Saturday, February 13, 2010

Alien: An Essay


In the spring of 2008, whilst studying at Macquarie University, I undertook an elective entitled Philosophy and Cinema. For the second of two essays that I wrote I chose the 1979 Ridley Scott film, Alien as my topic. The task was to explore how the film philosophises - itself reflecting on and evaluating its own views and arguments, as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just the ways that philosophers do. The essay went a little something like this...


As the camera pans across the empty skies of the Universe, piece by piece the letters ALIEN appear from the stars, a stern warning of what’s to come for the viewer. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), as Stephen Mulhall describes in On Film , explores our human anxieties concerning embodiment, sexual difference, biological reproduction, and our relationship with nature. Furthermore, this essay will give support to Mulhall’s ‘philosophical reading’ of the film through the use of filmic examples.

The opening sequence of Alien pulls the viewer into the unknown, setting up what looks to be a standard science-fiction film. After the release of Star Wars two years earlier, the underside shot of the Nostromo may suggest a similar film – that of an intergalactic fantasy. The film that ensues however is very different, drawing on techniques found in the horror genre, to produce a nail-biting thriller. 

Before a discussion is formed around the themes found in Alien, it is important to discuss the ways in which the film is thought of as philosophical. In Mulhall’s 2002 book On Film, the four Alien instalments are discussed in detail from a philosophical standpoint. The way in which Mulhall achieves this is not by using existing philosophical arguments and applying them to Alien to understand what the film really ‘means’, but rather he shows how the film explores its own views and arguments; “They are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action – film as philosophizing”.

How does a film itself reflect on philosophical standpoints? Or better yet, how does this particular film achieve ‘philosophical’ status; is it not just an effective ‘sci-fi’ popular to the masses? These criticisms and scepticisms are put to Mulhall by Julian Baggini and Nathan Andersen in vol. 7 of the August 2003 issue of the Journal. In the same aforementioned journal, Mulhall scribes a response to these criticisms.

An excerpt from Baggini’s article states “the Alien films offer us symbolic representations of the world, but don't provide us with reasons for thinking that these representations are accurate”. Baggini argues that for Mulhall’s analysis to have philosophical meaning it must have a definite conclusion and “give reasons”. Mulhall’s response is to say that if one is to challenge his reading of Alien, the argument must be advanced citing examples from the film itself. I believe that Mulhall’s discussion of Alien is able to show how a mutual reflection does exist between cinema and philosophy, and how the film seriously reflects on philosophical themes in a way that is comparable to, though distinct from, philosophical discourse. 

A central theme that resonates from Alien concerns the anxieties humans have towards identity and embodiment. In fact the entire film presents the human race with constant challenges and concerns – not only about our own identity but our inferiority and place in nature. The prologue of the film, of which I previously mentioned, is able to display with a poetic brilliance the insignificance of humans within the universe which makes them possible. It is a perfect precursor of further exploration into Ripley’s soul. 

The use of horror throughout the film is useful in that it not only brings another level of enjoyment to the table, but it is also effective in giving reason to the theme of human identity. For example, the alien creature itself is presented as a hybrid between biological life and technological components, an obvious reflection of the human body (albeit with a second mouth that lashes at its victim for one last fatal blow). The alien is a distortion of the human; we see our own identity in the monster. It is perhaps this connection with the alien that we find most horrifying, the idea of seeing a part of ourselves within the flesh and blood of evil.

An interesting point made by Stanley Cavell on this issue is presented as an extract from his work in Mulhall’s On Film. Cavell asks the question of what is it about being human that makes us feel horror, is it a response to being human, or perhaps the horror of the precariousness of human identity? My own view is that as humans we hold our own identities to be very important, and I’m not talking in the realm of society but in the realm of nature. To be classed as human gives us a distinct position in nature and the possibility of that being lost or invaded is even more horrifying than death itself.

Thus in the film when Kane is attacked by the ‘facehugger’, it is not only significant in the plot as a turning point from science-fiction into horror, but a useful device in portraying these themes of identity, monstrosity, and embodiment. The ‘facehugger’ itself is very hard to look at, with a smooth slimy skin and bony fingers. Horror is drawn from the scene in which Ash and Dallas attempt to remove the creature from Kane, as both the crew and the filmgoer are clueless to its motives and capabilities. There is also something extremely frightening about seeing something covering your whole face, and in particular having a tube stuck down your throat. Our face is what we use to express all emotion, it is our portal of subjectivity, and the denial of these qualities is extremely horrifying.

The ‘facehugger’ scene is also effective in introducing the theme of human sexual difference. It is this theme that as Mulhall describes as fundamentally driving the plot of Scott’s film. The alien creature invading Kane’s body musters thoughts of sexual intercourse/ biological reproduction, impregnation, and later in the film, birth (the alien brought to life in the magnificent ‘chestburster’ scene). It is particularly interesting that the species is able to procreate using the male body as its womb, bringing about a thought that Mulhall describes as the fate of feminisation; in that the aliens ability to use the male to grow threatens the female race. 

Possibly the most intriguing example of sexual difference in this film however; can be found in the character of Ripley. She is portrayed as very strong-minded and determined in the face of adversity, often seeming masculine while still displaying a confidence in her female attributes. Ripley seems to grasp the danger of the alien more than any other crew member (sensing trouble when Kane wants to get back on the ship), and this may be a maternal instinct to protect the ship. Ripley and the alien seem made for each other; Ripley seeming profoundly attuned to, and as psychologically well-equipped for, survival as the alien itself.

Sexual difference is also found between the attributes of the male and female characters on the Nostromo. The men on the ship all possess a certain level of bravery and heroism, two stereotypes of leading men in film. However it is a female, Ripley, who survives in the end. It may be that only she can understand the masculine tendencies of the alien, whereas Lambert (the only other female on the ship), is too susceptible to male advances perhaps, as she is shown to be mesmerised by the alien’s power as it destroys Parker in front of her eyes. The tail creeping up the inside of her thigh is also another insight into her vulnerability to a foreign/masculine species. Ripley is an example of the films association of femininity with heroism rather than victim-hood.

A contrast to this theme of sexual difference can be found in the 1982 film The Thing, by John Carpenter.The Thing presents the film-goer with a very similar film to Alien in many ways; the deserted crew in Antarctica are very similar to the deserted crew in space, they both do not have radio contact, they’ve been there a long time, and must figure out how to kill the monster (or co-exist with it). Both films also fuse the genres of science-fiction and horror. The difference lies in the fact that the last-man standing in The Thing is, well, a man. It is possible that Alien follows the typical horror genre more closely, as a female is often left to defend herself against an unknown creature, where all the male characters try to enact feats of bravery but are killed for their efforts.

A theme in Alien that should be looked at more closely is that of technology. One of the most frightening aspects of this film is the ability of the alien to embody technology so effectively, something obviously far more advanced than we as humans can achieve. An irony exists in this film, as it is technology itself that has propelled the crew of the Nostromo to the outer-edge of the galaxy and contact with another species. A recurring theme found in sci-fi films emerges here, that of the Promethean theme of human hubris; “in striving to liberate ourselves from nature through science and technology, a monstrous nature/technology comes back to destroy us”. Similar film examples of this type include James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Scott’s own Blade Runner (1982), to name just a couple.

Of all the themes explored in Alien, I believe the relationship between the human race and nature to be the most interesting. We have co-existed with Earth’s other natural life-forms since the dawn of evolution, and our furtherance into scientific research has brought great triumphs to many men, but it has also destroyed species along the way. Alien is able to show this fact in a very horrifying way; posing the question of whether human endeavours (space exploration for example) are going too far.

In the film, the crew confront another life-form, that of the alien species. The alien that finds itself onto the Nostromo via the ‘facehugger’ does not have any motives or desires; its basic instinct is for survival. Ash’s last words (before he is fried with a flamethrower) show his appreciation for the pure alien. As Ash is an android, he himself has no emotions or feelings; however he does possess an admiration or love for the other species (an undertone that is very philosophical in itself; robots finding love). His final words are, “I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

The cat on board the Nostromo is another example of our symbiosis with organisms unlike our own. It is strange to think how attached the crew become to the cat, even risking their lives to save it; and ironically it out-lasts all but Ripley. During the ‘chestburster’ scene in which the alien is birthed in an explosive manner from Kane’s stomach, the camera focuses on two characters; the first is Ash, who looks somewhat unaffected by the traumatic event (possibly a clue to his true nature), and the second is the cat, its steely eyes gazing over the landscape. This technique is used again by Scott during the death scene of Brett; as we hear the audio of Brett being ripped to pieces, the camera focuses again on the cats ever-watchful eyes.

Scenes such as these are a further suggestion of our relationship to other organic beings, and our place within nature. The Thing also cleverly uses this theme; the enemy is of a parasitic nature that procreates through taking the form of another living creature (dog, human). Could it be that The Thing is suggesting that this form of life has existed for 4 billion years (the life of the Earth)? An even more horrifying thought in Alien suggests that we have the technology to encounter even more primitive life-forms, and we have to find a way to co-exist in the Universe.

Alien is truly a landmark film that should be looked upon with philosophical eyes for centuries to come. The film is able to use cinematic means to reflect upon philosophical ideas and arguments through the use of images and dialogue. To me, the film poses many questions that are scary to answer; such as the precariousness of human identities and the ever-increasing threat of advanced technologies. However it is the horror of Alien that leaves the viewer with so much food for thought. The final scene of the film is one of the most powerful of them all; displaying our true isolation and possible meaningless existence.

There is a line that Ash repeats just before he ‘dies’; it is an order from Mother (the ship’s central processing unit): “All other priorities are rescinded”. Not only does this explore the corporeal/colonisational themes found in Alien, but it asks a few questions of humanity as well. One of those questions may be this: Is it that we as the human race are just a stepping stone that got in the way of evolution; in the way of far more superior beings that are destroying our identities one by one? I believe Alien holds the key to unlocking that mystery.

- Russell


  1. Now I really want to watch Alien again

    That's some deep cinematic discussion. Must have been a fun class to go to. More fun than Tax Law anyway...

  2. Yeah thinking/talking about movies in a philosophical way makes them so much more interesting.

    Haha - tax law was actually one of the better subjects at uni funnily enough... that accounting theory one was like pulling teeth

  3. hey el drlt loco - I don't want you to read it, you prob couldn't understand the concepts with your puny brain anywayz you triple dipple wipple.