The Rear-View Mirror: Alien (1979)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

alien screenshot I

Alien turns 40 this year, and due to (or despite of) its low-tech special effects, it has aged well. In 1979 the film was meant to benefit from Star Wars‘ success, and became a classic in its own right. Sticking with a female lead for a franchise is not unprecedented, but it was (and is!) rare enough for Alien to be studied for its feminist message. This is by no means the only subject which has been studied through (or sometimes projected onto) Alien. From post-humanism to themes of giving birth and even rape, the amount of scholarly and academic articles which have been written about this sparse sci-fi thriller is improbably large. For all the scholarly probing, though, Alien is an accessible film, and still an easy film to love. Scott says it was meant to be an “unpretentious, riveting thriller, like Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby”.

The Nostromo, the film’s spaceship, looks old, worn and used, giving the whole film a lived-in quality. When the seven-person crew wake up from cryo-sleep the talk turns to remuneration, as they expect to return home shortly. Engineer Parker, played by Yaphet Kotto and his associate, Brett, played by Harry Dean Stanton, are the below-deck guys. They feel they should get, that they deserve, more shares. The science officer Ash (Ian Holm) and the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerrit) talk them down. The eager Kane (John Hurt) and petulant Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) fill out the crew. Unlike the deterministic and aristocratic used universe of Star Wars, the Nostromo has a crew of refreshingly everyday people. They gripe about pay inequality, about the expedition to the alien spaceship, constantly questioning and re-asserting the chain of command on the ship. Ripley, our hero, gets heckled and seems young and over-serious. Not necessarily protagonist material, at least not yet.

alien screensot II

Unfortunately, the ship has changed course while they slept, in order to explore a mysterious SOS signal. Or is it a warning? They discover an alien spaceship and pick up their unwanted (and justifiably famous) face-hugging passenger. As the crew gets picked off one by one, the last one left standing is arguably the most famous Final Girl* of my generation: Ripley. The every-woman who, due to a combination of luck and resourcefulness, is the last surviving crew member. The final scene in which she tries desperately to rid herself of her unwanted alien passenger has lost none of its power. 

It is perhaps telling that Ripley, a recognisably human and authentic female character, was originally written as male. It is still annoyingly rare to see a plausible female protagonist unencumbered by superpowers and supergrooming take on monsters like the Xenomorph on her own. The fact that she takes on this monster in her underwear both undermines and, in her vulnerability, strengthens Ripley’s power. In (other) horror movies, such as the first Halloween for example, the Final Girl is usually defined by femininity of a specific kind, which signals their ultimate survival in the film. Ripley as the Final Girl signals humanity rather than femininity, and it is ultimately the humanity at the very heart of the film which makes it endure.

The film has been re-released in cinemas in some countries for its 40th birthday. If you can, you should see this classic crowd-pleaser on the big screen.

*For more on The Final Girl, you can read Carol J. Clover’s book: Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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