3 April 2010

BIFF: Widescreen Weekend -- ALIEN (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1979, US/UK) – ‘I admire its purity…’

The famous chest burster sequence with John Hurt as Kane.

It was a real pleasure to be able to watch Scott’s masterpiece on the big screen for the first time. The 70mm screening got under way with a brief introduction by Tony Earnshaw, the artistic director of the 16th Bradford International Film Festival. John Hurt collected a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BIFF and in his talk he admitted he had not seen Alien since he shoot it way back in 1979 and also challenged the myth that none of the cast members knew what was about to unfold in the famous chest burster sequence. Alien is clearly one of Ridley Scott’s best films and a hugely influential genre film. Combining science fiction with horror (the slasher sub genre most obviously), the distinctive element that makes Alien such an enduring genre film is primarily Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger’s imaginative design for the alien creature (receiving an Oscar for visual effects) which impresses even more in light of today’s unconvincing and unoriginal computer generated constructs.

On its release, feminist film academic Carol Clover positioned Alien amongst the cycle of slasher films released in the 70s that included The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Superficially, it is not hard to see why Alien is regarded as a strong example of the slasher film as slowly one by one the crew are stalked and killed by the alien. This seems pretty conventional and it is but Alien is one of the few science fiction films that has been made over the last 30 years which can be regarded as somewhat pluralistic in its extensive range of interpretations it offers audiences. Alongside Scott’s other great science fiction film Blade Runner and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien is one of the most discussed and analysed science fiction (though it does borrow liberally from the classical narrative structure of the slasher film, Alien is arguably predominately motivated by recognisable science fiction tropes) films, having generated a canon of philosophical and sociological academic literature.

In one more of the intriguing and pertinent ideological angles, Alien was the first time Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is shown in conflict with the corporation. Made at the tail end of the 70s, Alien like many of the best science fiction films tapped into popular anxieties, fears and concerns prevalent at the time including feminism, militarisation, corporate power and gender relations. Mother, the computer that controls the ship is a highly intelligent system built by the company. Her symbiotic partner, the pathological android Ash (Ian Holm), colludes with the company to ensure that the alien creature is brought back safely. It is Ripley who makes the chilling discovery when Mother reveals that the crew are expendable and that the alien must be protected at all costs. Ripley states that the company have intentions of using the alien creature as a military weapon and of course Ash has been championing their cause from the moment he breaks quarantine regulations, allowing the alien on board. In her seminal essay ‘Feminism and Anxiety in Alien’, Judith Newton offers one of the clearest ideological elucidations of the film’s criticism of corporate hegemony:
‘The company in Alien represents capitalism in its most systemized, computerized, and dehumanizing form, a fact ironically enforced by the name of the company computer, Mother.’
In reality, the insidious conspiracy between the company computer and the android construct a ruthless extension of corporate hegemony which is much more damning and vindictive than the Alien creature itself because the profit motive is one easily identifiable in our own world. If Ripley is the only remaining survivor of the Nostromo (excluding the cat) then an additional ideological suggestion is made whereby corporate capitalism can only be challenged and stopped by a woman. However, Judith Newton is not so convinced by the Utopian gender representations:
‘The second fantasy is that white middle class women, once integrated into the world of work will somehow save us from its worst excesses and specifically from its dehumanization.’
The notion of popular genres like science fiction offering ‘utopian fantasy space’ in which gender relations are worked out with relative ease is also supported by the work of Susan Sontag who talks about ‘the imagination of disaster’ in relation to science fiction cinema:
‘Sontag argues that science fiction are about the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess. And it is the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction lies. Sontag goes on to argue that these images and scenarios of destruction serve two complimentary functions. First, they work to explore the deepest anxieties about contemporary experience. Second, they are strong moralistic fables that in their representations and resolutions provide a utopian fantasy space where all problems are easily solved.’
Against Interpretation, 1994: 209-25, Vintage Press, London

Arguably, the conflict between Ripley and the company, between the workers and the corporation are ‘easily solved’ with the destruction of both the android and the company computer resulting in a belated triumph. However, the Alien films as a collective whole do provide one of the more subversive and plural readings of the relationship between gender representations and mainstream American genre cinema. Ripley’s conflict with the fictional corporation of Weyland-Yutani reached its climax in the much maligned and misunderstood Alien 3 (Fincher, 92). In the final sequence of the film, Ripley is confronted by the corporation but she chooses to commit suicide, refusing to surrender the alien foetus and ultimately defying assimilation into corporate life. Currently, Ridley Scott is attached to direct another Alien film for 20th Century Fox but I’m not sure why he would choose to return to a phase in his career that should be kept at a distance from the creatively bankrupt remake syndrome plaguing Hollywood.


  1. Brilliant essay,Omar, on a fine film, exploring its gender and corporate representations. This article once again reminds me why Avatar is 30 years older than Alien...

    And yes. I have to read Against Interpretation as soon as possible!

  2. Thanks for the comments JAFB. Still haven't seen Avatar but will do when it arrives on DVD.