Saturday, December 5, 2009

Alien - Bizarre Nightmare of Abhorrent Metaphors

Ridley Scott's masterful sci-fi horror flick [Alien, 1979] succeeds quite nicely as a shock & awe narrative, but it's so much more: An absorbing, symbolic-visual exploration of the birth/death parasitic/symbiotic metaphors that leaves one breathless with alternatives. Camille Paglia once described sexual reproduction in the natural world in terms of plagues and hoards and swarms--which is not how we often think of it in a human context. But aggressive self-preservation and mindless consumption are everywhere we look in the natural kingdom, and there's nothing quite so terrifying as looking with unsentimental eyes at how sex and dominance and the hierarchies of selection are expressed at their most basic, concrete levels.

The highly sophisticated design of this production is in no small part due to the work of H.R. Giger, a Swiss surrealist painter and set designer specializing in weird sci-fi monster images ordinarily associated with genre illustration. Giger, who was brought on board to provide all the basic "monster" visuals, which formed the basis for all the alien and much of the high-tech constructs in the film, inspired the raw sexual templates which drive the narrative's momentum. The producers knew from the beginning that the focus of the story would be not on the actors, but on the meanings and implications of the social and technological ideas revealed in the plot, and appropriately stipulated that all the parts cast would be interchangeable, i.e., "unisex"--with the central characterization leading to a woman (Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the Warrant Officer). 

The futuristic vision presented is a drab, grey, routine, disorienting mining company's return trip aboard an enormous mining transport ship back to earth. Unlike the pristine, flashy, streamlined world of typical science fiction movies, this world is every bit as gritty and drab as a 19th Century coal mining operation, and the social relationships and conflicts are as familiar as they would be in any business operation. 

The first scenes show an eerie room full of covered sleep pods in which the crew are spending their long inter-galactic journey in a state of suspended animation. They are automatically "awakened" by the ship's computerized guidance system (referred to as "Mother" by the crew members--crucially named "Nostromo"--after Conrad's nautical novel) as a result of an apparent "SOS" transmission picked up from a stray "planetoid". Riding inside the belly of the corporate "Mother"-ship, these employees are sustained by the company, and dependent upon it for their lives (as well as their livelihood). 

The crew of seven are thus interrupted in their journey to investigate the source of the signal. What they discover in this very hostile outland is a derelict space-ship with what appears to be the long-dead remnants of a crew, along with some very weird large eggs on the dark floor of the ship's lower chamber. The interior structure of the ship, in addition to the peculiarly proto-human-like creature "melted" onto the "gunner's" position behind a huge cannon, all have suggestively phallic "erectile" ribs and/or conversely uterine walls. The effect is of an exaggeratedly sexual component, of male dominance gone extreme, or sexual energy taken to a bizarre edge. Upon examining one of the quivering eggs (which suggest carnivorous plant structures!), crew-member Kane bends curiously, perilously close, as one "fetal" form shoots out of the top of an egg straight through his helmet guard, attaching itself to his face! Attempts by the crew--upon bringing the victim onboard over the objections of Ripley whose imprecations to observe the "quarantine" procedures--to remove the thing from Kane's face prove futile (the creature, which holds him in its grip, is "keeping him alive" by artificially respirating him) because its "blood" fluid is composed of corrosive acid! This event suggests a sort of "impregnation" or parasitic "injection" of an "egg" or "seed" inside Kane's body, even of a kind of a-sexual "rape"--perpetrated through the oral cavity (oral penetration?). The creature itself is like a sort of reptile-octopus, with multiple jointed legs, with an underside mouth--with a long tentacular tongue (stinger? ovipositor tube?)--with a pouch-like internal body. As the "host" for the alien's seed (Kane thus "carries" the alien spawn within himself--another sexual reversal) we suspect that whatever transformation may occur within Kane's body will be harmful. Seemingly recovered, as he's sitting at the dinner table with the crew consuming a meal ("last supper") preparatory to going back into the sleep pods for the remainder of the journey, Kane becomes violently sick. As he's thrown onto the table on his back, the alien bursts from his stomach cavity, eating-tearing its way out in a bloody explosive raging Caesarean "birth," killing the mother-host. It "cries" out like a bawling infant, and scurries away to hide.

The ensuing struggle against the alien "inside" the Mother ship, occupies the balance of the action of the movie, complicated by one key sub-plot. It turns out that Ash, the ship's Science Officer, is really an android, whom "the Company" has put on board to engineer the capture and return of the alien. Its motives for wanting to do so remain murky, but it seems to suggest that it wants to harness the alien's power for some nefarious purpose. In the far-distant future, apparently, corporate greed and design is no more public-spirited than it is in our time!

Ripley, who is almost killed by Ash in his attempt to prevent her from scuttling the Mother ship in order to escape from the deadly alien's predation, manages to chop the android's head off, but not before he reveals to her his secret mission as the embedded "mole" of the crew. Before Parker incinerates him, Ash predicts that the other crew members will not survive. Realizing the danger of allowing the alien (like a virus or sinister super-life-form competitor) to be returned to earth, the remaining three crew members plan to arm the Nostromo's self-destruct mechanism and escape in the shuttle, but Parker and Lambert are killed by the Alien while gathering the necessary supplies. Ripley initiates the self-destruct sequence and heads for the shuttle with Jones, the ship's lone pet (a cat), but finds the Alien blocking her way. She unsuccessfully attempts to abort the self-destruct (swearing expletives at "Mother"), then returns to find the alien seemingly gone and narrowly escapes in the shuttle as the Nostromo explodes. Thinking herself at last safe, Ripley disrobes, only to discover--to her horror--that the alien has snuck aboard and is sleeping in a corner of the confined space of the shuttle. She puts on a pressurized space suit and opens the hatch, causing explosive decompression which forces the Alien to the open doorway. She shoots it with a grappling gun, which propels it out, but the gun is caught in the closing door, tethering the Alien to the shuttle. It attempts to crawl into one of the engines, but Ripley activates them and blasts the Alien into space. The film ends with Ripley and Jones entering stasis for the return trip to Earth. 

The design of the alien's body is based on the adaptive power of the beast to take on characteristics of its host-victim. An alien life form based on a different chemical paradigm and that carbon-hydrogen-oxygen protein model, it nevertheless gains by mating its own inherently more powerful survival components with a human structure and brain, becoming a frighteningly efficient killer. The transformational power of the alien suggests the adaptive power of viral agents to mutate into more elaborately elusive entities by "stealing" DNA. But viruses (like the alien itself) aren't truly "life"-forms as we would define them; except in the sense that, not being immortal, they need to reproduce themselves in order to survive. Can a thing which is not "alive" "survive" by exploiting true life forms for its reproduction? Not all parasitic agents cause the demise of their hosts, though there is nothing necessarily "friendly" about anything which can only live through the existence of another. Which is partly the point of all mindless exploitative agencies. If a purely destructive mechanism--such as an efficient soldier, or soldier-ant, or rigidly militaristic-fascist society--runs out of "enemies" or "hosts" then it, too, faces extinction.                                              

The design of the alien creature itself is a fascinating variation on the robot concept. The head of the alien suggests a phallus, but its vicious teeth--and, most interestingly, its compound mouth inside, like a tongue mutated into an "internal" set of jaws--suggest all kinds of metaphors, such as the phallus as sword, phallus as devourer, or collaterally, a vagina-dentata, or a phallus which devours (as in the female spider which eats its mate, or male fathers which kill or eat their young). In the movie, the alien is portrayed as a killing machine, without remorse, without ulterior motive, a kind of clone upon the human (or any available) form, adapting to its hosts in order to mutate over and over into successively more sophisticated forms of animate exploitation. 

The "company's" desire seems the most dominant motive trope in the story. Its human "workers" (as in an ant or termite or bee colony) seem only to exist for the good of the organization, a variation on the corporate paradigm of late 20th Century capitalism. The alien thus becomes a potential managerial super-race (or super class) of hybrid, mechanical managers whose only ultimate function is the perfection of the expanding power of the organization.                

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