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Alien: Sex in deep space

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With a prequel to the 1979 hit flick Alien directed by Ridley Scott in the works, Bryn Tilly re-opens the case on the original film and dissects what is brooding under its surface…

“The people who made the first Alien were artists, Ridley Scott, Giger, the writers – they invented everything. The rest of us who follow are artisans. That first film is a work of art, an entity all its own.” -Jean-Pierre Jeunet

I heard through the cyber-grapevine that my favourite horror movie Alien was going to be remade. I was dreadfully upset, thinking how any director and production team could do anything as remotely atmospheric and powerful as Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi flick from 1979.

Then I was corrected; it wasn’t going to be a remake, but instead a prequel and Ridley Scott had signed on to direct. How bizarre; what on earth could possibly be done with a prequel to Alien?! Two possibilities floated around my mind, both of them tenuous at best.

The first idea was that the prequel would concern an earlier attempt by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation at trying to bring back the alien species to earth. But I dismissed this as a rather pointless plot.

The second concept was that perhaps the prequel would tell the plight of the alternate alien species in the giant derelict spacecraft that the crew of the Nostromo come across on the planetoid; the infamous long-dead Space Jockey astride his driving console (or could it be some kind of monstrous biotech laser cannon?). That idea didn’t really seem plausible either since it wouldn’t involve any human actors.

I’m relieved Scott is at the helm, but I’m not very impressed at the whole idea of a prequel. It is a lot better than the remake I was dreading. I suppose a remake is inevitable, and sooner rather than later. But I digress.

With Alien being topical for the first time since French visualist extraordinaire Jeunet tried his hand directing Alien Resurrection (and a flawed, but under-rated movie it is) back in 1997, I thought I’d illustrate the sexual symbolism of Alien, which layers the movie’s mise-en-scene: the subtle elements of sexuality; vaginal and phallic imagery, penetration, copulation, and reproduction.

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Much of this symbolism is rife in the phantasmogorical, biomechanical production design aesthetics of Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger. But Ridley Scott, coming from an art department background and being a stickler for detail, is also very much responsible for the graphic and implied carnal imagery, both sensual and violent.

Much can be made of Freudian associations to Alien’s production design, symbolism and special effects, but I like to think of these elements as less intellectually singular, and instead a broader more immediate scope of primal carnality within a male-female context, or to be more precise; a maternal perspective, a sub-textual nightmare of life and death.

The following is a chronological dissection of scenes and sequences:

The Hyper-Sleep Chamber

The crew of the commercial mining spaceship Nostromo slowly rise one by one from hyper-sleep, each member has been cocooned in a pristine, womb-like existence; the surrounding whiteness and time lapse creates a false sense of security, a protective, maternal realm.

They’ve had their travel hibernation interrupted courtesy of ship computer Mother who has intersected what appears to be a distress signal from an unknown nearby planet.

The Derelict Spacecraft

After landing on the planets inhospitable surface Captain Dallas, Navigator Lambert, and Executive Officer Kane track the source of the signal, which leads them to a strange-looking spacecraft shaped like a massive horseshoe.

Upon closer inspection they discover an entrance, which is in the middle of the ship’s curve; a kind of vaginal-orifice between rounded thighs.

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The Space Jockey

Once inside the giant and apparently derelict ship the intrepid explorers climb up onto an enormous round platform, which reveals an extra-terrestrial creature astride some kind of huge phallic driving console pointed upward.

The pilot is long-dead, sporting a nasty looking explosive wound from its chest. The sight of the “space jockey”, fossilized and seemingly fused bio-mechanically to its erect hardware is grotesque and perverse.

The Alien Eggs

Kane explores further down into the ship’s bewilderingly cavernous hull beneath the bridge leaving the other two above. While edging along a ledge-like protrusion he slips and falls into a bed of thousands of large, leathery-looking eggs. He approaches one of them, the light from his helmet illuminating a fluttering embryo inside, and one of the eggs (sensing his proximity) reacts, its top peeling open like a blossoming flower to the eager bee. Kane peers inside where he sees what appears to be a fleshy, throbbing muscle. Suddenly the life-form shoots out like a jack-in-the-box.

The Face-Hugger

Kane – with creature attached – is rushed back to the Nostromo. Warrant Officer Ripley cites quarantine protocol, but Science Officer Ash intervenes. A crab-like face-hugging life-form has attached itself to Kane; and an x-ray reveals the creature has a tube running down his esophagus, keeping him alive. When they try to cut off one of the face-hugger’s digits, its acidic blood burns a hole through several decks, almost breaching the hull.

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The Chest-Burster

With Kane apparently unharmed, the crew decides on a meal before re-entering hyper-sleep, but Kane begins to choke on food. His choking turns to violent convulsions and the others try to help him. Suddenly blood spreads across Kane’s torso, and seconds later a large eel-like creature bursts from his chest spraying blood everywhere. It momentarily eyes its dumbstruck audience, screeches, and escapes.

The Adult Alien

After disposing of Kane’s body – his mummy-like coffin being shot like a missile into deep space – the others begin searching for the alien. Engineer Technician Brett separates from the others to recover Jones the cat. He locates the terrified animal, along with the alien, now fully grown into a nine-foot tall humanoid beast.

Brett is transfixed by the monstrous creature as it towers in front of him, revealing its salivating twin jaws, one lascivious set of razor-sharp teeth opening, whilst another phallic projectile set shoots out directly into Brett’s forehead at lightning speed.

Ash, Ripley, and the Magazine

Ripley tries to get answers from Mother, and accesses classified information indicating the alien was to be brought back to earth, with crew expendable, and Ash knew all along. Ash confronts Ripley and tries to suffocate her with a rolled up magazine by stuffing it into her mouth. He overheats with a milky (semen-like) perspiration. Chief Engineer Parker comes to Ripley’s rescue and after overpowering Ash Ripley knocks the traitor’s head off, the white artificial substance spraying everywhere. Ash is revealed as an android.

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The Alien that Kills Parker and Lambert

The surviving crew decides to abandon the ship in the escape shuttle. Whilst Ripley is trying to locate Jones, Lambert and Parker go to gather the coolant tanks for the shuttle’s life-support system. But the alien intercepts them, tearing a deadly chunk from Parker’s chest with its ferocious jaws, and impaling (suggestively) Lambert with its powerful spiked tail.

The Alien’s Demise

After failing to convince Mother to disengage the Nostromo’s self-destruct system (“You bitch!) Ripley is safely in the escape shuttle with Jones in his special box, and the Nostromo destroyed. Ripley prepares for hyper-sleep, but the alien has stowed away on board. Ripley dons a spacesuit and manages to provoke the alien, opens the airlock, fires a grappling gun at the beast pushing it outside, where it clings and climbs into one of the huge thruster pipes. Ripley guns the engine and the creature is incinerated.

As described the movie has numerous references to phallus-like extensions, penetration, ejaculation, impaling and protrusions; including Ash’s surgical probe, Brett’s electrical cattle-prod, Dallas and Ripley’s flame-throwers, the pistons of the self-destruct mechanism.

Special note must be made of the life-cycle of the main alien. After killing the first life-form (the space jockey) the main alien was obviously using their spacecraft as an incubator for its eggs. From the egg comes the face-hugger which deposits another embryo in its host, which when large enough bursts free to grow swiftly into an imposing creature with arms, legs, and a tail, and a phallic-like head and mouth. The sequel, Aliens, elaborates on the life-cycle to include the alien queen mother.

H.R. Giger’s sexually-charged designs are deeply and potently provocative; from the bone-like meshes of the first alien spacecraft, complete with its erectile jockey and womb-like hull, to the primordial, serpent-cum-crustacean-like parasitic alien with acid for blood and the morality of a demon.

Ridley Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon counter Giger’s dual alien designs with the Nostromo’s claustrophobic interiors, especially the air-shafts and those creepy mechanized junction gates, Mother’s womb-like communication room, juxtaposing with the crews’ “virginal” white undergarments and tranquil hyper-sleep chamber, and the movie’s most abstract scene in the expansive freight facility freely dripping condensation, where Brett locates Jones, and inadvertently the adult alien coiled in hiding.

Alien is a seething, pulsating, throbbing, visceral lair of carnality that is at once blatant, as it is suggestive. Very few science fiction or horror movies have come close in incorporating such sexually provocative imagery in such imaginative and nightmarish ways since.

BRYNSTARBryn Tilly is a shameless cinephile, freelance writer and pro DJ who spends his daytime hosting Horrorphile and Cult Projections. At night he spins deep funk for jazzed souls at Sydney’s glam hotspots such as The Ivy and The Opera Bar. He provides a ‘Movie of the Month’ review for lifestyle website FreshMag.

About the Author

Cherie Lee

I studied acting for three years and hold a graduate diploma in writing from Sydney's UTS. My interest in film and writing was solidified through interning at The Story Department and gave me the opportunity to fine tune my skills. I've been involved with several film projects, the most recent of which was shortlisted for Tropfest.With the knowledge gained from university and my experience at The Story Department, I'm now specialising in professional feedback on short films and documentaries.

Comments 7

  1. Shame that none of the sequels really built on the sexual horror of the first (aside from a glimpse of the labia resembling ventral orifice of the captured face-hugger in Aliens). The sexual subtext doesn’t just paint Alien’s horror with more masterful strokes, it raises questions of sex, violence and conquest as being essential to the propagation of life, alien or otherwise. The titular alien is the superior life-form because it combines sex and violence/conquest in its reproductive cycle. Humans, with their individuality and consequent need to civilize, have separated sex from violence/conquest (rape being one of the earliest societal taboos). Humans might be “better” in the context of their own moral qualifications, but throughout the series its never in doubt what would happen if an alien were brought back to Earth.

    But without the sexual subtext, Alien would still be an excellent sci fi/horror flick. The chest-busting scene remains one of the most horrific moments in cinema. I heard Ridley Scott didn’t tell any of the actors (aside from John Hurt of course) what was going to happen, to make their reactions more natural.

  2. Hi Bryn

    Further to your take on the symbolic aspects of the Alien design, there is a take on the story that goes like this. ‘Nostromo’ in fact means home. ‘Mother’ is the computer keeping her brood safe while Ash, the ships android is ‘Father’. Mother and Father conspire to bring the creature on board and in doing so expose the ‘virginal’ children to a sexual awakening that is transformative and ultimately destructive. The Alien itself represents the powerful sexual acts that the otherwise perfect ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ cannot express. Very freudian and has roots in the theories found in feminist thought about the monstrous feminine, whereby the monster is often a parable about male fears of the female organ – medussa, cyclops etc. Just a thought…

  3. Martin, how apt you should make a comment, since it was your uni Film Analysis essay that I thought of when I decided to write this article. I didn’t know that Nostromo means home. I like your thoughts, which I presume you discussed in your original essay … Cheers old buddy!

  4. The alien actually kills Parker in the same way as Brett, with a bite to the forehead. It doesn’t go for his chest.

  5. I know what you mean when it comes to the need for a prequel. I’m still hesitant myself about it regardless of Sir Ridley Scott being involved in it. Hopefully, I’m proved wrong in the end & it turns out good. I’ll always be a fan of all the films. The original being my first love. I always felt the original film was about the fear of sex & people’s reactions toward sex. You mention the scene where Ash tries to kill Ripley w/ a rolled up magazine. After that scene where Parker yells at Lambert to get Ash’s body off him? Notice how Parker wraps his legs around Ash as if they were partaking in some male on male faux porn? & after that where they rewire Ash & his head is just saturated w/ white, milky fluid?? A classic scene w/ serious homo-erotic undertones. Lol

  6. “Nostromo” is Italian for “boatswain,” and is the central character of Jospeh Conrad’s eponymous novel. Look it up in any on-line dictionary.

    I don’t know where this “home” stuff comes from.

  7. Pingback: Prometheus…Are You Seeing This? « bkhemphill

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