The Deaths that Keep Her Alive: A Review on Alien

Having watched the Alien franchise over and over again for the past fifteen years, I claimed myself to be a big fan of it. Recently, after reading some in-depth analysis on this film, I began to look at it through a completely new, critical lens. These interpretations show me some causes of my feelings. For example, the erotic depiction of Ripley’s barely dressed body in the shuttle always makes me feel disturbed. As Barbara Creed put it, this pornographic depiction works as a patriarchal repression of the “monstrous-feminine”[i], which in turn tries to extinguish my feminist mood ignited by the mostly asexual, or even masculine image of Ripley presented earlier.

Ripley barely dressed, a patriarcal repression to the “monstrous feminine.”

No matter how diverse the interpretations are, an accepted fact is that the fear of death works as a main thread. Deaths build up the pace of the discourse and string the emotional reaction of the spectators. Meanwhile, intentions, viewpoints, and aesthetic values are told implicitly in the expression of deaths. Today, I’d like to look through the deaths in the Alien with two questions—what information it offers and what logical operations it performs. In addition, speak of killing, there are two more questions worth thinking about—who makes the decision and how the killing is carried out.

The pilot’s death is implied by the crew’s discovery of its fossilized remains with an outward hole on the chest. It has rested in the huge, dark chamber for thousands of years. Everything in this scene, including the pilot’s body size, the scale of space and time, and the technologies, is beyond human scale. The beauty and danger evoke the feeling of “sublime” we mentioned last week. But despite its giant body, the pilot was killed anyway. Through its death, the audience first glimpse into the ruthlessness of the monster. It is the logical starting point for the imminent slaughter.

The executive officer Gilbert Kane is killed by a chest-burster on a dining table. His death is the first climax. As the only person infected by the face-hugger, his infection and death were interpreted by Creed as a representation of the “primal scene” and what Freud called the “common misunderstanding” of children about birth. Kane’s death informs the monster’s life cycle with a violent, disturbing implication of a male being orally raped and impregnated by a creature that looks like female genital, ended by the “birth” of an erected baby monster with a phallic shape. Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter explained that his intention was to sexually attack the men, not the women in the audience[ii]. This attack becomes even scarier in H. R. Giger’s original concept art of the face-hugger with a more visible, phallic organ penetrating into the victim’s mouth.

The engineer Samuel Brett is the first one killed by the full-grown alien. I’d like to juxtapose his death with Joan Lambert’s because the director interestingly cut some clips of Brett’s death into Lambert’s death. Brett dies on the way looking for Jones, the cat. The monster holds his head, pierces through his hat and skull with his brains dashed out. It’s noteworthy that the engineer Dennis Parker is killed in a similar way. But Lambert is different. In the final cut, when Lambert was confronting the alien and was paralyzed by fear, the monster’s long, rigid tail smoothly and slowly slides up between her legs, an action with obviously sexual implication. Her scream lasts for fifteen seconds before she dies, very uncommon compared to the quick kill on the male victims. Many fans suspect whether Lambert was raped by the alien. I think this question is what exactly the director wants the audience to have. However, in fact, the legs in the scene is not Lambert’s, but Brett’s. The director cuts off the leg-scene from Brett and inserts it to Lambert. In addition, Ripley found Lambert’s body hanging in the air without her boots and pants, while Parker’s body just sits there, fully dressed. I think, the director deliberately made the spectators to have the feeling that Lambert might have been raped by the alien, in order to summon up some horrible images in their mind, a “reworking” of the fantasy Freud had argued that involves “animals or mythical creatures” in the “primal scene”.

The tail of the alien slides between Lambert’s legs, which in fact are Brett’s legs. Credit: 21st Fox

Ash conceals his android identity until he is killed by Parker and Lambert. Before that, he was trying to suffocate Ripley with a roll of a porn magazine in a room with porn pictures on the wall, a behavior signifying an oral rape. I found it interesting that family photos stuck on the wall, right on the porn pictures. I think it cleverly reveals the dichotomy of human nature—pure primitive impulse clouded by “conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality,” as Ash said in his last words. The former is exactly the attribute that Ash admires. It is ironic, however, that Ash considers the monster as pure and superior to humans while himself seeks masculine powers through the imitation of sexual intercourse, trying to become a man. His death uncovers the truth that the company wants the monster so bad that even crew are “expendable.” Being betrayed by the institution they trusted, they were all alone in the infinite darkness and danger. Ash’s death is the logical turning point of their faith. They started to feel the odds were against them, so they decided to abandon the ship.

Captain Dallas was supposedly killed at first until Ripley found him imprisoned in a cocoon, half-dead, serving as a host that provides nutrient to the monster’s parasitic offspring. On his request, Ripley killed him with fire. This scene offers us the information of how the monster breeds and its desire to reproduce. The monster is like infectious cancer. It seizes every opportunity to spread and exploits all resources to breed. This reminds me of another horror movie also designed by Giger, the Species. Besides their similar appearances, the monsters in the two movies were driven by the same desire—reproduction. In addition, Dallas’s death inverses the traditional power structure of gender in horror movies where females were usually the objects in captivity to satisfy the males’ desire to spread their genes, and where males have the power to make the life-or-death-decision for the females, such as the recent movies, Split and Don’t Breathe.

The last death in the film is the killing of the alien. Ripley “blew it out of the god damn airlock,” as she described in the Aliens. It drifted away in rotation into the darkness, echoing the ejection of Kane’s body. It is the logical closure of the fighting against the monster. “A survivor” is what Ash called the monster, but at the end, the one who survives turns out to be Ripley. A mother kills another mother, a mother’s victory over another mother.

I wonder why people are afraid of the alien, or more generally, monsters. Maybe their uncontrollable, primitive desire to breed terrifies humans, but humans possess exactly the same desire. In this sense, what scares us rests in ourselves. Moreover, one thing I found interesting is that real monsters exist in the natural world. Any textbooks of parasitology can prove that.

References

[i] Creed, Barbara. “Alien and the Monstrous Feminine.” In Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, edited by Annette Kuhn, 128–41. London; New York: Verso, 1990.

[ii] “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked.com. Accessed September 16, 2017. http://www.cracked.com/article_18932_alien-film-franchise-based-entirely-rape.html.

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