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by Robert M. Young

 We sense from the very beginning that the alien is inside Warrant Officer Ripley, the androgynous heroine, played for the third time by Sigourney Weaver. We get glimpses of it during the credits. Anyone who has seen either of the earlier films in this series - Ridley Scott’s classic ‘Alien’ (1979) or Richard Donner’s ‘Aliens’ (1986) - will be sure; others will suspect when they see the creature on her face as she sleeps, cocooned in the space shuttle. Even so, for much of the film we join with her in searching for it - suspecting that it somehow got into the shuttle and killed her companions - and in her growing conviction that it is the cause of the unexplained deaths in the bleak, all-male penal colony on the planet where they land - Fiorina 161, ‘the rat’s ass end of space’. She is cast in the Cassandra role with the uphill task of getting people to believe her. This is eventually dealt with in short order: as the head jailer is reassuring the inmates that her story is ludicrously fantastic, the creature reaches down an air shaft and jerks him away in an instant.

Her self-knowledge comes in stages. First she has a suspicion from an acid burn on the capsule. (The aliens’ bodily juices can dissolve anything. They are universal solvents of everything but the creatures themselves.) Then she searches in the corpse of Newt, the young girl she thought she had rescued. Doing an autopsy on a lovedone distresses her greatly: ‘Open the chest’. We get another hint when a drop of blood trickles out of Ripley’s nose. She gets scientific confirmation that the alien is on the planet from the circuits of the android who was on the shuttle, whose shattered carcass she retrieves from the scrap heap and temporarily revives to help her de-brief the flight recorder. Then the alien wreaks havoc in the infirmary, killing the two people who know - the flawed doctor, Charles Dance, who turns out to have been an inmate and who is the only other character who is developed in the story, and a prisoner who saw his friend devoured. From the beginning it is Ripley who is menaced - by the potentially rapacious inmates and by the alien. Yet she, the object of these creatures’ violent intentions, is also the only potent person in the film.

In the longest shot we ever see of the alien, it comes right up to her, within inches of her face - a leering vagina dentata, oozing slime. It opens its mouth, and out pops the familiar, instantly erectile penis-with-teeth which we first met in ‘Alien’, when it burst forth from John Hurt’s chest, glanced this way and that and shot off. It is truly polymorphous. In addition to its manifestations as devouring versions of the female and male sex organs, or both at once - a phallic mother - as in this scene, we see it in the form of a huge face dominated by bared fangs and dripping slime, a scurrying reptile with a razor-sharp tail, a multi-fingered creature which gets a grip on the victim’s face and forces a long protuberance down his or her throat: oral rape. It is the embodiment of oral-sadistic and cannibalistic destructive impulses, the most primitive manifestation of oral aggression. All it does is invade, inhabit, hide and kill. It stands for the quintessence of destructiveness: plague, AIDS, biological genocide. It leaves its old skins lying about, and we are reminded that Satan appeared as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. An adjective is needed to go with Thanatos, the unalloyed death force. ‘Thanatic’ seems appropriate.

But there is worse to come. When we are first in the presence of the menacing creatures at the beginning of ‘Alein’ and again at the end of ‘Aliens’, it is apparent that many eggs are gestating in a special, protected environment, and in the latter setting there is a queen, which Ripley destroys. (Americans will associate her name with a famous comic strip about the outrageous: ‘Believe it or Not’ by Ripley.) After the creature sidles up to her in ‘Alien3’ and lingers, as if to say, ‘I’ve got your number. I can do whatever I like with you. I’ll be back’, she gets herself body-scanned. As she suspected, there is one inside her - a queen, capable of infinite proliferation. Now she knows why she was spared in the shuttle and in the infirmary. She is the vessel of the creature’s plans for domination, the one who has been chosen for its immaculate conception of pure evil (echoes of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, where Mia Farrow gestates Satan’s child before acquiring a dozen of her own - for what purpose?). From then on she seeks to entrap and destroy the one which is loose in the penal colony and is determined that she, too, must be destroyed, a sacrifice for humankind. The enemy within woman is even more dangerous that the one on the loose in the external world. More specifically, what goes on in the inner world of powerful women is the gestation of unspeakable horrors that will destroy men.

We have here a post-feminist heroine of steely determination, lovely, smart, strong (she smashes up would-be rapists), eschewing voluptuousness. She knows her own powers and needs and is direct: when she wants to sleep with Charles Dance, she simply proposes it. She is not exactly pure, but she is a purposeful opponent of evil, and it is all around and within her in many forms and at many levels. The set has been described as ‘a mixture of Hieronymous Bosch and Benthamite prison’ This is apt; the colour tone is uncannily like that of the right hand panel of Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ - Hell - while the manifestations of the creature would be at home among the diabolically re-combined part-objects depicted there. The prisoners are all of the worst sort - multiple murderers, rapists, child molesters. They are filthy, live in a subterranean world and spend an inordinate amount of time running around in brown tunnels and passageways, attempting to find and then entrap the creature. I was reminded of Hannibal Lector’s dungeon in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and the filthy house and the dirty hole where the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, tormented his victims before flaying them. Ripley even says at one point, referring to the tunnels of the mine, a derelect maximum-security work-correctional facility, in whose underground intestinal world the evil creature lurks and picks off its victims, ‘It’s a metaphor’. (Postmodernists can parachute such things into scripts these days.)

In an interview Weaver described the cast and crew at the end of filming as ‘all exhausted and filthy and covered with blood and goo and slime’. In addition to the filth and bowels, violence, prurience and crudity are everywhere. More than in any other movie I’ve seen, the film is replete with ‘fuck’, ’fuckers’, ‘fuck you’, ‘fucking’ this and that. One critic described the script as ‘lashed with nihilism’. The inmates are the damned, moving around in the guts of the planet, rather like turds. Everyone’s head, including Ripley’s, is shaved because of infestation with lice. The prisoners are hard to individuate; there are bar-codes tattooed on the backs of their skulls. She initially disguises her fears by saying that she suspects cholera. (One of the film’s writers, Vincent Ward, also wrote ‘The Navigator’, where the characters carried the Black Death.) Victims explode into smithereens; only bits of giblets are found. Ripley smashes a pipe and thousands of ghastly creepie-crawlies pour out. Fragmentation and verminousness are everywhere.

The anatomy of the prison/mine is a representation of the claustrum - the characters are trapped inside an anal universe, a desperate life of projective identification, where nothing is intact and where forbidden impulses are split off and projected into others or into fragmented parts of one’s own mind. This is terrorised and penetrated by the alien, which is a horrific representation of the power to de-differentiate adult perineal structures and functions to a sort of cloaca - a primitive orifice where, due to descent into polymorphous perversity, one cannot distinguish vagina from anus or from penis or semen from vaginal juices or mucus or slime or muck.

Lest it be thought I am overinterpreting, here is a passage from an article in The Guardian about the series (by Toby Young, 20 August 1992, p. 20). The gynaecological imagery is ‘largely due to the involvement of H. R. Giger, the Swiss artist responsible for much of the film’s design... Giger brought his obsession with female genitalia to every aspect of the film’s design, at one point causing the crew to fall about with laughter because the design he’d just unveiled was "lovingly endowed with an inner and outer vulva".

‘Apart from the creature itself, Giger was responsible for the abandoned spaceship on LV-426 [in ‘Alien’] with its vaginal entrance-ways as well as its moist, organic interior, including the silo which houses the eggs. This is the environment in which we first meet the alien: its cylindrical shafts and ribbed, membrane-like walls are repulsively suggestive of a pathologist’s eye-view of female anatomy.

‘There can be little doubt that Giger’s weird ability to graphically represent such primal horrors was why he was chosen for the project... This evokes men’s fears of the dark continent of women’s sexuality which, like the alien, seems to spring from nowhere and threatens to smother them.’ This atmosphere of being in forbidden places permeates all three films. We are taken to spaces - and suspensefully held there - which are unsafe, unclean, fascinating and, above all, primitive and undifferentiated. (They recall the dank world of Gollum in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings,)

Evil is also present in the wider context. The Company which owns the planet and the space ships and employs the crews doesn’t give a damn about the people. The computer on the big transporter, called ‘Mother’, was most explicit: ‘Insure return of organism... crew expendable’. The capitalists wanted the creature for their biological warfare programme, and at the end of the third film there is a race against time to kill the aliens before the company’s forces arrive to take them back to earth. One of the jailers - tauntingly called ‘Eighty-five’ by the inmates, because that’s his IQ - betrays the repentant ones, who had joined forces with Ripley to purge the evil. The company scientists arrive when one alien has been trapped (at the sacrifice of the life of the St. Peter figure, a black religious leader), had molten lead poured over it, from which it escapes, only to be exploded by being sprayed with cold water. But Ripley and the queen in her are not yet sacrificed. A company scientist, the creator of her android friend, tries to coax her with lies and promises.

The confrontation is between capitalism, science and pure thanatic evil, on the one hand, and the heroine and a strange band of the damned, on the other. The inmates were disgusting men who had done horrible things, but they had somehow become born again and taken up religion. Some had also taken a vow of celibacy which, as one said, ‘includes women’. When the company had decided to close the mine, they chose to stay and continue to serve time. They were somehow spiritually strong as a result of their renunciation of sex and worldliness. They were penitents, and this confrontation with an evil life force was their chance to make reparation.

The denouement was pure messianic dying for the sins of others, replete with a chorus of Barabbases. While the survivors on this Devil’s island were debating whether or not to join Ripley in fighting evil, there was a tableau with her as the central figure and two others, one on each side, reminiscent of Calgary. And as the company representatives were about to capture her, a weak sinner found his mettle and took her out of their reach so that she could spread her arms in a posture of crucifixion and fall backwards into the apocalyptic flames and molten metal, saving humankind.

The power of the Alien films, like that of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, lies in the combination of a descent into the depths of violent human depravity, in the lower regions of the bottom, where putrefaction and all fluids can mix, followed by the purest redemption. I think the impact of being inside the nether regions of the unconscious representation of the bowels and genitals for most of the film is far greater than that of the moment of redemption. The reviewer in City Limits called the final scene ‘one of the great moments in movie history’. I thought it was a fig- leaf pasted over the camera’s long indulgence of pregenital paranoid-schizoid attacks on the bodies of both parents, treated as a perverse combined object. The real pleasure lies in indulging forbidden phantasies - simultaneous genital and anal masturbation.

‘Shoah’, often called the most ambitious and important film ever made, which consists of nine hours of lingering moral ruminations of the Holocaust, was shown on television the weekend ‘Alien3’ opened. We learned that same week that in Somalia a quarter of children under five had perished from starvation, while the atrocities in the Balkans and Iraq are daily media fare: machine-gunning orphan children; mortaring their funerals; bombing peasants.; ethnic cleansing - again.

This review appeared in The Psychoanalysis Newsletter 9:15-18, 1992.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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