*If you have never seen Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, beware of spoilers ahead.*
Many science fiction films or television shows push the frontier logic—so many are, after all, about “space, the final frontier” and man’s ability to conquer it, or be conquered by it. Although space is often, in these cases, where we place our hope in that mythological “progress,” sometimes we use stories like these to ponder the price of this so-called “progress.” Growing up, I knew one science fiction film that made me truly afraid of what could be “out there.” It was Scott’s Alien.
This film is a perfect mixture of science fiction and horror. In light of all the films that followed it, similarly aiming to elicit feelings of terror towards the vast unknown, and the ever-expanding Alien franchise (the newest prequel, Alien: Covenant, following 2012’s Prometheus, will be in theaters this May), I often feel that the genius of Scott’s original film gets lost. Alien strikes a wonderful balance between what I love most about both science fiction and horror: a call to those fears we have regarding that which we do not know, or cannot know, or even that which we think we know best, ourselves. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film’s hero, Sigourney Weaver in one of her first big roles, is a real bada** and surreptitiously saves the day.
If I really reflect on why I love Alien, I think it has everything to do with Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, and everything to do with how completely, and delightfully, terrified I am by Alien’s alien. Ripley is smart. She puts up with trouble from everyone—the men who are (or should I say were?) her shipmates and a creepy alien; and she needs no love story, but she certainly has love for Jones, the ship’s cat. The alien on the other hand—there’s just something about that little mouth…
The following are some of the themes that scholars and critics have often focused on in their analyses of Alien: depictions of some kind of monstrosity of motherhood—I can certainly see that (poor John Hurt); fear of the Other (technological and/or biological); a strong feminist narrative, with a strong female character; or a not so radical feminism, after all—no one ever really listens to Ripley. Alien is a film over which scholars of the 1980s and 1990s, in particular, theorized and debated: how can we read this film, its villain(s), and its hero?
In a Wired article from last year, Weaver was reported to have described her character in the following way: “Its not that she’s not kind or doesn’t have feelings, but she’s very unsentimental about things, she just goes forward and gets things done.” Although the quote seems to be about the way Ripley is depicted throughout the series, I’d argue that in her mission to get things done in this first film, Ripley IS actually sentimental about one thing: that cat. And perhaps that’s part of why I absolutely love her—she saves Jones and she survives…
…but doesn’t she also save the rest of humanity from that awful, awful alien?
The original Theatrical Cut of Ridley Scott’s Alien screens at IU Cinema at 7:00 p.m. March 28, 2017—Fourth Annual National Science on Screen® Day—as part of our ongoing Science on Screen Series. IU Cinema is honored to be one of the 2016–2017 Science on Screen® award recipients. Thanks to Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the generous support.
Just announced: Frederick Wiseman’s Primate will screen April 3, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. in the IU Moving Image Archive Screening Room in the Herman B Wells Library as part of the Science on Screen and the 2017 Filmmaker to Filmmaker: Frederick Wiseman and Robert Greene series.
Katherine Johnson, currently a third year legacy PhD student in Communication and Culture, studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been obsessed with film since the beginning.