To this day, Alien (1979) remains one of the most terrifying films that I have ever seen. In my opinion, its a film that modern horror directors could all learn a thing or two from. Most horror flicks these days attempt to scare with jumps and ridiculous amounts of gore. It seems as if the art of mastering tension is dying out. While Ridley Scott’s Alien was not without its jump scares nor was it devoid of blood and guts, it had depth, which is something that many modern horror films lack.
The film begins with the voyage of the M-Class star freighter, designated Nostromo, carrying its cargo back to Earth. The crew member’s awaken early to find that the ship’s computer, named Mother, has received a distress signal from a previously unexplored planet. The crew touches down on the planet’s surface to investigate, only to have one of their crew member’s stumble upon a nest of alien eggs. On of the eggs hatches and its inhabitant latches onto a crew member, Kane’s, face. We discover that this alien creature is actually keeping Kane alive and also that any attempts to remove it would result in his death. The creature eventually dies and detaches itself from his face. Kane is seemingly fine and has no memory of his ordeal. That is, until he dies violently giving birth to an alien monster. This monster systematically begins hunting down the remaining crew, who find their repeated attempts to kill the creature futile. Eventually, only one crew member, Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), is left to face the creature.
So now lets talk a bit about Sigmund Freud. He was the father of psychoanalysis and, well, a bit of a geek…
Despite Freud’s apparent lack of prowess when it came to interacting with the opposite sex, he sure did think about sex quite a lot. He is famous for his theory of Psychosexual Development which asserts that each stage of development in childhood is centered around a specific erogenous zone. Freud came to view dream interpretation as a way of understanding a person’s subconscious. He postulated, that the imagery in dreams was meant to represent unfulfilled subconscious desires. To Freud, the majority of this imagery was sexual in nature. When one who is familiar with Freud watches Alien, one will notice that there is a lot of sexual imagery in the film. The erotic mise-en-scéne of the film is largely based on the artwork of swiss painter H.R. Giger. His designs are simultaneously both organic and mechanical and they tend to contain phallic and yonic (from the Sanskrit word “yoni”, translating as “vagina” or “womb”) shapes. Some of his images are clearly more blatant in their eroticism that others. Here are some examples of his work:
Before Alien had even been conceived, Dan O’Bannon, one of the screenwriters, had met Giger while working on an adaption of the science fiction novel Dune. When Ridley Scott was eventually attached to direct, Giger was brought on to provide concept art for the film. Giger designed the derelict ship, where the alien eggs were initially found, as well as all the variations of the alien creature: the spider-like Face-hugger, the serpentine Chest-buster, and the now-iconic adult creature. When one looks at the design of the film, one can clearly see Giger’s technique:
The alien creature itself is a collage of phallic shapes and it has Giger’s signature bio-mechanical aesthetic; the inner mouth of the adult alien moves in an erectile manner, the protrusions on the adults back are phallic in shape as is its’ cranium. The infant Chest-burster alien itself is a moving, living phallus. To this day, the alien Chest-burster scene is one of the most iconic death scenes in any horror film.
The Adult alien:
The design derelict spacecraft, where Kane finds the alien eggs, should also be examined. While the alien creature itself is more phallic and masculine, the ship for the most part is more feminine. For starters, the ship itself is shaped like a womb and the entrances leading inside the ship. The ship’s interior consists of a series of tunnels and tubes. And then we have the egg chamber. The eggs are covered by a thin veil that reacts when broken, a representation of the hymen.
The ship is also not without phallic symbols. The combination of phallic and yonic symbols is indicative of one common theme in Alien: birth. You need both male and female to breed and in the film, the combination of the two results in the birth of the alien. Firstly, we have the Space Jockey corpse which is seated in a giant phallus. Upon examination, the crew finds that something had erupted from the Jockey’s chest, which would happen to gain later in the film. This phallus in combination with the feminine architecture of the ship is the first illustration of alien birth in the film. Likewise, in the egg chamber, when Kane breaks the veil. Kane himself is the phallus entering the female anatomy. He is a metaphor of sperm fertilizing egg. The only twist is that Kane, a man, gets pregnant. The themes of parenthood and childbirth are ones continued throughout the entire film. In the beginning, we have all the crew members awaken from sleep in cryo-tubes which is indicative of birth. The fact that the crew members refer to the ships computer as Mother enhances this metaphor. Ash also refers to the alien creature as “Kane’s son”. This theme of motherhood could be reference to another of Freud’s theories: the Oedipus Complex. This theory was named after the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, in which the hero ends up murdering his father and marrying his mother. Freud postulated that a child in his or her developmental stages may have attraction to a parent of the opposite sex as well as an antagonistic relationship with a parent of the same sex. This would eventually be resolved with a child coming to identify with the same sex parent. In Alien, we see the Oedipus Complex illustrated. Firstly, we have Kane and his “son”. Because of all the phallic imagery in the alien Chest-burster and adult, its safe to say that the gender of that alien is male and it clearly as an antagonistic relationship with Kane; the male son, murders his father. We then have the relationship with Ripley and Mother. Ripley is frustrated in her dealings with Mother throughout at the film, particularly after it is revealed that mother has declared the entire crew expendable as part of the effort to capture the alien. Ash, a male, has a much more positive relationship with Mother. When Mother issues the order to capture the alien, he is the one who who carries it out. The later revelation that Ash is an android, in my opinion, makes him a symbolic son of Mother.
The theme of parenthood and childbirth is one recurring throughout the entire franchise. In the sequel, Aliens, we are introduced to the character of Newt, who considers Ripley as a maternal figure. We are also introduced to the Queen Alien, who has an Oedipal relationship with her male children. The Queen’s children relentlessly hunt and kill the predominately male marines in an effort to protect their female mother. We see this again in Alien 3 when Ripley is impregnated with a female Queen Alien. We have the mother-daughter relationship between Ripley and the Queen that parallels the relationship between Kane and his son. The Runner Alien in the film stalks the male characters in order to protect Ripley and his mother. Then in Alien: Resurrection, we are introduced to the Newborn – a hybrid of alien and human DNA. This male alien considers Ripley to be his mother and hunts down the male characters and the androgynous character Call, in order to protect Ripley. Ultimately, the series is concluded with an act of infanticide. Ripley is faced with the Newborn, her child and the last remaining alien, and kills him.
Ripley vs. the Queen in Aliens:
The Alien films are all essentially about rape. The alien creature does not simply kill its victims: it stalks them and preys on their vulnerability. Eventually it overpowers them and takes them for the purpose of breeding. We see this first in Kane’s character who is attacked by the spidery Face-hugger. The Face-hugger forces a tube down Kane’s throat which lays its’ seed inside of Kane. Dan O’Bannon has said that these themes of homosexuality, rape, and death during childbirth were specifically meant to target and terrify a heterosexual male audience as these are fears that they would be unfamiliar with. Rape imagery is seen throughout the film, particularly with Ripley. Throughout the film, she is seen running through dark corridors, being chased by an unknown male aggressor. The mise-en-scéne and circumstances of these scenes give them a subtle sexual tension. The manner in which the alien kills Lambert, another female character, can be seen as sexual; the alien approaches and kills after forcing its’ phallic tail between her legs. In a deleted scene of the first film, we see what the alien does with its’ victims. At this point, Ripley is the lone survivor. As she is making her escape, she stumbles upon the cocooned bodies of Brett and Captain Dallas – the alien had taken them in order to begin the process of turning them into eggs. Even though this particular scene was cut from the film, we see the aliens behaving similarly in the sequels. In Aliens and Alien:Resurrection, the alien drones take humans to their nest where the Queen Alien has laid eggs containing Face-huggers. The drones cocoon the humans and wait until the Face-huggers can impregnate them. So the entire life cycle of the aliens is based on rape and sexual exploitation.
Apart from analyzing the overall design of the films, can gain some insight into the character of Lt. Ellen Ripley through a Freudian perspective. Sigmund Freud has received much justified criticism from feminists as he was certainly a man of his time. He opposed the emancipation of women and viewed women in a very patriarchal manner, seeing them as being driven solely by their resourcefulness as maternal figures. As part of his Psychosexual Development theory, Freud suggested that during the Phallic Stage of development, young girls experience what he called “penis envy”. This part of his theory directly tied in with the Oedipus Complex. He suggested that a young girl’s development was exactly the same as a young boy’s up until the Phallic Stage. At that point, a young girl would realize that she did not have a penis and would consequently place blame on her mother. At this point, a young girl would develop affection for her father in an attempt to make herself more masculine. So could Ripley in the Alien franchise be experiencing penis envy? Looking at the first film, one could argue that this is the case. At the end of the film, Ripley is alone facing the alien. In attempt to fight it, she uses a phallus: her flamethrower. In alignment with a Freudian perspective of the film, one of Ripley’s primary motivations in the franchise is sexual maternal instinct. In the first film we see this with Jonesy, the cat. In the second and third films, we see this with the character of Newt. In the fourth film, we see this with the Newborn. However, in my opinion, the character of Ellen Ripley is a deviation from the Freudian perspective. In opposition to the stereotypical strong female characters, Ripley is not entirely masculinized. Ripley throughout the entire the franchise is typically portrayed in a feminine manner. For example, in the first film following her escape from the Nostromo, she sets down her Phallic Flamethrower to undress. Normally, with a typically female action hero, it would be rare to see her in such a revealing state. This is one way of many in which Alien differs from other films in the science fiction and horror genres. Other the films in those genres tend to portray women in stereotypical manners. Many films either masculinize female characters or portray them in more timid and stereotypically feminine ways. For example, one recurring character in many horror films is the virginal woman. In horror films, the more promiscuous female characters are usually the ones to die first while the young virgin is the only character able to outsmart the antagonist. Ripley does not fall into either of these tropes. While she is a fighter, she is still a maternal figure. Her sexuality is not supressed like it is with many female action heroes, it is something that is made obvious. In fact, in the third film her gender becomes a major plot point when she becomes stranded on a planet inhabited by male convicts, none of whom have seen seen a women in years. She is also not a virginal character either, but she is not punished for that. There are hints at a sexual relationship between her and Captain Dallas in the first film (one cut scene was a actually a sex scene between the two) and we see her in a sexual relationship with Dr. Clemens in Alien 3. We also learn in Aliens that she had a biological daughter. However, she does not bear the mark of death that is typically attached with promiscuity in horror films. Though she does eventually die in Alien 3 (and is subsequently resurrected in the next film, hence the title Alien: Resurrection), she does so on her own terms. She is not killed but rather, her death is an act of self-sacrifice in attempt to kill the Queen Alien. Ripley is a truly independent character, though not necessarily by her own choice. She is independent because she is repeatedly made a lone survivor but she does not fall into manly stoicism that is sometimes associated with independence. She is character that frequently seeks relationships, only to have them taken away from her. So while the Alien franchise does contain many Freudian symbols, the character of Ellen Ripley is not one of them. Instead of being portrayed as either invincibly strong or cripplingly vulnerable, she equally. This, in my opinion, is how an ideal protagonist, male or female, should be portrayed: as neither overly masculine or feminine, but simply as human.
Sources & articles for further reading listed in no particular order: