“In space no one can hear you scream.” This might be cinema’s most famous tagline. It tells us that humans are powerless to confront the terrors of the cosmos: we may be afraid, but nobody will be listening. Forty years since Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi masterpiece Alien was first released, the film still delivers on this existential dread.
What is it about Alien that gets under our skin? Scott’s film pursues an astronaut crew hunted by an alien life form aboard their spaceship. It’s interwoven with endlessly interpretable themes: artificial intelligence, desire, rape, fear of the unknown.
But the alien’s ruthless biological imperative to reproduce is the film’s masterstroke. Horror underscores the crew’s revulsion at the possibility of their unwilling impregnation. It was an element that creators stumbled upon by accident; screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was initially searching for an interesting way the monster could embark the ship, and hit upon the idea of a crew member becoming “pregnant” with its offspring.
Alien fixates on its protagonist’s biology. When an alien life form attaches itself to a crew member’s face, his colleagues discover that wounding the creature releases a dangerously corrosive blood fluid. They won’t be able to kill it conventionally – unless they’re willing to risk the destruction of their ship.
On planet earth, predators hunt their prey to consume them. Alien deviates from this evolutionary food chain – the creature is more interested in impregnating humans as carriers for its biological spawn. Scott’s film evokes primal horror of violation and sexual perversion; it’s no accident that the alien itself is so phallic.
Unusually for a film script, the victims of sexual violation are not exclusively female. O’Bannon acknowledges that this was intentional, in an interview for the 2002 documentary Alien Saga:
“I’m going to attack [the audience] sexually… 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.”
In the original script, characters’ genders were explicitly interchangeable. This was a distinctly unusual feature for a sci-fi script at the time, and meant that the lead Ellen Ripley, the now iconic female action hero played by Sigourney Weaver, was never initially conceived of as a woman at all.
This might explain why her behaviour doesn’t conform to the sexist stereotypes rife in 1970s filmmaking. Weaver also told the Independent in 2012 that Ripley was an expression of 1970s feminist insurgency: “Women were agitating to be in the army, to work in warehouses and as truck drivers.”
Other than making room for a powerful female lead for the film, the gender-neutral script underlines something crucial about Alien’s horror: all human life is at threat. Audiences were already familiar with women as the targets of sexual assault, but Alien brought a new horror into the mainstream, a truly inhuman sexual attacker indiscriminate about its targets.
When the BBFC were deciding how to rate the film in 1979, they gave it an X (18) certificate for depicting “a perverse view of sexual function” which runs “like a dark undercurrent” throughout. As we follow Ripley fleeing through the ship’s labyrinthine tunnels, we can imagine the alien’s desire.
Rather than being eaten, Ripley will be raped: a possibility far more horrifying than your average monster movie. This particular horror is the key to the success of the Alien franchise: in Scott’s 2012 Prometheus, we see the lead, Elizabeth Shaw, performing an emergency abortion on herself.
The 40th anniversary reissue of Alien this month feels timely. While other sci-fi classics like Blade Runner or the Star Wars films showcase technological advances of a coming space age, the vision of the future seen in Alien is one focused on a primal fear that predates technology. The future, Alien asks us to imagine, might not look so different from the present: rape and sexual violence might be more of a threat, not less.
Our contemporary cultural landscape is incomparable to that of the 1970s, and today we are far more aware of the insidious nature of sexual violence. What enables Alien to endure 40 years on is how it suggests men, as well as women, should fear rape. Sexual assault is not limited to female bodies. If Alien makes one thing plain, it is that everybody, regardless of their gender, suffers if sexual violence is allowed to take place unopposed – a message that will be appreciated in 2019 perhaps more than ever.
Imogen West-Knights writes about film and culture for the Financial Times, the TLS and Little White Lies. She tweets @ImogenWK
Alien returns to cinemas across the UK this month.