans take on the role of being helpless victims, of being forced upon, taking on the role of not only a woman, but that of a woman being brutally raped. These are topics and roles that are not expressly talked about in the movie, but that when paid attention to, are rather obvious. To continue with the sexual depravity that was trying to be used in the film, we can jump forward to Lambert’s death scene. When the Alien is getting ready to kill her, rather than running, fighting, or even screaming, she seems almost hypnotised by the Alien. The scene continues with the tail of the Alien, yet another phallic symbol in its penis-like shape, threads itself slowly but deliberately between her legs, and then violently rams, or penetrates, Lambert to death. Mulhall feels that the hypnotising effect on Lambert was depicting either that masculine rape was something totally foreign and unexpected to lambert, or the opposite and that it was too common to her. I feel that the hypnotising effect was deliberately used by Scott and O’Bannon, but not for the exact reasons that Mulhall suggests, but more for the effect of trying to shock the audience into watching someone get raped without being raped, and thereby playing on the senses of vulnerability to evoke a fear-like response.
In the same vein, Mulhall also suggests that the android Ash is being tied to the Alien through his act of trying to kill Ripley with the rolled-up pornography magazine by shoving it in her throat. I believe that Ash is being identified with the Alien, but for a different reason. The Alien is representing to the Audience something to be feared and disliked. Ash is, to those of us from America like myself at least, representative of what we don’t like in the English man. The concept that the English masculinity comes across as fake and effeminate in comparison to the more rugged, manly, ‘real’ masculinity in the United States. Further, the fact that he is an android supports the ‘fake’ manhood perspective. Also, he has a very close relationship to the ships computer, Mother, which conjures up in my mind images of a stereotypical homosexual man who has too close a relationship with their mother and winds up becoming psychotic because of the latent homosexual urges that have been repressed. Another cinematic example of what I mean can be found in Norman Bates from Psycho. Therefore, Ash is being used not as another version of the Alien, but as another type of sexual predator to be afraid of.
Lastly as far as the sexual allusions go, is the character of Ripley. She is the heroine of the story, and this in itself presents and interesting aspect. The audience is put into the perspective of a woman trying to avoid being raped to death. I believe that Ripley was cast as a woman simply to make the vehicle of human vulnerability more easily conveyed to the audience. Mulhall, however, has the opinion that Ripley was the heroine because she fit into the role of the feminie that the humans have been placed in by the Alien better. This very well could be just two sides of the same coin, and I would be happy with that assessment if it weren’t for some further statements that Mulhall also made. He continued to say that the reason that Ripley overcomes the Alien in the end is because she is a woman and understands her role in femininity and is able to use her instincts as such to thwart the Alien. He believes that it is showing the struggle of a woman to protect her body from being violated. Further, he continues this line of thinking in saying that Ripley is a mythological type in that she has suggested celibacy by her unwillingness to succumb to the Alien’s advances, and thus remains a ‘virgin’, being ‘unpenetrated’ and that this is where her power lies. I think this is just Mulhall taking the allusion a little bit too far. Of course she doesn’t want to succumb to the Alien, it is trying to kill her!!
At the end of the day, the movie is obviously about sexual sadism, rape, homosexual tendencies, and other similar topics. O’Bannon himself has said so, and he is the man that wrote the story, after all. The use of Giger as a set and prop designer was a good idea, because his work is very darkly sexually charged, and that was what O’Bannon was wanting. Ridley Scott is a brilliant director that was able to take the story and the sets, and combine them on the screen to give a wonderful effect and carry across a message. So, does the film give a certain perspective on human sexuality and out horror of embodiment, sexual difference, and biological reproduction? Yes, it does. It is extremely sexually charged and depraved when viewed in light of what was intended and has been discussed in this essay. However, when I put the DVD in next time to watch it, I’m not going to be thinking about homosexual rape, and phallic symbols, and the sub-context of feminine versus masculine, technology versus biology. I’ll be watching the same as I did all those years ago; as a 10 year old boy thinking that space is one of the coolest places ever, and I really hope that pain in my chest is from the nachos I was eating and not something else.
Alien. (1979). Scott, R. 20th Century Fox.
Alien Saga, The. (2002). Zacky, B. AMC, Fox Television, & Prometheus Entertainment.
Giger, H. R. (1991). Giger's Necronomicon. Morpheus International, Beverly Hills
Mulhall, S. (2002). ‘Kane's Son, Cain's Daughter: Ridley Scott's Alien’. On Film. Routledge, London. pp. 13-52.