The endless primal scene: images that evoke sexuality proliferate throughout the Alien films.
Everything in the film metaphorically relates to gender-renegade Ripley’s problematic femininity.
Horrific parodies of courtship and romance
Fluids are important to the Alien films; eventually Ripley’s blood will be a mixture of human and acid bloods.
Ripley: a heroine from classical Hollywood struggling with the marriage plot?
Kane “seems fine.”
Effeminophobia runs throughout the Alien films.
Repressed sexuality makes a particularly grisly return.
The infant Alien fuses the phallus and the vagina dentata.
Lambert’s excessive emotionalism parodies Ripley’s stoic demeanor.
No man of her own: a woman’s film heroine without suitor?
Ripley confronts “Mother”: the first Alien film makes the maternal negative.
Ash combines fears of Englishness and queerness with horror at the artificial male body.
Ash spews liquid that looks like both semen and mother’s milk.
Parker (Yaphet Kotto) attempts to overpower Ash.
Alien’s radical contribution to these established woman’s film patterns is its suggestion that the woman’s intransigent refusal of the marriage plot not only does have an impact on but also has profound consequences for the social order, which cannot function without her acquiescence to it. Ripley’s general lack of interest in heterosexual romance, despite some vague suggestions here and there; the ways she eschews conventional femininity—refusing to allow the grievously injured Kane onboard; her lack of connection to the only other female crew member, Lambert, who physically and verbally rails against her for decision not to admit Kane—all these take an obvious toll on this shipboard world, an extension of the patriarchal-world order of the sinister corporation Weyland-Yutani, often referred to as the Company. The entire film then functions as a metaphor for her lack of conventional womanly virtues and her indifference to the marriage plot. To be sure, it would appear that the tremendous, decades-spanning appeal the heroine has had must to some degree lie in these deviations from conventional femininity on the part of the epic’s heroine. Yet Alien is a vast contraption for the exposure of the disastrous effects of lawless, unlicensed femininity. Everything in the film metaphorically relates to gender-renegade Ripley’s problematic femininity, albeit in an ironic, parodistic relation. And in this regard, not only the heroine’s uneasy relationship to heterosexuality but also and perhaps most importantly to the maternal are crucial.
If considered as an allegory of the singular woman and her threat, the film offers a dazzling array of symbols, themes, characters, and obsessions that deepen its allegorical work. The birth imagery and the yonic symbols put into play obvious associations of femininity with the maternal and with passive or in this case ominous (potentially engulfing and/or devouring) vaginal sexuality. The eggs in particular—both in their limitless number and in the diminutive yet deadly phallic threat they contain‚—connote female sexuality and life-giving power as disturbing and menacing, synonymous with violation and death. The eggs, independent of the female body and autonomous, abstract the idea of female reproductivity, serving as an allegory for the uniquely female ability to bear children that stands in sharp contrast to the heroine’s decidedly non-maternal stance for much of the film. (It is only later that she is more typically typed as maternal in her worried search for and tender embraces of Jonesy.) Kane’s monstrous birthing of the Alien is the screen’s most emphatic, violent parody of female birth. To lift from Virginia Woolf,
The implication—again, a parodistic one—is that with women refusing to bear children, men must now take up this burden, against their will and with horrific results, spawning murderous monsters.
While there are many different thematic levels for interpretive engagement with the android/cyborg figure—here called a robot—the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), his robot identity unbeknownst to the crew for most of the film, provides another and the most perverse allegorical parody of motherhood and of Ripley’s non-mother role. In one scene, Parker (the great Yaphet Kotto) and Lambert come to Ripley’s aid as Ash, exposed as a traitor to the crew (a typical movie role, usually played by a foreigner, here by a British actor, Ian Holm), wildly attacks Ripley. Parker ends up clobbering Ash in the head, which flies off, revealing his robot identity. As jets of viscous white fluid shoot out of his orifice-neck, drenching the other crew members, and his body twitches and flails uncontrollably, his spasmodic bodily movements exactly double Kane’s in death, as if Ash himself were delivering another Alien offspring. The robot at once mimes the mother in childbirth and the lactating, nursing mother. In another of the film’s characteristic collapses of gendered referents, the streaming milky fluid suggests both milk and semen, mother and masculinity, in a grotesquely denatured manner that sends up both identity categories. Decapitated, Ash now stands in for the woman’s subject position in culture as Hélène Cixous formulated it, symbolically decapitated, denied mind and voice. Prostrate, his innards being manipulated so that he can be reactivated (“Maybe he knows how to kill it,” Ripley instructs), Ash is the corpse-as-mother’s-body, in a way that corresponds to the Kristevan theory of abjection so critically redeployed in Barbara Creed’s work. In the form of Ash, the materiality of the mother’s body, rendered starkly visible through hideous dismemberment, provides a sharp contrast to the physical integrity of the human beings who gape at it. Ash’s revealed organs most closely resemble ovaries, calling up the “science of woman” of Victorian gynecology and collapsing the sinister foreign male, the cyborg-Other’s, and the woman’s/mother’s bodies, again in a parodistic manner.
Ash is a type of the “effete Englishman” in U.S. culture. The satirical regard for the figure, generally an implicit one in popular culture, has been increasingly visible in the past two decades, Witness, for example, the backlash against Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard as a tea-drinking effete who doesn’t go on away missions as opposed to the apparently more masculine Trek Captain, William Shatner’s James T. Kirk; the aged English queens played by Brit-stalwarts such as Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters, 1998) and Nigel Hawthorne (The Object of My Affections, 1991); or Giles and especially Wesley of Buffy fame. Ripley’s increasingly heated opposition to and increasingly violent conflict with the English Ash has suggestive implications not only for this film but for the others that follow. In the United States, English and European masculinities have historically been associated with European “decadence,” artificiality, and effeminacy in contrast to the sturdy, manly “authenticity” of U.S. manhood. Though only intelligible within an U.S. context, the construction of English/European manhood as both effeminate and artificial finds a significant embodiment in Ash. Associated with the technology of the ship and revealed as an android, Ash is an artificial being, not “authentic.” Though what has called “effeminophobia” cannot be equated, exactly, with homophobia, the opprobrium incurred by those who falter in their performance of gender identity is certainly linked to homophobia. In homophobic terms, of course, Ash’s secretiveness and spying also suggest a sinister queerness with closeted, clandestine behaviors. Moreover, his close relationship to Mother, the onboard computer, connects him with cinematic images, like those in classical psychoanalysis, of the homosexual male who is too closely linked to his mother, Psycho’s Norman Bates being an obvious example.
Readings of the cyborg as a metaphor for queer sexuality deepen as they intersect with queer-British-male typing. Ripley’s confrontation with Ash—a non-normative male figure whose queer sexuality is overdetermined by his associations with Englishness, foreignness, blended genital markers, and his cyborg identity—prefigures her climactic confrontation with the genderbending figure of the Newborn in the final Ripley film, Alien Resurrection. The Newborn looks like a hybrid human-alien monster typed as male yet who has breasts and other physical indicators of the feminine gender. Indeed, in all of these regards, Ash doubles Kane and vice versa, reinforcing the complex threats emanating from and directed at each character.
Kane is no less a problematic figure than Ash in the suggestive queer resonances of his characterization. As Robin Wood, who viewed Alien as one of the chief examples of a slew of reactionary horror films of its era, wrote:
Numerous points are worth mentioning here. At this stage in an iconic film’s history, re-released theatrically in 2003 in a new Director’s Cut, the subsequent roles the actors play add to and deepen connections current audiences make between the actors and what their screen presence signifies. Hurt’s performances as gay men beyond the 1975 Quentin Crisp-The Naked Civil Servant television film (to say nothing of his sexually and morally depraved Caligula in the 1976 miniseries I, Claudius) in such films as Partners (1982) and Love and Death on Long Island (1997) enhance his profile as a queer screen presence, in both phobic and progressive ways. Both Kane and Ash reinforce and double the threatening queer presence of the Alien, while also, especially in Kane’s case but also in the sinister yet also physically mutilated Ash’s, suggesting a somatic and emotional vulnerability unusual for U.S. cinematic males generally.
The film's endless doubling and refraction extends to each of the characters, all of whom embody or give vent to some gathering, indefinable, yet palpable frustration with Ripley’s enigmatic sexuality. Ripley herself, as Sigourney Weaver so tautly and thoughtfully plays her in the most sustained female performance in film, blends the masculine and the feminine, especially here where she is as mannish in manner as she is at key points conventionally feminine. Dallas, while in the traditional leading man role, is pointedly indifferent to her sexual charms. Kane and Ash are too preoccupied with their discrete fixations on the Alien to pay her much mind. Evoking the famous Fiedlerian view of a mythic male bonding that allows males to escape “the gentle tyranny of home and woman,” Parker and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), in their jokey bonding and cheerfully derisive manner towards Ripley, together embody the homosocial of U.S. culture with male bonds that eschew women. (Parker does get in a wry joke about cunnilingus at the dinner table scene right before Kane gives birth to the Alien, but pointedly it is Lambert who gets the joke, registering simultaneous offense and amusement at it.)
Lambert is Ripley’s double through negation. Whereas Ripley, for the most part, maintains a cool lock-down on her emotions (though one increasingly thawed by the ever-more heated course of events), Lambert, in Veronica Cartwright’s extraordinarily vivid performance, emotes prodigiously, pouring out torrents of tears, finally moaning with an infant piteousness. She ironizes Ripley’s stalwart toughness through these spectacular emotional pyrotechnics, challenging and undermining Ripley’s resolve. Moreover, as noted, Lambert directly retaliates against Ripley in a scene restored to the film in the Director’s Cut, in which she yells at and strikes Ripley for having refused to let the away team back into the ship once Kane has been incapacitated by the parasite. Still, it is the male characters, not Lambert, who cause Ripley to lose her cool. After Dallas has been killed and Ripley and Lambert, Parker, and Ash have a tense powwow to determine their next course of action, Ripley, now in command, is noticeably contained and rationalistic as she refutes Lambert’s hysterical and angry pleas to blow up the ship (which Ripley will eventually do). It is when Parker appears to be defying her orders that she blows her stack, and it is when Ash exasperatingly announces that he is still “collating” a response to the Alien threat that she appears to be momentarily at an appalled loss for words. But she quickly regains her composure, telling Ash, “Just keep doing what you have been doing—nothing.” With all of these characters holding Ripley in counterbalance, each suggests some kind of tension in her psyche or some aspect of her presence that provokes the film's own anxieties, responses transmuted into disturbing cinematic stylistics.
This film’s complex engagements with anxieties over gendered, sexual, and racial identity would appear to be synthesized within the controlling metaphor of the Alien. Throughout the years the Alien has been interpreted in numerous ways as the central metaphorical monster of the films. But I would argue that the Alien is the showier, more-attention-getting of two monsters diegetically present in Alien, the other being “Mother,” the onboard ship computer. While Mother-issues are symbolically conveyed by its elaborate aesthetic design, the film also makes Mother into an onscreen presence, albeit in an abstracted form. In her confrontation with Mother, one that parallels that with the Alien, Ripley emerges as the ambivalent daughter whose love-hate ambivalence deepens into pure, unadulterated hate. In this regard, she is a hostile Persephone to a chilly Demeter who maintains an attitude of clinical indifference to her daughter’s plight.
In the Greek myth, vernal Earth goddess Demeter casts the world into a wintry despair that symbolizes her grief over the abduction of her daughter; in Alien, the mother is always already stone-cold and detached from her daughter’s fate. Recalling that Freud theorized, in his 1931 essay “Female Sexuality,” that a woman’s relationship to her husband will reawaken her pre-oedipal relationship to her mother—that indeed, it is only a reflection of that far more profoundly significant relation—the Alien and the death-battle Ripley wages against it themselves come to seem offshoots of the greater and even deadlier conflict between mother and daughter.
Access to Mother, the onboard ship-computer, is initially the privilege of only Dallas and of science officer Ash. After Dallas dies, Ripley announces to Ash, “I have access to Mother now.” This access, however, leads only to grim knowledge, as Ripley learns of the Company’s special directive that the Nostromo make the capture of Alien specimen—to be used for their bio-weapons-program—their top priority, and that the “crew is expendable.” Learning this leads Ripley to weep for the first time and then to lash out angrily at Ash. This pattern corresponds to the one Freud laid out. Behind the husband-figure (Dallas) lies the Mother and the conflict and loss inherent in the mother-daughter bond. This pattern only intensifies as Ripley, to destroy the Alien, programs the ship to self-destruct. Mother not only fails to assist Ripley in destroying the Alien, whom she cannot elude, but she also fails to protect her daughter. Desperately fleeing from the Alien’s clutches, Ripley runs back to Mother, trying to circumvent the self-destruct sequence. She fails to stop it within only a second or two. “Mother,” Ripley pleads, “I stopped the self-destruct sequence!” Mother’s response is stonily indifferent: she announces that the self-destruction of the ship will occur in five minutes. “Mother!” Ripley cries, in an Achilles-like fury. “You bitch!” At this, she rails her gun upon a computer console—Mother’s extruded cyber-flesh—smashing it to smithereens. Who is Ripley’s greater foe—the Alien or the unyielding, pitiless Mother?
Adding to the typing of Ripley as daughter is the scene in which she hears, from a remote distance on an intercom, the cries of suffering from Parker and Lambert as they are annihilated by the Alien. These cries, particularly Lambert’s, are weirdly erotic in tone, sounding just as much like sexual intercourse as murder. (In Lambert’s case, they also sound like infant cries.) Ripley’s detached but fixated aural position to these cries places her, from the perspective of psychoanalytic theory, in the position of the child who witnesses, in this case through sound rather than sight, the primal scene and it attendant terrors. We see, in a series of extraordinary shots, the Alien killing first Parker, then Lambert. When Lambert is killed (second), we see the Alien’s long, dark, phallic tail insinuatingly reaching between Lambert’s legs, a clear rape metaphor.
If anything, the killing of Parker is even more disorientingly eroticized. As the large, physically strong, courageous Parker is held against his will by the looming, infinitely stronger, implacable Alien, he resembles a child himself in an adult’s grasp, the infant about to be fed, albeit an infant desperately resisting a feeding that makes the infant the meal. As the Alien hypnotically opens its jaws, transparent fluid streams from its metallic, murderous mouth in another horrifying parody of both the nursing mother and the slavering sexually ravenous male. When the Alien’s phallic, protuberant inner jaw shoots out into Parker’s flesh, a specific echo of Kane’s violation, the image reinforces the film’s unusually obsessed interest in the violation of males,and also, more distantly, its evocation of another key Melvillean theme, male susceptibility to shipboard rape. Few films have more vividly thematized and visually allegorized male-male sexual penetration and the varieties of male-male rape. The Alien’s penetration of Parker fuses oral sex-as-rape with anal rape, fellatio and sodomy, both figured as violent violations of one male by another, as well as the vagina dentata, phobic symbol of woman’s sexuality as monstrously phallic. It is a welter of provocative images that will be reworked, in his intertextual manner, by James Cameron in his sequel to Scott’s film.
Racing to aid her doomed colleagues, Ripley discovers their mangled, bloody bodies, hanging like meat in an abattoir. The strong suggestion is that sexual intercourse of any kind—given the sexualized imagery of both the murder of Parker and of Lambert—is pernicious and deadly. When on the shuttle, having abandoned ship with the only other survivor, Jonesy the cat, Ripley defiantly whispers, “I got you. You son of a bitch, I got you.” These lines are deeply telling. The Alien truly is son to the Mother whom Ripley has denounced as “Bitch.” In league with the Mother’s incalcitrant reign, the Alien is both the phallic son whose privileged gendered identity leads him towards social triumph in the master narrative of psychoanalysis and the inescapable suitor whose erotic machinations finally ensnare the woman despite her constant deferrals of his offers. Yet the film strikes out most decisively for an intransigent feminism in its depiction of the woman’s retaliation against this suitor, one the heroine finally does manage to elude. Though terrified, the vulnerably undressed Ripley slips into a spacesuit and spearguns the Alien out of the airlock.
Ripley’s dishabille in this climax has been highly controversial throughout the critical history of the film, the common reading being that the film misogynistically objectifies its daring heroine. While acknowledging that having the strong, pragmatic Ripley stripping down to a T-shirt and underwear has clear sexist overtones, in that her intelligence is compromised in her conversion into sexual display, I believe that this moment is also complexly affecting and resonant in ways that have rarely been acknowledged—which is to say, sexism may not be the only thing at work here. Shorn of her protective gear, Ripley physically assumes the symbolic role the film has placed her in, the child before bed, asking her Mother not to turn off the lights, i.e., blow up the ship. Beyond this, Ripley stands before us not just as erotic display but as corporeal, poignantly pliant human being, in stark contrast to the armored, phallic Alien whose acid bleed seethes and singes. In contrast to this beast of defensiveness, Ripley is like an Expressionist nude, vulnerable, human, defenseless.
In a stunning prefiguring of the onscreen transformations that will be so crucial to the later films, Ripley transforms in a flash into the tough female astronaut-cum-warrior when she discovers the Alien onboard the shuttle, crouching within the steel rods from which it is, in repose, indistinguishable. The Alien makes its presence known to Ripley by shooting out its arm at her, a gesture either absent or intentional. This is yet another metaphor of failed intimacy in the film, the failed embrace. Ripley slips into her spacesuit, plotting her strategy all the while, as the Alien, in flickering, strobe-lit, almost slow-motion footage, languorously, autoerotically flexes its limbs, slowing extending out its inner mouth, now covered with especially viscous white, semen/milk-like fluid, as it breathes heavily, yet another sexually suggestive effect. At this point, the Alien has come to signify solitary, masturbatory self-contentment, a scene of male sexual self-sufficiency and plenitude that mocks Ripley’s own putting her sexuality to sleep. Then again, this display also allows Ripley to access an unprecedented phallic power all of her own, as she successfully and literally smokes out the Alien and shoots him with her spear gun as he is sucked out into space. Access to phallic authority compensates for barred access to Mother. Having escaped the Mother who attempted not to engulf but destroy her—the ship self-destructs as Ripley detaches the shuttle from its “umbilicus” and races away to almost unreachable safe distance—Ripley now destroys the suitor who has extended Mother’s reign. The significance of Alien is its depiction of a Persephone at war with Demeter and the dark rapist/underworld King of Hell at once. This theme is a continuation of the central one of the classic Hollywood woman’s film, of the woman’s solitary independence as both pleasurable and a predicament with onerous consequences.