The Matter of The Beast
Let’s pause for a moment to look at Weaver’s performance. Weaver is the heart and soul of Alien. She becomes the focal point for the pity and fear we feel, elevating the film above most monster stories by intimately, intelligently involving us in her response to the unfolding horror.
The image on the front of the lavish ‘making of’ book that came out on the film’s 40th anniversary is, tellingly, not the Alien, but Weaver. And not looking glamorous and powerful, wielding her iconic flamethrower. We see her through the glass screen of her space helmet, looking exhausted, terrified, and resolute. This image is from the last horrifying sequence in the film, when Ripley realizes the Alien is on the escape shuttle with her, and, despite her terror, manages to outsmart the Alien by slipping into a spacesuit, opening the shuttle door, and sending the Alien blasting into the vacuum.
This scene captures the essence of Weaver’s performance. Though she establishes Ripley as capable and intelligent, she also shows us Ripley’s fear. We see it in her face and eyes as she feverishly works out the best way to survive, and then resolutely moves forward, despite her terror. Ripley doesn’t make macho quips – we see her thinking, not posturing. She doesn’t put up a front. She lets us into her battle for survival. Which becomes not just thrilling – it leads you to admire and care about her. She has nobility. You fear for her. You fear with her.
The structure of the film does justice to her performance. Aristotle identifies three components of a successful tragedy – reversal, recognition, and suffering. He distinguishes between simple and more powerful complex plots: “By complex, I mean one in which the change in fortune involves reversal, or recognition, or both…recognition is best when it occurs simultaneously with a reversal.” Alien pivots on some fiendish reversals and recognitions.
The first reversal comes while Dallas, Lambert, and Kane (John Hurt) are on their way from the shuttle ship to the wreck to investigate the distress signal which led their ship’s computer to wake the crew from hypersleep. Back on the shuttle, Ripley, in an early sign of her resourcefulness and intelligence, decides to try to decipher the signal herself – which turns out to be, not a distress call, but a warning. Recognition and reversal simultaneously.
The next reversal is Kane going from being reawakened and apparently healthy, to having the Alien explode from his chest. That is soon followed by the crew’s recognition that the Alien is no longer a small creature they can hope to trap in a net, but is suddenly larger than a person. A reversal of their situation. Other pivotal, gripping recognitions/reversals: That Ash (Ian Holm) is an android. That his orders are to retrieve the Alien. That the Company knew it was a warning. That they decided that the crew is expendable.
Other central requirements of Aristotle’s that apply to Alien are that a tragedy should be as concentrated in time as possible and that the events are what matter, not the dialogue. Aristotle writes that “just hearing the events described should evoke pity and fear.”
Alien plays out almost in real-time, right up to the terrifying final countdown. And it is unquestionably the events that are front and center. Indeed, Scott tossed out a lot of what little dialogue there was in the script and had his actors improvise, which initially threw off Weaver, who was coming from script-revering theater. Scott had them stay in character on the set and gradually become shipmates, generating the camaraderie and tensions which are part of what makes them so human.
You might object that Aristotle, sitting there in the movie theater with his tub of popcorn, would scoff at something as outlandish as the film’s titular monster. However, in a section titled “Astonishment and irrationalities”, Aristotle writes that “plausible impossibilities are preferable to implausible possibilities.” This observation is left a little mysterious, but Alien delivers here too – the life cycle and behavior of the Alien all have a ferocious logic. The Alien is a plausible impossibility.
Something that Aristotle doesn’t address, but that Scott wields masterfully, is the role of the audience’s imagination. Scott respects his audiences more than Aristotle does. He knows he can count on them to help generate the intensity of the film. He directs in a way that deliberately draws from the audience’s imagination, making the film even more terrifying to experience. When the face-hugger leaps out of the egg at Kane, Scott makes the audience imagine what is happening to him. After the blurred, lightning flash of its leap, Scott immediately cuts to an exterior shot of the alien wreck. He holds there for a good 30 seconds, the planet’s storms whistling by, leaving us wondering and imagining what’s happening to Kane down below.
Then, after Kane’s chest-bursting scene, the rest of the gore is largely left to the imagination. After showing you extremely graphically what the Alien was capable of when it was small, Scott leaves the audience fearfully wondering how much worse it could do at the full monster size. Most of the deaths happen offscreen – Scott leaves the gruesome details to your revved-up imagination, where they can become infinitely terrifying. He forces you to fearfully fill in the dark places yourself. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is ambushed and dragged offscreen. Dallas simply disappears. Perhaps the most intense off-screen death is Lambert’s, whose screams and agonized hyperventilating Ripley hears over the intercom – we hear Lambert going through a gradual, excruciating, dismemberment. Scott lets us spin our own dizzying personal fears into imagining what specific horrors are happening to her.
So, Alien delivers on pity and fear. Let’s go back to katharsis. If we go with the ‘purification’ translation, we are left wondering, what does that mean, to have purified your fear and pity? If we’re not placating the ‘beast within’, what’s the draw?
Heath may be right that it’s a question for psychology, not philosophy. Psychologist Bruce Tift, the author of Already Free, draws on Buddhist traditions to argue that we all have fears that feel annihilating. He counsels that you move toward your fear, to discover that you are bigger than it. But that you do this gradually, you don’t overwhelm yourself. Maybe, say, two hours at a time…but what is the fear for us? How can an imagined Alien have any connection to our day-to-day lives?
On one level, we all know our soft bodies can be mangled; mutilation is a universal fear. Something particular to Alien is its sexual overtones. Many commentators, including the director and actors, have pointed out the mixture of phallic and vaginal imagery that pervades the film. There’s the vaginal entrance to the alien wreck, Kane’s oral rape by the face-hugger, his death, a gruesome metaphor for death in childbirth, and most infamously, H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien, which are a nightmare of sexual innuendo. Alien resonates with the fear of sexual violence.
There’s also another thread in the film that speaks powerfully to the terrors perpetrated by western culture: an anti-capitalist thread. The crew of the Nostromo is up against the social Darwinists, the everyone out for themselves people, the ones that think by being rapacious they are being true to human nature. The ‘beast within’ people. The generically named Company the crew works for turns out to be the rapacious monster that is the real cause of their deaths. The Company wants to harness the destructive power of the Alien and, in the interest of that, the crew is expendable. The Company will literally murder for a profit.
For Ash, the android sent to shepherd the Alien home, the Alien is the epitome of social Darwinism. In his final speech to the crew, before they pull the plug on him, Ash tells them it’s “the perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility…I admire its purity. It’s a survivor. Unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
We all know what it’s like to be at the mercy of massive corporations that, in seeking their profits, could care less whether we live or die. The Company of Alien is capitalism exposed at its most ruthless.
“Horror films can put us in touch with what we’re really afraid of, which are often socially constructed fears,” says Tufts professor Turvey.
Alien’s anti-capitalist thread may be for American audiences part of why the film, as revered film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2003, “still vibrates with a dark and frightening intensity.” The pity and fear we feel for the crew of the Nostromo, at the mercy of the Company that has unleashed the Alien on them, may provide a kind of katharsis – whatever that means exactly – for people living under the stresses of a society dominated by rapacious corporations.
In Buddhist psychologist Tift’s view, by spending some time with the annihilating fear of being monstrously eaten alive by capitalism – and seeing Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of a heroine outsmarting the monster unleashed by the Company – we may find ourselves realizing that we are bigger than our fear. The horrors of Alien may help audiences see and reject the social Darwinism that still thrives all around us.
Aristotle. Poetics. 4th Century, 1996 translation. Link provided: Project Gutenberg.
Jimenez, Monica. “Why Do We Like Horror Movies? Malcolm Turvey, director of the Film and Media Studies program, explains the attraction to the dark side”. Tufts Now. 30 October 2018.
Solnit, Rebecca. “Why are US rightwingers so angry? Because they know social change is coming”. The Guardian. 20 December 2021.
Rinzler, J.W. The Making of Aliens. August 2020.
Tift, Bruce. Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation. Sounds True. June 2015.