When you’re a film student who spends much of your life either writing or talking about film, you often find yourself trying to come up with examples that demonstrate various points or concepts. It’s natural to feel more comfortable with certain films than others, so over time you tend to develop a group of movies that you frequently go back to depending on the need. If I, for instance, need an example of a Western to explicate an aspect of the genre, I’ll probably throw out The Searchers. If I want to talk about auteurism, I’ll go with a Hitchcock movie. If I need to quickly explain reception theory to someone, I’ll talk about The Birth of a Nation. If I’m discussing film noir, I’ll use Double Indemnity.
And when I want to talk about genre hybridity, my go-to example is Alien.
Even before Alien, the science-fiction and horror genres had a long and profitable history together. As early as the Universal monster movie cycle of the 1930s, which featured such movies as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man, science-fiction elements were being added to horror narratives through quasi-scientific explanations of things like the Wolf Man’s transformations, Dracula’s hypnotic gaze, and the building of Frankenstein’s monster. This trend continued into the 1950s, when, for a time, Hollywood sci-fi and horror movies were nearly indistinguishable from one another. At the height of both the Cold War and the fear of the atomic bomb, the potential dangers of science seemed evident, and this led to a spate of ‘science gone awry’ sci-fi/horror movies that featured various creatures as stand-ins for the peril of nuclear arms. Movies like The Thing from Another World, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and Them! cashed in on this paranoia, as did the original Gojira in Japan, where nuclear fears were all too real after the dual horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Gojira, of course, was later released as Godzilla in North America with additional scenes shot in English.)
So by the time of Alien’s release in 1979, it was no great shock to see a film with both horror and sci-fi elements. Why, though, do these two genres work so well together, especially in the specific case of Ridley Scott’s film? It has to do with the fact that not all genres show similarities in their semantic elements.
Okay, that requires some explaining. In 1984, film theorist Rick Altman proposed a new way to examine genre: a semantic and syntactic approach. (You’ll note the terminology borrowed from linguistics. In short, that’s because a lot of linguistic and semiotic theory has been imported into film theory, since the images in film can be seen as constituting their own ‘language’ in the way that they impart meaning to a viewer. Don’t worry, I’ve been studying film for years and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that, too.) According to Altman, a semantic approach deals with the various genre elements that exist within a narrative. In the Western, for interest, archetypes like the bounty hunter, locations like the brothel, and tropes like the shootout at high noon would constitute semantic elements. Syntax deals with how these elements are fashioned into larger, almost mythological themes, like Westerns’ positioning of Native Americans as the proverbial ‘other’ in opposition to the protagonists. To use a horror example, Dracula (both the novel and various film versions) has often been interpreted as a coded commentary on the perceived dangers of immigration and disease in late-19th century England, as it features an antagonist who hails from Eastern Europe, journeys to London, and proceeds to essentially corrupt and infect the various people he comes into contact with. That overall theme – the vampire as a stand-in for perceived societal ills – constitutes a syntactic element, while the usual vampire iconography like fangs, blood, the cross, garlic, and so on, and tropes like Dracula’s gaze and staking a vampire through the heart, would all constitute semantic elements.
And now we return to Alien, and the specifics of why the combination of horror and sci-fi works so well in the film.
The horror and sci-fi genres each have their own semantic elements, which is exactly what I tried to lay out in my two previous articles. In the 1970s, both horror and science-fiction were in the midst of transitional periods, with horror all of a sudden being dominated by the slasher sub-genre and sci-fi being heavily influenced by space-based films and franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In my opinion, the combination of the two genres is so effective in Alien because of the fact that there is relatively little overlap in the semantic elements of sci-fi and horror as they were constituted at that period in time.
The semantics of science-fiction at the time were rooted mostly in setting and atmosphere. Unlike a genre like Westerns, where there are very specific expectations in terms of how a plot is going to play out, narratives in sci-fi movies tend to be less prescribed and predictable, with elements like spaceflight and futuristic technology instead serving as the defining characteristics that make a film identifiable as science-fiction. Slasher horror, on the other hand, has very specific narrative expectations: a killer, a group of people, a countdown-style series of murders in which most of the characters are killed off, and a final survivor who confronts the antagonist at the end of the film.
With Alien, Ridley Scott and the screenwriters who worked on the film successfully managed to combine the largely setting-based semantic elements of sci-fi (especially those of 2001: A Space Odyssey) like realistic spaceships, artificial gravity, the blackness of space, and advanced technology, with the narrative semantics of slasher movies. Other semantic elements of slasher movies – cramped interiors, a dark and foreboding atmosphere, and blood and gore – are also brought into the mix in situations where they don’t conflict with the sci-fi semantic sensibility. The result is a true hybrid film that exhibits the best semantic aspects of both genres.
And let’s not forget about syntactic elements, as well. In that regard, the two genres are a perfect match, as both horror and science-fiction have long histories of creatures, monsters, and aliens serving as stand-ins for the unknowable and threatening ‘other.’ Hence the xenomorph in Alien.
Syntax and semantics. In the study of genre, they’re invaluable tools in identifying and understanding the subtle codes that influence our understanding of films. And in the case of Alien, we have a truly remarkable example: a film that expertly combines elements of two genres to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the wonder of genre hybridity.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: