A few years ago, the film journal Cinephile proposed a fascinating idea: that in this world of mobile devices, YouTube, and easy access to DVDs, the scene has taken on an added cultural resonance that comes close to matching that of the film.
(Cinephile, incidentally, is a film journal edited by the graduate Film Studies students at the University of British Columbia, where I did my undergraduate degree. It’s one of the only university-affiliated and graduate student-run film journals in North America.)
In their introduction to that issue (which can be viewed here), editors Colleen Montgomery and Brent Strang write the following:
“A scene sets up a world, a distinct time and place that draws us in and holds us captive. Not only does the scene invite us to engage with its reality (or unreality), but also to navigate its many ontological avenues for meaning. Some scenes clearly mark their boundaries, while others lose their definition and acquiesce to narrative momentum, effacing their beginning, middle, and end in favour of one or two privileged moments. A scene may be isolated as a synecdoche for a whole film, genre, director’s oeuvre, or national cinema. So, too, is our appreciation of certain films, directors, and performers frequently remembered as a repertoire of key scenes; just as there is cult film, there is a cult of the scene. Viral videos and homespun video mash-ups (each with a profusion of hits, comments, and links to related material) are perhaps the greatest testament to the scene’s power to continually inspire reflection and creative interaction.”
The issue goes on to feature critical analyses of several noteworthy scenes from a variety of films. Along with these articles, however, Brent and Colleen also include something else: “The New Scene Canon,” a list of the scenes that they perceive to be the most important and influential in cinema history.
Guess which scene from Alien is on the list?
In the spirit of Cinephile’s examination of the scene, let’s take a closer look at the “chestburster” scene from Alien, unquestionably one of the most memorable scenes in the history of film.
(Apologies if the YouTube video above has been taken down by the time you read this. I’m guessing that Fox won’t allow it to stay up forever.)
First, the nuts and bolts: the scene in question spans the period of time between 47:28 and 49:22 in the film, meaning that it runs just under two minutes in length. Unlike scenes that are built around a particular shot (the Goodfellas Copacabana scene), line (“You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver), or song (the “Tiny Dancer” scene in Almost Famous), Alien’s “chestburster” scene has a distinct beginning, middle, and end: pre-“chestburster,” as the crew chats and laughs while they eat; the “chestbursting” itself, as Kane (John Hurt) writhes in pain on the table; and post-“chestbursting,” as the alien runs off and the crew of the Nostromo is left in stunned silence.
The scene can be seen to function on three levels: the symbolic level, on which the scene ties into the larger themes at play in the film; the narrative level, on which the characters interact with each other; and the audience level, on which the scene interacts with the audience and its expectations.
The symbolism of the “chestburster” scene has been discussed in great detail in a number of scholarly articles, and I covered much of the history of this line of thought in my last article in the “30 Days…” series. To summarize, the scene can be seen as a sexual/gynecological symbol: Kane, who has in essence been raped by the “facehugger,” is forced into “giving birth” to the alien. His wild gesticulations are representative of male perceptions regarding the pain, anguish, and relative weakness of women in childbirth, and traditional gender roles are reversed by placing the male in the role of “mother.” The alien itself is, as Roger Ebert writes, “unmistakably phallic” and exemplifies of the wider sexual/homosexual dynamics in the film, in which male characters (and audience members) are constantly forced to confront symbols of masculinity that are perceived as threatening by the heterosexual male psyche.
On the narrative level, the scene serves several functions. Most obviously, it sets up the rest of the story by unleashing the alien creature on the ship, and immediately establishes the danger it presents through its violent means of birth. More subtly, however, the scene also establishes the dynamics at play between Ash (Ian Holm) and the rest of the crew. At this point in the film, Ash has not yet been revealed to be a robot, but the scene hints at this secret by visually positioning Ash as separate. After a wide shot of the entire table to set the stage, the scene is largely shot in medium shots and close-ups, with Ash usually being alone in the frame while the other crew members are shown huddled together, either as they eat or later as they gather around a distressed Kane. Early in the scene, Ash’s close-ups show him on the left side of the frame while shots of the rest of the crew show them on the right. Later on, this reverses, with Ash on the right and the rest of the crew on the left. This precise framing serves to cleverly indicate that Ash is somehow different from his crewmates, a feeling that is further heightened by shots of Ash’s dispassionate reaction to Kane’s increasing agony, in contrast to the shock and worry evident on the faces of the others.
On the audience level, the film can be seen as utilizing various types of contrast to surprise the audience and subvert its expectations, a technique that is frequently found in other horror films.
As the scene begins, the crew is jovial, having seemingly averted disaster. The sudden distress of Kane and the first spurt of blood, then, come as a great surprise to both the characters and the audience… just as they came as a surprise to the actors themselves, who prior to the scene weren’t given any details about how and when the “chestburster” would emerge.
The scene is also notable for containing no music, which allows the pained wails of Kane and the shocked screams of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and the rest of the crew to have a greater aural impact. In place of the musical score is a steady, pulsing diegetic sound that is ostensibly intended to be the ambient noise on the ship but sounds unmistakably like the beat of a human heart. This heartbeat-like noise becomes progressively clearer and more distinct as the scene progresses, mimicking the increasingly rapid cuts from shot to shot within the scene and, if the scene is doing its job, the quickening pulse of audience members.
And my personal favorite example of contrast within the scene? It’s a horror staple: Kane is wearing a white shirt before the “chestburster” emerges, which ensures that the bright red blood will be visible in all of its gruesome glory.
The “chestburster” scene: it’s at once enthralling and horrifying, and perfectly encapsulates many of the core thematic and narrative elements of the film. In a culture that fetishizes innovation and privileges the shiny and new, the fact that the scene has remained so memorable in spite of the far gorier scenes that have succeeded it is a testament to its enduring quality. And with the critical reputation of Alien as great as it has ever been, it’s safe to say that the scene will maintain its place in the New Scene Canon for years to come.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: