Friday, May 8, 2009

The Language of Alien

I’m just writing words now. This is my paper. How are you doing? These statements are not terribly important, but what is important is that you, no doubt, can understand them. The first two sentences are simple. They have easily identifiable subjects and predicates and they conclude where there is a period. The third sentence is a question because it is phrases as one and concludes with a question mark. Understanding what a person is verbally saying is an even more automatic process. Sounds come out of the mouths of people in our aural range and we recognize them as words that then become a string of words which make a sentence. These processes have become natural to us through years of exposure to the written and spoken word and an education in grammar. We require similar processes when watching a film. Films speak to their audiences through the use of various elements, such as setting, conflict, characters etc., but there are rules governing what elements can be used within a particular film. In a sense, film possesses its own grammar and the use of this grammar dictates to us the kind of film we are watching. Through exposure to film, the common audience has gained an understanding of film grammar similar to our understanding of English grammar. We use this knowledge every time we watch a film, so that we can place films into genres and understand them within that context. Some films follow the rules of the horror genre and we recognize them as horror films, some films follow the rules of the science fiction genre and we recognize them as horror films and so on. Some films, however, transgress these rules, picking and choosing which rules to follow from conflicting grammar systems. These films can simultaneously be part of multiple genres. A select few films actually take this idea of cooperating genres one step further, to the point of genre cohesion. Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien, is one such film. It uses rules that govern the science fiction genre and rules that govern the horror genre in such a way that they don’t stand out separately, but actually rely on each other to help the movie make sense. When Alien speaks to us, it is not doing so as both science fiction and horror, it is science fiction horror, a genre all its own, with its own grammar and rules.
Even before I discuss the film itself, I’d like to make a point using Alien’s marketing. Trailers, tv spots, and posters are used to create marketing campaigns for films. These things give us a taste of what their film will be like, get us excited, and, if they’re successful, they’ll get you into a theater near you. What these campaigns also do is give people expectations. Audiences are given a general idea on how the film is going to speak to them, which helps them decide whether they’d like to see it or not. All these advertisement tools usually share one thing; a tagline. The tagline is a phrase that production companies engineer to sum up their film and the experience of viewing it. Alien has one of the most memorable taglines in film history: “In space, no one can hear you scream”. In this simple sentence, two words stand out; space and scream. Audiences associate space with science fiction as it is a standard setting of the genre. The word scream is a clear indicator of horror, for why else would one scream? It indicates that this film will merit screaming as some point, so it must be scary. The rest of the tagline suggests more though. It is an important fact that no one can hear you scream in space because it adds space to the horrific equation. Space is a cold place where you are alone and no one can help you, it makes the prospect of having something to scream about even scarier. So, even Alien’s tagline suggests science fiction and horror as one.
The horror genre lends its characters to Alien. The six men and woman in this are not characters that fit into the typical sci-fi movie, especially in 1979. They are blue- collar workers for an interstellar mining company and their job is to bring back a boring cargo. They are not astronauts or futuristic military, outfitted in slick uniforms, brandishing laser cannons. They are the type of regular people more often affected by horror films. Their presence in this film allow for more meaning to be added to the cultural conflict of the science fiction film, which is determining the limits and value of human knowledge and scientific experimentation (Schatz 700). For instance, the workers must deal with the seventh crew member, Ash, who is an artificial human (android). He represents a scientific replacement, something that could render them obsolete. Ash works against the crew for the preservation of the alien specimen because he is programmed to do so. So, a machine like him might be deemed more useful because he can be fully manipulated by the people in charge. The crew has to work against the alien as Ash tries to hinder them because the survival of the alien is also deemed more important than the crew. They are fighting the fact that advances in science are worth human lives.
Among the characters there is one who is even more at home in a horror film than sci-fi; Ellen Ripley. She fits the horror film construction of the “the last girl”, who escapes danger and survives to the end because she is more aware than her friends. Ripley is cited as the first strong heroine, even though Halloween’s Laurie Strode pre-dates her. Her character seems more important because of the last girl type entering the world of science fiction. In this world, she is forced to deal with larger issues, namely the conflict that Schatz describes above. When Kane returns to the ship with an alien attached to his face, she is the only one who is against letting him in. She is taking an active interest in her survival against science. The other crew would rather just use science to help Kane and deal with the consequences later. This parallels the stories of many horror heroines. Laurie Strode survives Halloween night and the psychopath, Michael Myers, because she maintains a sense of awareness throughout the film, while her friends get caught up in sex and fail to see the knife drop. Ripley’s entire crew is eradicated. They are punished because they failed to consider the consequences of their actions with Kane. Apart from surviving the alien, Ripley is also forced to deal with Ash, who represents the threat of science, in a very horror inspired scene. Ash startles Ripley from behind just when she is discovering his plans. He then proceeds to attack her and attempts to exfixiate her. Ripley is completely helpless against his attack and when her crew comes to her aid, they are useless in pulling him off. Ash, in this respect, is very similar to Michael Myers and Jason. His attack on Ripley was a slow stalking and he was impervious to any attack thrown at him. Like all the other last girls, Ripley narrowly survives the attack and thwarts her pursuers.
What sci-fi lends to the horror genre in Alien is the use of space. Space as a setting distances the characters from anyone who might be able to help. It is a cold, lonely and empty setting that, without proper equipment, no human being can experience. One of the proper pieces for experiencing space is a spaceship, which is a consummate favorite of the sci-fi genre. The ship in Alien, however, is more suited for the horror genre. It is not some high-tech wonder made of shiny metal, decorated in blinking lights. The Nostromo is a mining ship. Its interior has a very cold, industrial look, complete with heavy moisture and steam spewing pipes. This environment gives the alien more places to hide, which allows for a more slasher film feel since the alien isn’t out in front of the camera being accosted by lasers under low-contrast lighting. The alien reaches out and snatches his victims from behind the dark corners that the ship allows. The set was even designed by Swiss painter H.R. Giger, whose primary work has been in creating nightmarish dream-scapes. As the film progresses, the Nostromo essentially becomes a coffin because within it the alien is sure to kill you, but outside it, the deep, dark vastness of space is staring back at you to remind you of how helpless you are. Space contains the horror and magnifies it.
The alien menace is certainly a science fiction concept. Men have been fighting with these aliens within the comfort of the genre for years. The xenomorph present in this film is a completely different animal. Its design was also brought to you by the painter mentioned above, H.R. Giger. The alien as an adult appears predominantly black in color, similar in cast to heavily tarnished silver. It has an elongated shiny head with no eyes. Below, the jaw holds the razor-sharp metal teeth. The mouth houses a tongue-like body part with a second mouth on the end. This was certainly a most frightening presentation of an alien at the time. Its head, tail, and elongated jaw are phallic imagery that are coupled with the alien’s overall feminine figure to create an androgynous monster (Kuhn 187). Such presentations are often present in horror, which enjoys redrawing gender lines. This creature is also cited as the beginning of the body-horror genre, which includes most of David Cronenberg’s films. The alien we fear came from within. In possibly the film’s most horrific scene, the alien bursts from Kane’s chest at the dinner table. This brings to mind conflicts present in both horror and sci-fi, which typically show their face in the body-horror genre. Often in horror, we fear the other; we fear even more the potential of becoming an other ourselves (Sobchack 175). There is a great terror in what can come from inside. The alien is a outer manifestation of the terror within. The alien is also a reminder of the problems inherent in scientific experimentation, since Kane became a host for this new, frightening humanity to be born from.
According to Vivian Sobchack, the genres of horror and science fiction have typically been opposed to one another because both deal with different forms of chaos. Horror is forced to deal with moral chaos and the disruption of God’s order, while sci-fi is more concerned with social chaos. The two genres in their contemporary state begin with Rosemary’s Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which are prime examples of horror and science fiction chaos (Sobchack 177). Alien is the child of these quintessential films. In it, we are forced to fear what grows within us (like in Rosemary’s Baby) and we grow wary of the advances of science that may become dangerous (like HAL in 2001). Moral issues and social issues come to a head in Alien. - check out the badass original trailer

Works Cited

Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. New York: , 1990.
Schatz, Thomas. "Film Genre and Genre Film". Hollywood Genres. New York: Oxford University Pres, 2004.
Sobchack, Vivian. "Family Economy and Generic Exchange". Camera Obscura 175-177.

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