Spoiler disclaimer: this article reveals significant plot events of the 1979 movie “Alien”
Last February, Helsinki's Bio Rex theater hosted the cultural event of the year by screening the first three films of the Alien saga in their original theatrical form. While I did not have the chance to check out the monumental action epic Aliens or the flawed prison thriller Alien3, I did have the privilege of finally witnessing director Ridley Scott's chilling magnum opus Alien (1979) in its full 35mm glory. After a tense moment of waiting for the film to start, the lights suddenly dimmed, the curtains unveiled, and (as soon as the sloppy projectionist managed to cue the soundtrack with the actual picture) I was hit by a continuous stream of widescreen wonders, which essentially add up to why Alien has remained my favorite film for as long as I can remember.
I could go on a rant about the conceptual genius of fusing the operatic grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the bloody suspense of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the utterly convincing ensemble cast (including the best kitty performance ever by Jones the cat), the haunting ambiance of Jerry Goldsmith's avant-garde score, the relentless suspense which builds up to the introduction of the titular monster, or Ridley Scott's immaculate eye for lighting and visual detail. But perhaps for now I will focus on certain permeating themes which helped shape Alien as the definitive scifi-horror of its time, and which would make movie-going crowds of the following decades squirm uncomfortably in their seats: sex and female empowerment.
To uncover the penetrative sexuality of Alien, one needs to look no further than the key scene which would gestate the rest of the tale into being. The masterminds behind the story, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shussett, were consumed by the idea of writing an A-class monster film set in space, yet were struggling to conceive the moment in which the alien creature would come into contact with the unsuspecting human crew of the starfreighter Nostromo. One night, Shusset called O'Bannon in a half-sleep frenzy, declaring that he had solved the problem: the Alien would screw one of the crew members! Why these guys did not receive the Academy Award for Best Damn Plot Device Ever still baffles me.
The seed of human-alien coitus would eventually blossom into a seminal gender moment in cinema: the male officer Kane (played by John Hurt) gets orally raped by a vaginal spider-monster. Dan O'Bannon wanted to specifically freak out the male viewers, largely as a reaction to past monster films which would frequently target women for torment and abuse – consider for example the misogynistic undertones in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1962). In Alien, however, the male viewers' urge to cross their legs becomes truly tangible, and perhaps most so during the legendary “chestburster” scene, which witnesses the birth of the phallic monster baby as it eagerly chews through daddy's ribcage.
It would be a crime to discuss the sensual design of the adult “xenomorph” without praising its visionary creator, Swiss artist H.R. Giger (who sadly passed away last year). Giger's dark imaginings of the human body would materialize in the iconic endoparasitoid with four developmental stages (egg, “facehugger”, host body “cocoon” and chestburster) and a range of unsettling physical features, including an exoskeletal frame, endless secretions of bodily fluids, and a vicious mouth which contains a vicious mouth which contains more vicious mouths. And you can never quite figure out whether the alien is female or male. Line producer Ivor Powell has described this omnisexual presence of the monster as a vital stimulus for fear: “You had no idea whether it was man or woman...it could just as easily fuck you before it killed you.” Giger himself would also emphasize the need to create a beast that was both terrifying and beautiful to behold – for any viewer to deny this sinewy creature its charm and allure would be a grave injustice towards the film's graceful art direction.
The star monster was by no means the only character to encapsulate the subversive gender themes of the film: the protagonist, Lieutenant Ripley, would also mark an important paragon for female characters in realms of both scifi and horror cinema. That a woman would emerge as the sole survivor of the bloodbath aboard the Nostromo owes partially to the unconventional unisex allowance of the screenplay, which meant that any of the characters could be made female in order to “broaden the appeal” of the picture. There is perhaps a touch of irony in the sexist reasoning that made Ripley a woman in the first place: producer David Giler felt that the switch would “earn a few points” in a studio (20th Century Fox) that was releasing quite a few “women's films” at the time.
Regardless of the reasons for casting a woman lead, one thing became very clear about Ripley in the end-product: she would stand out as the first certified female badass in an action film, made wholly possible by an intelligent and commanding performance by newcomer Sigourney Weaver. Devoid of overt sexuality or conventional tendencies towards female “hysterics”, Weaver transforms into a survivor who faces the twofold challenge of combating an extraterrestrial while gradually assuming command of the ship from the less competent men around her. You'll come across a tirade of praises for Ripley's character just about everywhere, but let me just end my personal appreciation with some dialogue that reflects the impact of her character in Alien:
Ripley: Let's talk about killing it. We know it's using the air shafts, that's the only way. We'll move in pairs, we'll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent, until we have it cornered and then we'll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you? Parker: If it means killing it-... Ripley: Obviously it means killing it!
You tell 'em, Ripley.