Home > Analyses > “Alien” – The Human Manifesto (2007)

“Alien” – The Human Manifesto (2007)

I’m afraid that I might not get to a review of Alien as I had hoped, but, luckily, I can delve back into my box of treasures (i.e., the file on my computer labeled “School Files” containing everything from my freshman year of high school to my fifth and final year in college) and post this paper I wrote in 2007, my sophomore year (Aw, I was just 20 and a half years old!), about the film’s apparent feminist overtones, complete with MLA-styleworks cited! How about that?!

Wow... That's a bit of an overreaction, don't you think?

I apologize for not having a review, but I will eventually! After all, unlike ghost stories and slasher movies, it’s a film that’s not so specific to the Halloween season, and I have a few more of those to come before the last day of October comes! I hope this proves enlightening, however!

THE HUMAN MANIFESTO

CJ Stewart

ENG 215 – MW 1:40

Paper 1 – Final Draft

01 March 2007

A lot has been said and written about the feminist messages supposedly inherent in the Alien film series.  Admittedly, they practically invite such interpretations.  One of the most terrifying concepts created for the titular aliens are their parasitic means of reproduction, a feature just as deadly as their ferocious drive to kill.  And with a groundbreaking lead character in the tough and resourceful Ellen Ripley, played in all four main movies by decidedly rugged-looking Sigourney Weaver, the idea that the films present a feminist manifesto to its audience is well supported.  Even so, it’s troubling that, these days, so many people are still focusing their attention solely on the gender of the series’ heroine and how she overcomes the stereotypes of Hollywood cinema’s female characters.  Weak female heroes are still persistent, but in the name of gender equality, the feminist interpretation risks tilting the tables in yet another unfair direction—one where women reign over men.  Ripley, though a woman, possesses both “feminine” and “masculine” character traits; that combination is what makes Ripley the strong leader that she is.  The real battle in the Alien series is not between the two sexes.  The true threat to humanity, the one lurking in the shadows, is humanity’s own lust for dominance.

Ridley Scott’s Alien, released in 1979, is the subtlest and most subliminal of the eventual series it spawned.  However, the themes more obviously communicated in the sequels all rooted themselves here.  It is this first film that will be our focal point.  Alien begins slowly— it is only after a long pan across deep space and several shots of the quiet innards of the massive cargo ship Nostromo that we get our first glimpse of the ship’s crew, hibernating within their womb-like pods.  Inside they are like babies, and, as the pods open, they slowly and lazily awaken, as if being born.  They take their first breaths outside their pods in months.  They emerge together, one-by-one, from the same origin.  Though, unlike natural birth, the Nostromo’s computer, symbolically named “Mother,” controls these pods, keeping them alive during their hibernation.  It is an unnatural “birth,” nurtured by technology rather than a human being.  It is clean and easy, without screaming or blood (Mulhall 16).  This is a birth without passion.  The crew, mostly blue collar workers, awakens lazily and forcefully, like kids about to face the first day of school.  The computer “Mother” does not and cannot possess the hope and love a human mother has for her own newborn child.  This crew will also soon learn that their awakening was lacking any semblance of motherly love, as well.  They think they have finally come home.  They are far from it.

Mother seemingly received a distress signal, and their premature awakening was in the interest of investigating it.  Mother is unconcerned about the needs of the crew she carries.  She only cares for the signal.  Dallas, the graying captain of the ship, along with the second-in-command, Kane, and the only other female crewmember, Lambert, nervously and hesitantly set out onto the desolate planet to track down the source of the signal.  Ripley, now the acting commander of the ship, stays behind and finds herself in conflict with the other three crewmembers: the lazy and seemingly slow-minded Brett; the stereotypically loud black crewmate, Parker; and the monotonous, aloof science officer Ash.  These crewmembers don’t take Ripley’s command seriously.  Parker and Brett purposely aggravate Ripley by drowning out her voice with blowing steam from pipes, easily shutting them off when she leaves.  Meanwhile, outside on the planet’s surface, Lambert harasses her commanding officers with complaints and objections, like an impatient child being dragged along.  “I like griping,” she snaps back at an annoyed Kane (C. 32).  Both male and female crewmembers have proven themselves to be a nuisance to their superiors with their amplified gender traits.

Lambert eventually gets her wish, but not without justification for her fears.  Kane is attacked soon after he wanders away from the group.  A creature from an egg breaks through his helmet and attaches itself to his face.  Dallasand Lambert take him back to the Nostromo to get help.  Here is whereDallas begins to exhibit his own signs of weakness.  He and Lambert beg to be let back inside the ship, but Ripley refuses to allow the three crew members on board without going through the mandated twenty-four hour quarantine period.

Dallas: Something has attached itself to him.  We have to get him to the infirmary right away.

Ripley: What kind of thing?  I need a clear definition.

Dallas: An organism.  Open the hatch!

Ripley: Wait a minute.  If we let it in, the ship could be infected.  You know the quarantine procedure—twenty-four hours for decontamination.

Dallas: He could die in twenty-four hours.  Open the hatch!

Ripley: Listen to me.  If we break quarantine, we could all die.

Lambert: Could you open the goddamned hatch?  We have to get him inside.

Ripley: No!  I can’t do that and if you were in my position, you’d do the same.

Dallas: Ripley, this is an order.  Open that hatch right now, do you hear me?

Ripley: Yes.

Dallas: Ripley!  This is an order!  Do you hear me?

Ripley: Yes.  I read you.  The answer is negative.  (Alien)

Acting in defiance of Ripley’s orders and science department policy, the nearby Ash hurriedly opens the doors and allows the crewmen back on the ship.  Their pleas and Ash’s actions appear to be the more humane approach, but Dallas, Lambert, and even Ash have apparently let their emotional ties to Kane rule them.  Many consider such rashness a feminine personality trait, but the male Captain Dallas, whom audiences expect to be the main character, defies this notion and acts based on his emotions as well.  It is the female, Ripley, on the other hand, who rightfully commands action against their admittance.  Had they listened to and obeyed her orders, most of them could have likely remained alive by the end of the film (C. 36).

The alien facehugger that has attached itself to Kane proves to not only be a strangely compelling creature but also an interesting symbol.  Its body is a combination of feminine and masculine features.  Violently attaching itself onto Kane’s face, the androgynous creature has forced a chute down his throat and, for the time being, “nurtures” its comatose host.  The host’s survival is critical—were he to die, the alien embryo that has been covertly placed into his chest cavity would not be able to survive (Mulhall 20, C. 37).  The forcefulness and manner by which the facehugger has attached itself to Kane is an obvious allusion to rape.  The creature’s shape is like that of two hands engulfing its unwilling victim’s head, holding it against the facehugger’s underside, which appears to be a vaginal orifice giving way to the phallic chute (C. 37).  It’s a nightmarish amalgamation of female and male sex organs, and the creature’s strong will allows it to be so efficient in overcoming its host.

This unity of masculinity and femininity continues in what is arguably most memorable scene: the birth of the alien.  Kane, awakened and released from the facehugger,  seemingly fine, requests a meal before they continue their hibernation.  The crew agrees and they have one last meal together.  While eating, Kane seems to choke on his food, but then he starts to seize.  He convulses and flails about, flinging objects across the table.  The crew frantically tries to help him, laying him down on the table and forcing a spoon into his jaws to keep him from swallowing his tongue.  Suddenly, blood explodes from his chest as he continues to tremble.  Lambert screams in horror.  More blood explodes as the phallic alien chestburster forces itself out in a gory display.  Kane trembles as he breathes his last breath.  The little alien glances around at the horrified crew before scurrying off with a screech and the rapid pitter patter of its tiny feet.  It’s a disturbing end for the human male who gave birth.

During their hunt for the alien creature, the eventual death of Brett is followed by the unexpected death of Captain Dallas.  Viewers soon realize that this story is really about Ellen Ripley.  Unlike Lambert, Ripley justifies the presence of a woman working amongst the blue collar men.  It was her order to keep the scout team quarantined that may have saved most of the crew, and Dallas’ death requires what’s left of them to put their trust in her leadership.  Technology, however, proves to be an unexpected obstacle.

In desperate need of information, Ripley consults Mother within the round control room, another allusion to the womb.  However, Mother cannot offer any motherly advice.  “She” is merely a computer—programmed, and limited by that programming.  Mother reveals her cold “heart” when she exposes the true nature of their mission: bring the alien creature back to the earth, whatever the cost—and Ash is in on the plan.  Horrified at the revelation, Ripley is startled by Ash’s apparition.  In the confrontation, she tries to contact Parker and Lambert but gets no response, and Ash begins to sweat a semen-like substance from his forehead.  He throws Ripley to the side with inhuman strength.  He continues his assault, throwing her onto a bench surrounded by pictures of nude girls on the wall.  She moans in pain as he rolls up one of the several pornographic magazines and forcefully shoves it into her mouth to suffocate her.  Director Ridley Scott perversely jokes in the feature commentary, “I guess this is the closest you’ll get to seeing a robot have sex.”  Ash’s assault is interrupted by the collective efforts of Parker and Lambert.  They bash Ash’s head back, and his orgasmic reaction is like nothing we’ve seen before.  The white substance gushes from his mouth like a fountain and splatters all over the place.  Lights and tubes are exposed as Parker beats him.  Ash the science officer, who previously seemed to be concerned for Kane, and Mother, the computer designed to sustain the crew within the Nostromo, have conspired against the human crew all along.  They protect the alien at the expense of the crew at the command of the crew’s faceless employer, The Company.  A reactivated but immobilized Ash later coldly offers his meaningless sympathies to the remainder of the crew (C. 47-52).  The three remaining crewmembers now decide to set the Nostromo to self destruct with the alien still onboard.

The belief that Alien contains a feminist manifesto has been founded on several concepts: the obvious aspect of Ripley’s gender plus strength and eventual survival, or the alien’s emasculation of its victims through domination, penetration, and impregnation (Mulhall 20), or even Ash’s true nature—“The status of the android as being created, defined, controlled, and deprived of power (castrated) by the patriarchy marks the android as feminized” (C. 50).  These are all sound arguments, but they all seem too biased.  They ignore the fact that these humans, from the beginning of the film, are linked, symbolically shown as having a common origin, born in the same manner, and they face the same threatening monster, one that will not have pity to spare.

What holds these various facets of the alien’s monstrousness together is their relation to human fantasies and fears about human embodiment or animality: collectively, they give expression to an idea of ourselves as victimized by our own flesh and blood – as if it is essentially other than, alien to, what we are, as if our bodies not only made us vulnerable to suffering and death, but made our very humanness precarious. (Mulhall 21)

The message I saw in Alien was not that one sex must overcome the obstacles set up by the other, but that death comes to all who have caused this human bond to become corrupt or broken.

Kane’s straying from the team caused him to become the alien’s vessel.  Brett and Parker doomed themselves with their antagonizing of Ripley.  When Brett goes on his own to track down a cat, he, too, is attacked.  Dallas’ attempt to exterminate the alien on his own, a display of guilt-ridden courage, turns him into an easy target, as if death is the penance for his irresponsibility.  Parker meets his end trying to distract the alien from the cowering Lambert.  Lambert freezes in fear despite his distraction, and she is killed in a suggestively rape-like manner.  The secretive duo of Ash and Mother and the androgynous alien prove how powerful the unity of the feminine and masculine is, even among the inhuman.  Their end comes at the hand of the only human who balances these qualities.  As the only one to act selflessly and still remain logical, Ripley is the only human who makes it out of the self destructing Nostromo alive.

In the end, we are shown that she does not reject her feminine sexuality.  Instead she embraces it at the appropriate time.  Believing that she is finally alone, she prepares for her long sleep.  She calmly walks around, almost naked in a thin tank top and tiny underwear, as she prepares the ship for her journey.  She is now seemingly at her most vulnerable, and viewers, for the first time, are jarred by this unexpected reminder of her womanhood.  Feminists have found fault in this seemingly unnecessary exposé (C. 54-7), but is an important juxtaposition that actually permits strength to coexist with femininity.  Ripley’s reaction to the alien that has stowed aboard her shuttle shows how efficient she really is.  Her fear, a stereotypically feminine trait, has allowed her to respond appropriately, and her singing of the song “You Are My Lucky Star” actually allows her to keep her wits in check.  She covers her nakedness with a more functional space suit, allowing her to safely open the ship’s doors and expel the inhuman creature into the vacuous void.  Logic, a stereotypically masculine trait, has allowed her to think through her predicament and find a solution.  She uses a harpoon gun to release the alien from its grip on the door, and the door slams shut, causing the phallic, chained harpoon to now resemble an umbilical cord.  As the alien tries to crawl back into the ship through the hole-like engines, Ripley uses the thrusters to cut the cord and blast it into the void once and for all.  Here the masculine and feminine unite in one character, allowing her to defeat her foe unharmed.

Human beings have a natural tendency to act like the deceased crew of the Nostromo—we can let our emotions run wild and behave inappropriately, or we can let our logic bring us into certain unfair prejudices.  It is natural to want to preserve oneself and one’s ideals, but encouraging polarization is not what Alien set out to do, and my sources even acknowledge that:

In the final say, Ripley is not a radical feminist or even a political feminist, she is not a collectivist or a Marxist (She tells Parker to shut up with the rest), she does not burn her bra (though she does not wear one) or speak out about he abuses of the patriarchy.  What Ripley does, however, is question laziness, random decisions made from self-centered autocracy, corporate technocratic capitalism, sexism, subversion, covert operations, and warmongering.  She hates nonsense and likes cats. (C. 61)

Alien is a human story about common, working class people, male and female, facing a common foe together, only to, ultimately, fail because of their disharmonic relationship.

It is an illogical, utopian ideal to believe that humans can or will unite in such a way communicated in the films as my reading of them would suggest, however.  Humans are too selfish to allow themselves to evolve to such a state; but, given this message, Alien still proves how ironic the word “humane” can be.  Ripley makes it out alive, but at what cost?  She is without a crew, her only company being that of the ship’s cat, whom she managed to save.  What fate awaits her when she gets home?  The oppressive Company will likely not be happy with the outcome of the sabotaged mission.  For now, however, this sad existence of being alone and adrift in space is the only thing that gives Ripley the peace of mind to finally rest after all that has happened.  But her lonely rest will eventually prove to further alienate her from such ideals…

Works Cited

Alien.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, and Veronica Cartwright.  1979.  DVD.  20th Century Fox, 1999.

Aliens.  Dir. James Cameron.  Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and Carrie Henn.  1986.  DVD.  20th Century Fox, 1999.

C., Ximena Gallardo, and C. Jason Smith.  Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Mulhall, Stephen.  On Film. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Scott, Ridley.  Feature length commentary.  Alien.  Dir.Ridley Scott.  Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, and Veronica Cartwright.  1979.  DVD.  20th Century Fox, 1999.

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