I was honestly planning on writing this just the other day, the same day
that I found out the original creator of the Alien, H.R Giger, died.
Rest in piece for your fabulously terrifying work.
Last weekend I watched Aliens (sequel) for the first time after re-watching Alien as I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. I try not to let reviews get in the way of my viewing experience regardless of whether or not something was met with acclaim or contempt. That being said, Mitsuko told me this was her favorite of all the Alien films, and I caught a look at the Rotten Tomato score in passing as we were browsing the internet and I was astonished to see that it maintains a mighty 98% which is actually the highest of all the films - the original is a close second at 97%. Well we watched it, and I had some thoughts, so I thought I’d share them here. Before that though, I have to say that I’ve never found myself so far on the opposite end of a spectrum as far as reviews go. I wouldn’t have placed this movie anywhere near the original. To be polite, I thought it was a pretty mediocre B-movie spin on what I consider a Science Fiction classic.
In order to continue I think it’ll be helpful to introduce the concept of “Scientific Literacy” to this discussion. This is basically an abstract measurement of what it means to be scientifically informed which is sometimes by positing a series of questions about basic concepts such as, atomic structures, DNA, our solar system, the natural world etc, and determining what percentage of people within a given populace can correctly identify true or false statements about them. I think in the movie world of the past there tended to be an overlap between B-movie and Science Fiction as a genre. I’m sure many of us remember or have a good idea of these kinds of films, largely to do with aliens, vaguely science based, and very little actual science behind them. Tales of alien invasions, flying cars, and other such tropes of the Science Fiction genre have long been popular it seems. But counter to this, the idea of science being taught academically has not been.
At about the turn of the 20th century men such as Charles Eliot and John Dewey propositioned to the National Education Association (of which Charles held a chair in the committee) that it would be in the best interest of students to learn in a manner such that he or she could take said knowledge and make it applicable to their future endeavors. Eliot suggested that an education lacking this was “an education which missed its aim”. That was 1898. Over the course of the years scientific curriculum became standard, and by today studying science - while lacking according to many surveys – is fundamental to our education.
So what was the point of all that though? My point is that I believe stories in the past (including movies) with even semi-science related concepts at heart were not so easily separated from the B-movie classification. Hard as it may be to accept, we’ve increased general scientific knowledge quite dramatically across the world, and it reflects in the less tacky science based movies of the recent past. So now we get to why I’m even talking about Alien, and its sequel.
Please watch Alien if you haven’t. It was made in 1979 by Ridley Scott and tells the story of a commercial space ship crew who are asked to investigate a mysterious transmission from an uninhabited planetoid on their way back to Earth. Okay. I’m seriously going to talk about the movie now, so be prepared if you haven’t seen it.
Alien seems to hit upon several themes buried under its initial premise including: Gender Politics, Corporatism, and Technophobia. I suppose we can start with the most obvious one, which involves one of the most memorable and infamous scenes in Hollywood history. The Chestburster (as it appears to be officially referred to as) is iconic in many ways and masterfully blended the idea of Sci-Fi and Horror in one fell swoop. But beyond the surface there’s a great deal to think about in terms of that one scene. Officer Kane (John Hurt) was the first to discover the alien eggs and was attacked by the (also very official sounding) Facehugger. It bursts through his helmet and envelopes his face, as its namesake would suggest. Fast forward, he appears to be okay, only to have whatever embryo the Facehugger left in him to hatch and burst through his chest in an extremely violent manner. What might be read into this? Kane never comes across as a character worthy of this fate, but perhaps Kane is only ever meant to represent the idea of man, who suffers at the fate of what are clearly female issues.
sexual imagery is hard to escape with how the Facehugger forces its way over
his mouth, never allowing him to even as much as scream or otherwise protest
this invasion to his body. It clearly plants a seed into his stomach, again forcefully
and against his will. The chest bursting sequence has been argued to be a kind
of reverse rape and with one look at the alien - phallic in shape – it’s not
hard to see why.
In addition to this there is the character of Ripley
(Sigourney Weaver) who becomes the most capable crewmember, and is the only one
to survive. The real world timeframe in America is also important to keep in
mind as the movie was released at the tail end of second wave feminism which
included advancements such as Roe v. Wade, which established a legal precedent
for the right to abortions. There is one more scene involving Ash (Ian Holm)
that we can file in this category as well, but we’ll save Ash for later. He’s
important too. Regardless, whether or not the filmmakers were attempting to
start this kind of conversation, the movie definitely reversed the ideas of
birth, rape, and sexual assault onto its former perpetrators.
|The appendages even come off as being finger-like|
|It's a girl!|
Then we have Corporatism. I was born in 1987, so I can’t exactly speak for the America population in the 1970s, but with issues such as Watergate, and the Vietnam War, combined with a record high Misery Index (value measuring inflation, and unemployment rates) it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a general consensus of doubt in the government. The American auto industry was also beginning to suffer on the heels of the Oil Crisis in the early 70s. Cars intended to be more cost effective, fuel efficient, and less threatening to the environment, were built as realizations about the unsustainable nature of fossil fuels slowly came to the surface (Fun side note: The first Earth Day was in April 22nd 1970). The film perhaps isn’t speaking to this directly, but appears to include the desperation of this time in a subplot that involves the artificial intelligence MU-TH-UR 6000 on board the Nostromo. Being that Ash is the Science Officer on board the ship, the captain - Dallas (Tom Skerritt), hands over charge of their current mission to him. Ash’s orders are direct and disturbingly succinct. The crew of the Nostromo is not only to bring the specimen back to Earth for potential profits, but the crew is later revealed to be expendable in this charge.
Again, it may or not be relevant but real world issues oftentimes provide a
useful window with which to look at the problems we fictionalize on the page,
or screen. The deadly and desperate mission of ‘suceed at all costs’ for the
crew of the Nostromo seems to reflect the notions of distrust in management
(Watergate), and the terror of being a human commodity in the face of success
So that leaves the Technophobia element. Ash becomes a secondary villain midway through the film shortly before we discover that he is an android. He is seemingly unbothered by his quest for scientific knowledge, and even appears to be fascinated to the point of respect with the Facehugger.
It is Ash who communicates with Mother – which is also an artificial intelligence – and relays the soul crushing message to Ripley before they engage in a fight that ends with Ash orally violating Ripley with a rolled up magazine.
|I think the "men's special interest literature" on the walls there is the strongest argument for interpretation of this scene as a release of sexual frustration|
So those are the kinds of things I thought about after finishing Alien again in my post-college-must-overanalyze-everything-from-scratch mindset. I feel however, that regardless of the merit associated with any of this, it is true that the first film inspired more discussion than the sequel. It is Science Fiction in the sense that it deals with things such as aliens, space flight, and androids. It is horror in the sense that the alien wants to impregnate you, kill you, and smile at you as it does so. But it is also thoughtful in that it surrounds these set pieces with literary elements that can be picked apart and thought on.
My impression of Aliens can be summed up via this handy clip. Thanks Youtube!
My opinion of the sequel certainly seems to be at odds ends with what most people think, but I probably went into it assuming that it was going to be more Science Fiction than Action-Adventure. I believe that Alien is mostly a product of its time whether or not the creators were aware of it. The real world surrounding it shaped the way this story was constructed and conveyed. As for Aliens, I do like Action-Adventure as well, which is when I realized that it would be wrong to lambast it based on what it isn’t. It was a different time, and it's quite simply just a different movie. To quote Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Aliens doesn’t climb trees. But it’s not supposed to either.