The critical history of Alien is an interesting one. Since the film was first released in 1979, there has been a sense that the film is more important than its relatively simplistic genre trappings would suggest. Critics, scholars, and the filmmakers themselves have often shared their own points of view regarding the meaning, if any, behind many of the key elements in the film. And the most important element in the film is, of course, the alien itself.
In yesterday’s article, I wrote about H.R. Giger and the design of the alien. Today, I’ll look at the alien as metaphor, and examine the one interpretation of the creature that has dominated critical thinking for over thirty years.
Spoiler alert: it’s mostly about penises.
In artistic criticism, the general rule of thumb is that virtually any interpretation is valid as long as it can be backed up by evidence. That’s the nature of art; it doesn’t matter what the artist’s original intentions were, because art can acquire different connotations over time and in different contexts. Alien, however, exemplifies the rare case of a metaphor that has frequently been viewed in the same way by critics as it was by the artists themselves from the earliest days of the project. It’s a situation where the evidence is just too obvious to ignore.
The late Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter who first developed the concept for the film, spoke often about the sexual nature of the alien creature in the film. In an interview for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, he described his thought process when he originally conceived of the alien:
“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex. I said ‘that’s how I’m going to attack the audience – I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs: homosexual oral rape, birth… the thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.’”
Just when you thought Alien and Deliverance couldn’t possibly have anything in common…
Critics and scholars immediately pounced on the sexual symbolism of the alien creature and have written about it often in the years since the film was released. All three stages of the alien have been subject to this manner of analysis: the “facehugger,” the “chestburster,” and the adult.
In his essay “Feminism, Humanism and Science in Alien” (which, by the way, is probably the most widely cited scholarly analysis of the film), James H. Kavanagh describes the “facehugger” that attaches itself to Kane (John Hurt) in the language of both male/female fertilization and male/male rape, writing that “the egg forces its own tenacious fertilizing instrument on the man, who as a passive receptacle must ingest its seed.” Similarly, Daniel Pimley writes that “the menacing sexual imagery and the threat of alien penetration evoke a nightmare vision of reproduction science,” and that “Alien portrayed the horror of bodily invasion, corruption and destruction more explicitly and violently than any of the monster movies it imitated.”
Implicit in these analyses is an assumption similar to the one made by O’Bannon in designing the creature’s biology: that not only is rape obviously a nightmarish image for people of both genders, but that homosexual rape is even more discomforting for a primarily male, heterosexual audience. It’s a fascinating aspect of both the film’s conception and reception that may not hold its validity when speaking of a somewhat more tolerant and desensitized present-day audience.
The truly obvious phallic imagery begins with the film’s famous “chestburster” scene. Roger Ebert described the newborn alien as “unmistakably phallic;’ indeed, its pinkish-beige skin tone, smooth head, and pulsating, vein-like gills make the conclusion fairly incontrovertible. It should be noted that the “chestburster,” like most of the alien designs in the film, came from the brilliantly warped mind of H.R. Giger, whose predilection for sexual imagery is well-known.
This imagery continues with the fully grown alien. Its smooth, tubular head is clearly phallic, as is its protruding second jaw, which ‘punches’ and penetrates its prey to quickly kill or incapacitate them. David Greven writes about the rape imagery present in Parker’s (Yaphet Kotto) death scene: “As the Alien hypnotically opens its jaws, transparent fluid streams from its metallic, murderous mouth in another horrifying parody of both the nursing mother and the slavering sexually ravenous male.” And if the phallic imagery and implication of rape aren’t enough to convince you of the obvious sexual implications of the adult alien, also witness the sticky, semi-translucent slime it leaves behind wherever it goes. (I’ll just let you think about that one for a minute.)
If this has all been too much penis for you, don’t fret: there’s plenty of vagina imagery in the film, too! Critic Tim Dirks notes that “sexually-charged symbolism and images abound – the beastly adult creature has both a phallic head and an open, dripping vaginal mouth.” Similary, Amy Taubin writes in her essay 1997 “The Alien Trilogy: From Feminism to Aids” that the alien’s “toothy, dripping mouth was hermaphroditic: while the double jaws represented the inner and outer labia of the vagina dentata, the projectile movement of the inner jaw was a phallic threat.”
When I first began examining the critical and scholarly response to Alien, I was surprised by the degree of consensus that has been reached regarding the central metaphor of the film: the alien as a representation of both male and female sexuality. While the film has been extensively analyzed from other perspectives – Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytical – the sexual imagery of the film is so strong that it has been acknowledged and incorporated into virtually every serious assessment. In future articles, I plan to examine many of these different perspectives on the film, from its anti-corporatism to its gender politics. For now, though, let me leave you with this note of encouragement and reassurance: if you watch the film and see only penises, you’re not alone. And you’re probably doing a pretty good job of thinking about it critically.
For a similar and downright hilarious assessment of the phallic imagery in the film, including stuff that doesn’t have to do with the alien creature itself, check out this article on Cracked.
And to see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: