In Bed, No One Can Hear You Scream

These days it’s sometimes hard to talk seriously about the ethics of sex. That’s where the Alien movies come in. Of course, with four directors, figuring out what they’ve got to say is another story.

::: Jonathan McDonald

“Within each seed, there is a promise of a flower, and within each death, no matter how small, there is always a new life. A new beginning.” —Dillon, Alien

In 1979, Ridley Scott filled theatres with the most terrifying science fiction film of all time: Alien. At the time, it was hailed as a superb thriller and a genre film light-years ahead of its time. What few realize is that Alien and its three sequels are bearers of serious moral criticisms and explorations in the realm of sexuality. As with any good horror flick, it’s really all about the dangers that come upon those who misuse sex.

Throughout the entire series, the stories revolve around a central character, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Once an officer on a cargo ship, she finds her life consumed by an alien species that has been awakened by her crew. The story of the Alien films is the story of Ripley and her search for meaning.

The first film opens with the crew of the cargo ship Nostromo waking from womb-like cryogenic pods, symbolic of new beginnings. Ripley awakes to a world of capitalism and machinery, lacking in warmth and love. As she progresses through the series, Ripley delves deep into popular philosophies of life and sexuality in an effort to find her place in the universe. The alien creatures symbolize the extremes of these philosophies, especially as they concern gender and sexual relations.

Unfortunately, each of the four films was created by a different director, so the series leaves us with a wide—and often contradictory—variety of ideas and meanings to ponder. Let’s trace these themes through each film.

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)—Feminism and the Return of Priapus

Sometime in the twenty-second century, humanity has taken to the stars in a fulfillment of the promise of unencumbered scientific progress. Unlike the relatively prudish Victorian era, men and women now room together, unencumbered by either shame or, apparently, a need for privacy. Every Nostromo crewmember awakens from cryogenic sleep largely unclothed. They soon realize that they have been awakened—by the computer system known only as “Mother”—to investigate what seems to be an alien signal. Shortly the crew finds itself at the wrong end of two sets of teeth.

The Nostromo crew is symbolic of a chief sexual movement of the twentieth century, second-wave feminism driven to its ultimate realization. Gender lines are blurred nearly out of distinction—the women look almost as masculine as the men—and the ship’s “Mother” computer acts in a highly un-motherly and un-nurturing manner by sacrificing her “children” to a creature that can make their company very rich. Rather than men and women coming to a midpoint between masculinity and femininity, the men have remained essentially as they were while the women became more like men.

The alien creatures symbolize the feminist stereotype of traditional sexuality, deformed and mutated after two centuries of repression—an ironic twist on feminist rhetoric of “repression.” The aliens embody masculine aggression with the ability and desire to reproduce, and they “impregnate” one of the crew members (a male action) through a form of rape. Ripley accepts the common wisdom of feminist assertiveness in order to destroy the alien.

While the humans are largely androgynous and infertile, the alien species takes pleasure in its reproductive capabilities and uses them to their fullest extent. The humans have long since separated sex from fertility, dividing essential parts of their nature. In the ancient world, male fertility was worshipped in the form of the god Priapus, and sexual pleasure was yet unsevered from the begetting of new generations. In this cold, dark future, humanity has so distanced itself from its natural powers that its repressed fertility has found an incarnation in something horrible and violent. Feminists assert that men have always been afraid of female sexuality, but now Ripley has reason to fear the great fecund sexual power of the male.

But while Ripley’s embrace of feminism gives her the ability to destroy the alien creature, in the end it leaves her as cold and heartless as the cargo ship she has destroyed. As she leaves an account of the incident in the ship’s logs, she does not even weep for those so violently murdered. She shows more compassion for her cat than for her former crewmates. Soon she finds herself longing for another way of making sense of the world—something, perhaps, more traditional.

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)—Gender Reintegration, the Untraditional Family, and Ancient Matriarchy

After her harrowing experience with extraterrestrial life forms, Ripley finally returns to Earth after fifty years of drifting in cryogenic sleep. She has begun to reject the coldness nurtured by feminism and she longs to take up her role as mother to the daughter she left behind. But her daughter has died in the intervening years, and her hopes for a traditional family life are shattered. She makes another attempt in this direction by trying maternally to protect the human colonists who have settled on the planet where the alien had been found, but her warnings simply make them curious and witless victims to the aliens.

She accompanies a team of Marines to the planet in the role of consultant, but with the intention of preserving and nurturing life—a motherly action. After most of the team is slaughtered by the aliens, Ripley gathers to herself a surrogate family consisting of Corporal Dwayne Hicks and Rebecca “Newt” Jordan, an orphaned girl. Initially Hicks fights to protect the others, but he is seriously wounded when Newt is abducted by the aliens. Ripley is thus forced to take up the weapons of her incapacitated “husband” to protect her family.

We discover that the perverted familial structure of the alien species is an insect-like hive of soldiers and drones ruled by a queen. It seems that the aliens themselves possess a new—or, as some would claim, old—structure of gender relations: matriarchy. This is the primeval form of human society as hypothesized by many feminist writers: a society of female rule that produced a world of peace and tranquility. But as Ripley beholds the malefic vision of the alien queen, the façade is lifted and she sees that pure matriarchy is just as destructive and dangerous as patriarchy is claimed to have been.

Feminism takes another blow as Ripley denies it in favor of traditional sexuality, destroying the alien queen and her eggs. Ripley, however, is still apparently uncertain of her place in the world of humanity, since she has twice taken on the traditionally masculine role of warrior and protector despite her attraction to traditionalism.

The next stage of her journey complicates these matters even more, as director David Fincher takes Ripley’s journey and tosses it into a blender.

Alien (1992, David Fincher)—Aggressive Patriarchy and Freedom of Choice

The third installment of Ripley’s story brings the theme of masculine aggression and patriarchy to the forefront. While in cryogenic sleep, Ripley’s surrogate family is murdered and she is “raped” and impregnated with an embryonic alien queen. The intrusion of the face-hugging alien creature causes her ship to malfunction and crash-land on a prison planet inhabited by violent YY-chromosome male inmates.

As another face-hugger creates a second alien, Ripley begins to realize that she must make a choice. She wishes to destroy both the alien outside and the embryonic queen inside her. Her dream of a traditional family life has been stolen from her by cruel fate and uninspired screenwriters. Now, with an otherworldly parasite growing inside of her, she gives in to despair and decides to—in a manner of speaking—terminate the pregnancy.

Many brands of feminism see every growing fetus as a potentially invasive parasite, depending on the intention of the mother. The alien creature that will eventually destroy Ripley’s life by its birth is the perfect parallel to the propaganda of abortion: if you have this baby your life will be over.

This film seems to claim that everything Ripley has fought and worked for was worthless; all her hopes for a better life, full of family and joy, have been thwarted. The previously critical view of feminism is replaced with a well-founded fear of patriarchy and male aggression. The unbalanced and violent males of the prison planet threaten Ripley’s safety, and in response she jettisons her desire for femininity and motherhood and instead takes on male characteristics (including a harsh attitude and a shaved head) to survive.

It is interesting that the alien seeks to kill the prisoners, these perversions of masculinity, but leaves Ripley alive long enough to give birth to the new queen. One of the leading causes of feminism has been to secure the right of abortion, a cause that Ripley now takes up in her despair of goodness and life itself.

In the end, Ripley destroys both herself and the alien creatures and has now rejected traditionalism and patriarchy. In despair, she reverts to her original state of modernist sexuality and exercises her “freedom of choice” against an oppressive male hierarchy. And so the story comes full circle and ends in fire and death.

Or so it seems . . .

Alien: Resurrection (1997, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)—Brave New World

The fourth (and largely unnecessary) installment of the series takes place two hundred years after Ripley’s death. Scientists have managed to create a clone from blood samples taken on the prison planet. This clone also manages to be genetically impregnated with an embryonic alien queen, much to the delight of the scientists. But there was a mixture between the two, giving the new Ripley many alien attributes, and giving the aliens some of hers.

Ripley’s clone (hereby dubbed Ripley II) becomes a mother when the queen alien is removed by a caesarean operation. Her “baby” soon spawns a host of alien grandchildren and she finds herself in the role of matriarch. When the alien queen gives birth via a human womb (which she received from Ripley’s genes), her alien/human child destroys its alien mother and turns instead to Ripley II for maternal support. In effect, she has become the new queen of the hive.

Does this film tie in with the first three in any logical way? Ripley is dead, having ended her life in despair, and her clone is harshly disconnected from the caring and seeking woman of the first three movies. Ripley II is half-alien, though human in appearance. But even with all these differences, we can see Resurrection as the denouement of the tragedy of Alien. In a way, Ripley has been sent back from the dead in punishment for her sins. What she sowed in life, she now reaps in half-life; her rejection of love and motherhood has caused her to become that which she most feared, an emotionally dead and hated matriarch. She destroys her new grandchild in order to protect an android whom she has taken under her wing (that is, adopted). Ripley II extends her care and protection to those she believes deserve it, with not a living patriarchal man in sight.

For three films Ripley struggled to destroy the alien menace, but now she has become the very thing she despised. Nietzsche’s famous epigram is here illustrated: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”

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So, let’s sum up the progression of Ripley’s character through her many psycho-sexual stages: First, she lives as a career woman, supposedly liberated by feminism but in reality cut off from her most intimate familial ties. Second, she attempts to repudiate this tradition in favor of a more ancient form of family. Third, all is taken away from her and she rebels again in favor of feminism. Finally, she regresses even further to the far-spectrum terminus of feminism into what can only be described as masculinized matriarchy.

The assortment of sexual philosophies accepted throughout the series is often confusing and certainly contradictory. There seems to be no one established answer among the four directors. Was Ripley right in her choices or do the films rule in her disfavor? Can or should we find a balance between the many extremes portrayed?

A more traditionalist view might claim that the reason for Ripley’s trouble is that no truly male characters step up to do their duty by fighting and sacrificially dying to protect the women around them. In Alien, the male captain allows the dangerous alien onto the ship against Ripley’s wishes, and a male android betrays the crew to torment. In Aliens, the largely male Marine force is ineffective, and they are once again betrayed, this time by a male corporate ladder-climber. Alien is populated with males pulled right out of Fight Club, nihilistic and uncaring about the victims of their violence. The males in Resurrection are once again stupid, greedy, and ineffective.

In many ways the males in these films mirror a contemporary society that offers the male little or nothing to live for. Young men consequently take out their aggression on women and society at large while older men succumb to greed and domination in the absence of any opportunity to be something more. Has feminism, which has fought against the marginalization of women, wrought this judgment upon itself by in its turn marginalizing men?

Sexuality has always meant more than merely “four legs in a bed,” as the saying goes. It goes to the root of our nature, the very core of our being. Life is created in the sexual union, life that allows humanity to survive for one more generation. Sometimes this life is despised and rejected; other times it is loved and nurtured. At best, the Alien films are a serious examination of the changing roles of gender and fertility; at worst, they deny the possibility of answers and resort to special effects gimmicks to gain an audience.

Whatever the final conclusion may be, it seems certain that no position of sexuality is without its dangers and critics. The ability to create life was never so perilous.

Jonathan McDonald lives in St. Louis, where he creates websites for people who don’t know how. His academic interests include film, literature, and astrophysics, and he has contributed to a number of online publications over the years. He thinks that Clash of the Titans deserves a modern-day remake.

Posted by: editor on Feb 23, 2004 | 12:01 am

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