Alien is a story of loyalty and survival. It is the story of overcoming adversity without losing one’s humanity. It’s the story of a woman and her cat.
Now, I’ve heard people wax pretentious about the mythological underpinnings of the “Alien Cycle” as they call it. In fact, I heard this tonight at a screening of the film at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. You can say what you want about Josephs Campbell and Conrad, but in my opinion a film “cycle” with no consistency of creatorhood aside from the commendable instinct to include Sigourney Weaver does not merit an over-arcing theory that includes all four films. Granted, myths and fairy tales also have multiple, untraceable creators, but they weren’t created by corporations for financial gain, a consideration I feel has to be taken into account.
But whatever. Alien is a horror movie in space. It’s a very good horror movie in space. Like many horror films, it involves human contact, and conflict with, that which is Other. The alien is “unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” While Ripley and the others struggle with the implications of their options—to quarantine, to fight, to preserve the few or attempt to save the many—the alien has no such qualms. In the end, the only person Ripley can save is herself. She is reduced to the amoral status of a creature fighting for its survival, just like the alien. Almost. For Ripley’s fellow-feeling, her humanity, is rescued by her rescue of Jonesy the cat.
And yet the very thing that assures us of Ripley’s humanity, Jones, is another example of the Other. He represents the Other we have taken to our bosom, and yet the unreadable reaction shots as he watches the destruction of Harry Dean Stanton reveal an alien presence among us. The cat is not human; he is not governed by human emotions or capable of expressing them. Watching my own housemate stare at me with unblinking, expressionless green eyes consistently fills me with wonder that this thing, this non-human, this incomprehensible being is sharing my space. We co-exist, and yet we are not like, despite the fact that I have let this alien presence into my home and my heart.
But it is not only that which looks foreign which must be watched. There is an alien on the crew, undetected and working against them; an alien inside assisting the alien outside. So even the visible signs of humanity are not enough.
Subsequent to rescuing Jones and herself, Ripley reveals another side of her humanity—her femaleness. Up to this point, Ripley has no physical womanhood. She is depicted, like much of the crew, as genderless. This is not to imply that real androgyny is being explored, but that any of these characters could switch genders without any alteration to the story. Sigourney Weaver, in particular, is tall and lacks the curves which instantly cry “woman.” When she supposes herself safe, she sheds another layer of protection and becomes, for the first time, a woman in the vulnerable state of partial nudity. When it become clear that this safety is an illusion, she retreats to a heavy, gender-neutral space suit in order to do final battle with the alien. A certain amount of shielding from the vulnerable side of what makes us human is necessary for survival, just as Ripley’s regard for that which is not human makes her even more so.