The other night my friend Mike and I were searching for something to watch and settled on Alien. I’ve seen this movie probably seven or eight times. Mike and I had even watched it together one rainy night several years ago. (A memorable experience that ended with my car stuck in mud on the side of a mountain and Mike and I having to tie it to his truck to dislodge it.) But I thoroughly enjoyed watching it again, because it’s a movie that rewards multiple viewings; Every time I watch it I notice something different. Alien is a deep and layered visual text with multiple levels of meaning.
The Episcopal priest and horror writer Henry S. Whitehead was reportedly fond of pulling out a deck of cards at church picnics and ripping it in two to the shocked wonder of his congregation. Alien was intended as a public spectacle along the same lines. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the film, the moment when the creature bursts forth from John Hurt’s chest never loses its shock value. We can’t help but wonder how we would feel if we were there, or God forbid, if the creature burst out of our chest. I always watch it slightly terrified that the serpent baby will shoot out of the screen onto my lap.
I think the greatest skill Ridley Scott and his team put into Alien was in making it an immersive experience. How amazing are those effects to still hold up, gross us out, and make us squirm in the year 2015? CGI still hasn’t caught up to what Giger achieved with the creature and what the effects crew achieved with Ian Holm’s android, Ash. Every set and every scene is carefully set up and wonderfully detailed and crafted. This is essential to the success of the film, because a film like that collapses the moment the audience ceases to take it seriously. But Alien is a deeply serious and meditative film. It speaks to the emotion in us that looks up into the vast reaches of space and wonders whether something malevolent rather than benign might be waiting for us.
My dog starts whimpering whenever there is a storm outside. I have no fear whatsoever of the storm, because I understand what it is and I know that it can’t hurt me. But my dog has no such knowledge. For him, the storm is an awe-inspiring, mysterious force that could well threaten his safety and existence, no matter how many reassurances he gets from his human owners. When we watch Alien we regard the creature in the way my dog regards the storm. We don’t understand it. We don’t understand why it’s there or where it came from. But we know it is a threat to our survival and existence because we see what it does to the human protagonists in this film. (And BTW, if you think the subject matter of Alien is silly and unrealistic, remember that Europeans in the year 1000 would have laughed at a story about the earth being round and a group of humans riding a ship to the moon.)
Emma Bell wrote a thought-provoking analysis of the central existential horror in Alien:
To be superseded by a bluntly existing creature, not a ‘perfected’ human, runs counter to what might be thought of as human ‘evolution’. It may be horrific to think of oneself – a human – not as a grand being to be transcended by something even ‘greater’, some Nietzschean Übermensch, but as a comestible adaptation of the circumstances of life. This – not the horrible behaviour of the aliens – is the power of the sci-fi classic Alien.
The outlook of Alien is atheistic. It runs counter, not just to the conception of a Judeo-Christian creator, but to the Enlightenment conception of human progress. And, as Bell observes, it suggests that evolution beyond our planet might not work in a way that is hospitable or beneficial to humans. The film is a reflection of art that is created in the absence of religious belief. C.S. Lewis countered Nietzsche by suggesting that Christ is the real Ubermensch. Without that, or in the absence of a general belief in a Creator who reconciles creation, you are forced to reckon with the themes portrayed in Alien. The creature in the film has no discernible ability or aptitude for love, friendship, or art. It exists merely to consume. The human crew of the Nostromo are on a quest for resources and money. The creature they discover serves as a chilling example of a highly evolved being who lives for consumption alone and disregards all other considerations. If you wonder what humanity could evolve into after abandoning all conceptions of morality and love, look at the creature in Alien.
The story is that Ridley Scott wanted the film to end with the creature killing Ripley, but the studio wouldn’t allow that. In this case, I think the studio was correct. A film like Alien requires the narrative satisfaction of seeing the creature vanquished, if only temporarily. After all, what is the purpose to life if all human progress and spirit can be consumed by a monstrously evolved, morally indifferent creature? Alien forces us to confront our worst fears about what lies outside of our known universe. But the triumph of Ripley and her cat are symbolic of the triumph of spirit and warmth in creation. Sure, everyone else is dead. But it’s the fight that means something. The human spirit and will must rage and struggle against darkness and all that the creature symbolizes. That struggle is what makes Ripley human, and what gives her the high ground against the creature. Alien suggests that monsters beyond our planet exist. It also suggests that they can be beaten.