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‘Alien’ Retrospective: Imperialism, Giger’s Phallic Imagery, and the Corruption of Nostromo

The Nostromo sails on an empty black sea across a giant, star-sprinkled canvas, venturing away from the unknown, back to Earth; quiet, weightless. Dallas, Ripley, Lambert, Brett, Ash, Kane, and Parker make up the crew of this commercial towing vehicle, carrying twenty million tons of mineral ore back to the Earth’s crust. The seven crew members aboard sleep in their separate little cocoons like eggs waiting to be hatched, encompassed until they reach their final destination; lifeless for months in the dead space of the middle of the sky. The halls are empty and bleak, housed only by the program that runs deep in the ship’s veins, known to the crew as “Mother”. She watches over her little ones while they sleep, steering the way back home, and keeping an eye on the darkness the surrounds their small voyage. Suddenly, a small light flashes a peeping urgent message deep in the hollows of the metal walls’ core. A spark of life has announced itself in the vast blackness; the drowning echo of an S.O.S. call coming from another vessel far off in the distance. Mother jumps on the distress call and quickly wakes up her sleepy shipmates, who are quite upset when they learn that they are only halfway home. At the urging of their science officer, Ash, they decide to investigate the cry for help, although most of the crew is reluctant. Despite their brief moment of hesitation, they know that it is their job, as astronauts, and as Americans, to look into every possible opportunity to lend a hand, especially if the results mean furthering their growth on another planet that can support life. It is their duty as representatives of the United States to stake their claim in as many foreign lands as possible, even if those inhabiting it are alien.

It was only a few moments ago when the crew mates all ate happily together upon their awakening, telling jokes and spilling stories and making up for time lost in the dozens of hours spent in stasis, but now, they are here, answering a cryptic call echoed out from the middle of nowhere. When they arrive on this dark, windy planet, it seems as though it would be nearly impossible for humans to exist here. With vicious, ghastly winds, permeated with tiny specs of crystals whipping about, being outside in this environment is confusing and brutal. A few members are sent out into the fray to search for any humans that might have sent out the distress call, but from the look of the planet upon landing, it seems that death and disappointment is all that awaits them. Kane, Lambert, and Dallas go out into the storm to investigate, and in their travels, discover an abandoned spaceship positioned not far away, behind the whirls of sand, hiding in plain sight. Next to the massive LV 426, the members of Nostromo look no bigger than the grains of sand that slaps at their helmets. Upon entering, Kane finds a small hole in the floor, and ventures deeper into the belly of the beast. Down below, he finds a strange glowing mist about waist high, illuminating what looks to be hundreds of thousands of giant slimy eggs. Like a small child, his curiosity gets the better of him, and it’s not long before Kane begins poking at one of the eggs, and to his delight, finds a reaction. The top of the egg opens as if it were a banana unpeeling, and for a second, Kane is lost in pure science fandom-fueled joy. “He seems to have organic life!” Kane exclaims into his headset excitedly. But we must all pay for our curiosity, and in a mere seconds, the creature within screeches to life, springs itself at Kane’s face, and renders him helpless. After bringing him back to the ship, Lambert and Dallas call to Ripley to open the hatch in order to get Kane to the infirmary as soon as possible. After asking about Kane’s condition, Ripley denies entry, and says that the crew members must obey quarantine protocol. Dallas and Lambert are furious, but Ripley argues that it’s for the good of the crew; that they can’t risk bringing an infection onboard that could put everyone else in jeopardy, but before she’s even done dueling out justice, Ash has already let the three back onboard, and they hurry Kane to the medical center. A simple assumption wherein humans instinctually believe that they are the superior beings to any kind of outside force will prove not only foolish, but fatal.

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As an imperialist nation, America is defined by its need to conquer, expand, discover, and claim every achievement and piece of land that it can. Our craving for manifest destiny is no longer restricted to the limits of North American soil; it even extends as far as outer space. Therefore, if an alien species makes its presence known, as a nation, it is our duty to be the first to shed light on its existence, and quickly claim it; trademark it in some way to let everyone know that it belongs to us, and to us alone. Always in competition mode, and always sniffing out the next opportunity, it’s no wonder that when a signal of alien life reveals itself to the Weylan-Yutani company, they quickly forces their crew to investigate, knowing full well that the humans may be obliterated in the process of trying to bring back the foreign specimen. The crew awakens at the beginning of the film in egg-like quarters, reporting to a superior called “Mother”, a program controlling the giant life-giving vessel that each of them resides in; like little joeys resting inside the warmth of a protective kangaroo pouch. The LV 426 alien planetoid that the crew inspects not only houses its beings as well, like a humongous maternal figure, but it is even shaped like the top of a Y; mimicking a woman’s fallopian tubes. Inside, hundreds of eggs grow at the base of the structure, waiting patiently to be born, until the day that a human male stranger strolls over and abrasively reaches his hand inside of one of the delicate shells. Both ships symbolize different colonies, with Nostromo representing America, just as any craft coming out of our country would in space, and the LV 426 representing a foreign nation that we wish to conquer; heroes claiming a spot in space when the world has run out of free land. Of course, as Americans, we assume that we will overpower our competitors, and easily dismantle any that would dare challenge us. However, when the gang encounters this unknown species, they will learn that colonialism and curiosity come with blood, sacrifice, and loss, all in the name of elected representatives who would never dare to get their hands so dirty. Ultimately, Alien provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when our need to probe and examine and capture outweighs our humanity. In a way, the xenomorphs are merely fighting back, and defending their home against the trespassers that seek to steal them.

A commentary on imperialism is not the only quality that makes the 1979 Alien stand out. While working on the film, director Ridley Scott constantly stressed the importance of making the movie frightening, and keeping it horror-centric, a trait that deems it unique in comparison with the rest of the Alien franchise, which is largely based in action-adventure. Scott advertised the movie as being “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science-fiction”, aiming to meet the tension and the pure ferocity of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cult classic. Although aesthetically, the two films feel worlds apart, the feeling that emits from both is one of relentless suspense. Alien is an exercise in sheer terror, swapping out the rustic, creepy strangers of the south for a different kind of hungry animal; one that moves about unnoticed, pouncing when its prey is alone, and quickly recoiling into the air vents with its new prize following along limply in its grasp. Being so far away from home, up in space, where no one can hear you scream, is enough to drive a person mad given enough time. The isolation and solidarity that come with trekking into a world beyond our own can be overwhelming — a punch in the gut to anyone who thinks they’re sick of humanity; ripped out of the crowd and thrown into a machine with thin walls that keep the death from flowing in. The mere idea of space travel is terrifying, but to partner this long journey from home with a predator lurking in the corridors of the ship is to trap a mouse within small confines and watch as the snake swallows it whole. At one point, Ash calls the xenomorph a “perfect organism”, and he’s right, but perhaps not for the reasons he thinks. The xenomorph, although beautiful in its appearance, is a superior being to humans because it is so completely basic. The species has no ultimate agenda; no end goal to wipe out humanity or take over the world, or create an army and unleash war against its neighbor. The xenomorph is simply a preditorial being that seeks to hunt, kill, eat, and reproduce. It is emotionless, with an acid layer laying just beneath its surface skin, preventing those who would seek to harm it from succeeding, and thus becoming, the ultimate assassin.

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Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon met H.R. Giger on the set of Jodorowsky’s Dune, and was immediately impressed with his dark and distinctive artistic skills. When the project fell apart, and O’Bannon began shipping his Alien script around (known then as “Star Beast”), he met up with Ridley Scott, and introduced him to Giger’s work almost instantaneously, to which Scott responded very positively. Scott said he wanted the look of his alien to mimic the appearance of Giger’s 1976 painting “Necronom IV”, a piece which SFX maestro Carlo Rambaldi followed very closely. Despite the studio’s hesitation to work with Giger, and many people involved in the production being afraid of Giger and his sexually aggressive artwork, Scott stood firm on his decision to combine his artistic vision with the man who would go on to win an Academy Award for the film in 1980 in the visual effects category. H.R. Giger has always been a true master of horror, leading the pack in inventive monsters with the rest of us just lucky enough to bathe in his afterglow. His xenomorphs aren’t just frightening extraterrestrial creatures, they are your fears, gathered from the deepest, blackest pits of your mind, personified. Starting from when they are babies, ejecting themselves from their eggs onto a human’s face, impregnating an unwilling participant, until the offspring growing inside of the living person’s chest bursts through, killing the incubator in the process, and skitters off aimlessly, shedding its skin and avoiding attack, until it grows up. Standing at over seven feet tall, the adults exhibit phallic heads eject a smaller phallic tongue-like organ that plunges into people’s skin and penetrates their systems, ripping them up from the inside out. The teeth on this tiny seemingly sexual organ suggests a vagina dentata, signaling that this figure could be male or female. The alien’s skin is black and tight, like a latex suit stretched from head to toe; a sexual predator waiting under cover of darkness to strike. Through its symbolism, the xenomorph does not distinguish between sexes, it merely attacks; a disturbing notion for the male audiences exposed to this film. In fact, most of the victims in this movie are male, making it oddly feminist, in a genre where women are usually the ones who fall prey to sexual abuse and death.

Aside from its choice in victims, the feminism of Alien mostly lies in its victor, female senior officer Ellen Ripley. Ripley is even more meaningful than the final girl who was resourceful enough to escape her killer, she’s that hero that has the female audience waiting around for a second coming. That woman who was smart and strong and capable from the beginning, but rose to the challenge and defeated her oppressor in the end. She’s the woman who refused to be bossed around by a man, but but respected her fellow officers, and still fought valiantly for everyone on her crew, even the ones whom she quarreled with earlier. Ripley is an impressive, realistic, hopeful addition to female characters that’s written brilliantly by Dan O’Bannon because it is written for a man. Many of the crew members were interchangeable as far as genders go, with O’Bannon telling producers they could change out many of the members as either male or female. What he never predicted, however, was that Ridley Scott would cast Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. However, in his short-sightedness, O’Bannon actually crafted one of the most important women in film, even to this day, because he didn’t change her to meet what he considered a woman to be like. In order for there to truly be another Ripley, the part must be written first, for a man, because only then is the character completely treated like a person. Luckily, Ridley Scott could see what O’Bannon could not, and in the process, gave female fans someone to look up to; a worthy name to add to the list of impactful female characters. A list, which thankfully, is only growing longer and longer as time goes on and film evolves with the turning of the world.

The ship carrying the humans, called Nostromo, has a very fitting name. It is named after a a novel written by Joseph Conrad, about a man named Nostromo who’s used as a tool by the rich old men of Sulaco. Although is never allowed to join their elite rank along the other prestigious men of Costaguana, Nostromo carries out special duties for these gentlemen, hoping that one day, his efforts will pay off, and he will finally be recognized. The current dictator of Sulaco is tired of revolutionaries trying to steal his silver out from under him, so he orders Nostromo to hide the pieces out at sea. When he is attacked during his transport, Nostromo leaves the silver on a nearby island. Because everyone believes the money was lost at sea, Nostromo is never asked to return his fortune, and sneaks a bit off of it off of the island each night, piece by piece. The paranoia of keeping such a heavy secret eventually drives him insane, along with the fact that he has yet to be acknowledged by the men who constantly order him around. His need for recognition ultimately leads to his corruption, as his leaders destroy the very part of him that made him so effective: his purity. It’s funny how the commercial towing vehicle in Alien is named Nostromo, considering that everyone aboard is used as a tool by Weylan-Yutani to fetch their alien species and bring it back to Earth, dubbing the crew “expendable” in the process. More than anyone else, Ripley Nostromo, as she serves as the boatswain of her ship, not quite captain, but still ranked high enough to give orders. Ripley’s advice is always being ignored, her opinion overshadowed, and her logic discredited, and after the company’s alternate motive is revealed, even her life is tossed aside like yesterday’s trash. Her complete lack of recognition and betrayal by her peers, and by her employers, ultimately leads to Ripley’s breaking down as a character, and being built again; reborn as a warrior, a hardened shell of the person she once was; and a more perfect reincarnation of the person she must become.


18 Comments
  • RidleyScottIsADirector@gmail.c

    Mmm mmm MMM! This looks DELICIOUS! I’m going to read it when I get home from exercising.

  • sliceanddice

    comprehensive and interesting article.

  • Joseph Nardi

    Pretty remedial — I have read ALOT on Alien and this doesn’t shed any new light on anything.

  • James Allard

    Good article. Please do more.

  • erikire

    AWESOME ARTICLE!

  • Evan Hatcher

    Terrible. Read something besides Zizek

    • Pinkytoe

      I have no idea what you’re taking about. I’m basing these comments on my observations of the movies and nothing more.

  • Evan3

    While indeed Ripley is impressive and hopeful, the thing that makes her an all-time great is the third thing you mentioned “realistic.” She does get scared. She doesn’t run full-steam-ahead into danger (and even the final confrontation is won with Ripley being quiet and sneaky, weary and respectful of the superior predator). She shows emotions that make her not just a great hero, but also a great female hero. I find it hard to believe the role was gender neutral given how it seems to capture feminine strength (which is just as great as masculine strength) so well. She is a hero, but they never forget or diminish her being a woman too.

    In the sequels, she becomes increasingly gender neutral, a typical indestructable action hero(ine?). But here, they find the perfect balance of vulnerability and bravery, and it gave us one of the greatest heroes of all time.

  • Pinkytoe

    I’m THE biggest Alien fan out there. There are no others. 😉 That being said, I’m only about two paragraphs into this article, and there are just tons of errors already. Now, granted I’ve been spoiled by watching the extended cuts in dvd and bluray for years now, so I suppose I could be wrong. First, they were somewhat aware that the signal wasn’t human when the heard the signal (I don’t think that’s in the theatrical cut though). And I don’t believe that I every heard them ONCE say that they needed to go check things out on LV426 bc they were patriotic. In fact, all Parker and Brett wanted was to renegotiate their contacts to get full shares. TherestAnd they’ve misquoted Kane about the egg. Why should o even read on? Come on, this is a classic…get it right. You can’t be doing all that. Dang.

    • Capsyze

      Call yourself “THE biggest Alien fan out there”… yet you can’t recall if the Alien transmission was in the theatrical version or not? FYI: It wasn’t.

      The exploration of “LV426” (the name given to the planet by James Cameron for his sequel) was due to a clause in the contract that states “any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated”. Failure to do so means “total forfeiture of shares”… No money… Brett and Parker wanted to “renegotiate” their contract because they were the “wrench monkies” who probably didn’t read their contracts (paid to do a job with no idea about the consequences).

      • Pinkytoe

        I stated both of these facts in my comment. Yes, I’m aware that the transmission was only included in the director’s cut. I eluded to this…perhaps too softly for you, or I phrased myself poorly. And I’m not sure where you got lost on the Parker/Brett bit (unless I again was too vague for you), but I’m well aware of this, and thought I’d said about the same thing as you in that respect.

        • Branden Myers

          you were perfectly clear.

  • sliceanddice

    More of this sort of thing on this sight please.

  • themanbehindthecurtain

    Why is the Space Jockey’s ship in the article constantly referred to as LV 426?

  • Drool Bear

    I wish all trailers were this good. Only show a sampling of the movie. Don’t give away the plot. Makes you actually want to see what else the movie has to offer. What happened to those people who made these trailers? The people today suck, they just don’t have that talent.

  • ragethorn

    Best horror trailer? Quite possibly.

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