active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

From the realms of gory

As Christmas approaches, my thoughts naturally turn to the finest interpretation of the nativity story in all cinema. I’m referring, of course, to the birth scene in Alien.

It’s almost as if Ridley Scott piled as much Christian symbolism into that one scene as possible.

Here they are, the weary travelers in their mean shelter in a hostile world, gathered around their table for a last supper together. They’re simultaneously good Samaritans (they’ve just answered a distress call) and sacrificial lambs. Their wise man, Ash, is also the Judas in their midst.

Kane, the only member of the crew with a Biblical name (though, fittingly, it has itself been perverted), has just risen from the dead, and is about to experience a virgin birth after having been impregnated by some otherworldly being from the sky. Look at the way he lies on the table as if he’s been crucified.

And what rough beast slouches out of him? With that long reptilian tail and those horn-like protuberances on its back, it can only be the Nameless One himself.

For all his supposed perfection, Ridley Scott is a sloppy director. You can see this in Alien during the scene when Ripley is on the intercom with Parker and Brett and we hear the same speech twice.

The computer room is particularly silly, and shows most nakedly its Dark Star origins. The spacesuits are overdesigned, a case of style triumphing over believability. The second half is far less interesting than the first, and there’s never been a monster movie with such overweening delusions of grandeur.

I say this with love: Alien is my all-time favorite movie.

It’s really not original, but then few things are in modern SF. (Go ask Scott, whose latest movie The Martian is effectively just a reinvention of the 1964 Robinson Crusoe On Mars.)

Much of Alien was lifted straight out of The Thing From Another World, Christian Nyby’s 1951 adaptation of John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?”, and the rest was cribbed from other equally hoary sources such as 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space.

Like The Thing From Another World, Alien is about humans who find a derelict spaceship and release an unnamed alien creature that is unconstrained by human morality. They are trapped in a confined, isolated place. Among their rank is a scientist who admires the creature, while an outside authority wants the thing brought back alive, personnel expendable. Even the flamethrowers are a direct lift.

There are visual cues, too, such as the moment when Dallas encounters the alien in an air duct and we see it strike exactly the same palms-up pose that the thing did when Hendry opened the door on it in the earlier movie.

Alien is, in effect, just another 1950s creature feature from an age in which filmmakers began to look backward for their inspiration. The same nostalgia also permeated Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Star Wars, John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

What lifts Alien out of its rehash of old SF tropes and haunted house themes, and makes it one of the genre’s greatest achievements, is its world-building.

The Nostromo is a more grizzled working environment than anything we’d seen before (though yes, it does have something of the Millennium Falcon about it): an ugly mishmash of the futuristic and the trashy, of castoffs and make-dos. It brilliantly suggests there’s a history behind this ship.

It’s populated by a crew of realistic blue collar workers for whom adventure is an inconvenience.

Captain Dallas, in particular, is a superbly posed portrait of a man weary of space, of the job, of having more than the bare minimum interaction with his subordinates. He may well have once had a relationship with Ripley, his warrant officer, but we’re now long past that stage.

Dallas’s worn-out ennui is the diametric opposite to the can-do military grunts in the original Thing, which James Cameron resurrected for the more explosive but less engaging sequel Aliens.

His crew bicker and bait each other constantly. “Quit griping,” Kane snaps at Lambert when they’re forced out onto the surface of LV-426. “I like griping,” she replies tetchily.

You’re probably familiar with how Alien has funded a generation of gender studies graduates thanks to its various feminist and anti-feminist overtones, such as Ash attempting to kill Ripley by deep-throating her with a rolled-up girlie magazine.

The sexual overtones come not so much from the plot itself, but from the fortuitous chain of events—via an aborted big screen version of Dune—that brought H.R. Giger on board. This is Giger’s movie as much as it is Scott’s. It’s unfortunate, then, that Giger’s creations are generally anthropomorphic, and that the alien here is just another man in a rubber suit.

The sex in Alien is not alien sex. Phallic imagery is only of significance to a fraction of the creatures on our own Earth, let alone to the cosmos at large.

Alien revels in a very human rape threat, exemplified by the extendable snapping jaw with which the creature penetrates its victims. It’s only in the fourth movie, Alien: Resurrection, that Ripley wrenches out a flaccid alien tongue, symbolically castrating the creature (and, alas, the franchise with it).

There’s also a human-specific fear of the male sexual response, which begins with the vagina-like “egg” that Kane encounters and culminates in a creature whose head is a male glans that continually oozes fluid. The gloopy, sexually disagreeable aspects of Alien were again not original, having been used to remarkable effect in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Ripley’s role, too, has been overstated. She’s not the first female action hero in science fiction. Nyby’s The Thing starred a female character, Nikki Nicholson, who mucks into the fight alongside the men. And Ripley ends up stripped to her underwear and opening her legs for the camera, just as if the sexual liberation of the past 28 years had never happened.

On the plus side, Giger’s alien spaceship is the first truly otherworldly alien machinery in all SF cinema, bearing no relationship to human standards of symmetry and aerodynamics.

Its pilot, shockingly deflated into something mundane in Scott’s misguided Prometheus (which we now learn is the first of three Alien prequels), is truly spectacular. Science fiction has never before looked as sumptuously imaginative as it does here, and has struggled to repeat the vision ever since.

Prometheus—and really, Ridley, you should have kept the two franchises separate—brings us to Alien’s biggest problem. The creature itself is poorly rationalized.

It’s possible to excuse its anthropomorphism by believing, as many fans do, that the alien takes on the characteristics of its hosts. The allure is that this links neatly back to “Who Goes There?” and the thing’s most enigmatic quality, which is that we never know what it originally looked like.

But is this actually true? In Alien 3, the fast, whippet-like alien appeared to have been born from a dog, but the director’s cut shows that it was actually born from an ox. Why, then, wasn’t it huge and lumbering?

And why were the “egg” and facehugger already sexualized, before the species had had contact with Kane?

We can only conclude that the alien is not humanoid because it was born from Kane. And my short story collection Born From Ash, whose title might suggest something truly biomechanical, knowingly reflects a misconception.

It’s only in Cameron’s sequel that we hear the name “xenomorph,” a meaningless term by itself—it just means “strangely shaped”—which has led fans to assume the alien is some kind of shape shifter. It’s not. Having been born, it begins as a small lizard-like creature that grows into a large lizard-like creature. And that’s all.

But there’s a bigger misconception than this. The most interesting part of the alien lifecycle is one that fans don’t seem to have noticed.

When Kane enters the vast chamber under the surface of LV-426, he calls the things he finds “leathery objects, like eggs.” The name has stuck. But these things are not eggs. They’re testes. That chamber is actually a giant ball sack. We’re inside the body of the beast from the start.

Working backwards logically, the “queen” we see in Aliens isn’t really a queen at all. The alien creatures are all male as we understand the term, and every one of them is capable of maturing into a “queen.”

Like social insects, an alien will mature into a queen only if there is not already a queen in the colony. If there is, then all the other members of the colony remain as immature drones.

That big crested creature in Aliens isn’t a special female laying eggs, but an adult male depositing sperm to fertilize eggs later, like a fish in reverse.

These sperm are in the form of facehuggers. That’s why the aliens don’t need to mate with each other to reproduce. They mate with other species. When sexual union occurs, the sperm fuses with its mate just like a terrestrial sperm fuses with an egg—except in this case, confounding his mistake, it is Kane himself who is the egg.

It must be like this. Otherwise the whole movie is problematical, since our alien was unlucky enough to be born alone. In the deleted scene, who’s it building its cocoons for?

Cosmic sex between humans and aliens must surely be an original vision. Except it’s old as Philip Jose Farmer’s 1952 story The Lovers, and was already explored in cinema in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Born From Ash-S

Robert Maas’s collection of short stories Born From Ash is available to buy at Amazon.


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