Just saw Alien for the first time all the way through. Maybe a coincidence, but probably not, Ridley Scott has a new film out that appears from trailers and preliminary reviews to be decidedly less than the quality of Alien. One recalls Fellini’s famous dictum; something to the effect that a great director makes good films for about ten years. After that, in the parlance of our times: “eh.” Very few have consistently made decent films outside of a ten-year window, Fellini included. In Scott’s case, it’s been a hit-and-miss career, probably with more of the former than the latter. How are you going to equal Blade Runner and Alien, anyway? Not with movies about a cannibal or a woman in the army, probably. Alien is a simple but rich film that’s undergone a ridiculous amount of analysis and held up well. Without knowing where to begin, we’ll do a blind run here; all film, no looking at scholarship. After all, where better to start than with the film itself. It’s a model piece for the theory of the monstrous feminine and all its implications concerning repression.
The ship’s computer is called “Mother” and you only access Mother when you enter into this little chamber that seems suspiciously like a womb. It’s even all-white, like a blank slate; unlike the rest of the ship, which is dark and metallic and clammy. Arguably, then, the whole ship is a womb and the inner space constitutes the id. This is the source of all bad news and the space of ultimate revelation (return of the repressed, anyone?). Ripley’s attacker ends up being a (male) robot in cahoots with Mother. With some help, the robot is killed and then interrogated following decapitation. This of course contains echoes of the Oedipus myth, with a twist. The twist may be what makes the film most interesting at a Freudian/Lacanian level. This isn’t simple Oedipus or simple return-of-the-repressed. John Hurt’s infamous scene in which he gives birth to the alien, only after having said creature attach itself to his face and obliterate his identity in a horrifically liminal illustration of the abject, first indicates the twist by reversing the biological norm. This is an about an alien, after all, that which is truly other to the human experience. In Lacan and Kristeva, “other” is distinguished from “Other”; the latter representing the maternal, most fitting to this film. That “Mother” would allow this aggression constitutes a real vengeance of the maternal, and that only Ripley (the ballsy woman) can overcome Mother and Alien makes her monstrous in her own way. She’s a hero, but she invokes fear, too. She only overcomes Mother and Alien as a woman, as one who understands both the maternal and the monstrous, who can predicate their next course of action and raise them one.
While we’re talking about the monstrous, it should be noted that the ship’s name is the Nostromo, nearly an aural anagram for “monster.” In this way the connection between Mother and Alien is made official, with the vehicle acting as a nest for Alien and Mother, correlating to both. It always feels slightly unfair to read this theory into films, but the argument goes that it’s not “reading-into,” but seeing these patterns within texts proves the social existence and application of the theory. A film like Alien contains them so overtly that, as with Hitchcock’s films, the viewer wonders if Scott caught up on his Freud before working on it. Even the classic object petit a seems present here, in the constantly recurring feline figure. What point is there to the cat otherwise? Ripley risks life and limb to ensure that the cat accompanies her on her escape from Mother, Nostromo, and Alien. The cat, Jones, is briefly mistaken for Alien, only to create a briefly comic scene serving mostly to contrast the two creatures. The alien’s strange apathy toward the cat – which, one would think, would make a tasty hors d’oeuvre – almost implies the non-reality of Jones. Or, if real, Alien has no interest in a creature like a cat who cares so little about its own vulnerability. A cat, of course, has nine lives. Five crew members, and nearly six, die violently thanks to the alien but the cat survives without a scratch. Pets typically figure into films as symbolic of childhood, a memento mori of a past state. Ripley’s eventual survival with Jones more than anything else is what saves her last semblance of humanity. Without Jones, Ripley is the real alien, the real monster, the Other whom we should fear.