Alien was once described as a "rape movie with male victims." Ridley Scott's 1979 film "is not just about people trying not to get eaten by a drooling monstrous animal," film critic David McIntee writes in Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Alien and Predator Films. "It's worse. It's about them trying not to get raped by a drooling monstrous animal."
To impregnate humans, Scott's alien inserts its proboscis down their throats. Or an octopus-like face-hugger covers their mouths, forcing them to play host to a baby that, once ready to hatch, bursts from the depths of their chests.
The Alien franchise is renowned in feminist film circle as the first blockbuster series of the era to deal with gender and sexual politics. Ellen Ripley, as performed by Sigourney Weaver, was the first iconic female action hero. This wasn't the clichéd horror portrayal of girls served up as screaming, helpless victims. Ripley was, as Laura Mulvey termed it, the first "final girl"—a woman still capable of possessing everything we associate with femininity (think of the maternal way she holds her cat in her arms during Alien's finale) while outsmarting a creature that had efficiently worked through every male member of the Nostromo crew.
The "final girl" has always been a feature of the Alien franchise, which continues this week with the release of Alien: Covenant. Ripley's legacy is easily identifiable in Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw, the "final girl" of Prometheus, and in Katherine Waterston's portrayal of Covenant's Daniels, a woman whose wide-eyed, pixie-bob demeanor hides a determination and strength unmatched by anyone around her.
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"Alien: Covenant is interesting for the way it puts women to the margin of everything throughout the film—until the final sequence," José Arroyo, a principal teaching fellow In film studies at Warwick University. "But, at that point, the feminist element of the franchise is then very clearly reinforced."
Credit here must go to Ridley Scott. The first script of the original Alien movie involved a male hero, but Scott fought off execs to cast Weaver, then a 29-year-old virtually unknown actress. He identifies as a feminist, and his mother, he has gone on record to say, was an influence for Ripley.
"My mom brought three boys up, and she was the boss," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015."She laid down the law and the law was God. We just said: 'Yup, okay'... I think that's where the respect has come from, because she was tough."
Scott, who will turn 80 this year, returned to the franchise with prequels Prometheus and Covenant. In their existential musings about the creation of humankind, both films can easily be interpreted as takedowns of men's willingness to try and insert themselves into the path of history—decisions that subsequently have disastrous effects on women. It's notable that the first two victims in Alien: Covenant are the wife of the ship's commander, a man driven by a religious sense of his place in humanity's destiny, and the wife of the ship's captain, a jocular, reckless, whiskey-draining cowboy.
But the feminism of Alien goes deeper than its female casting; it is more visceral and integral to the viewing experience, and a lot more complex than most fanboys give it credit for. And here the credit lies with the other father of Alien: H.R. Giger.
The Swiss artist was as fluent in the tropes of German expressionist horror as he was obsessed with the linkage of humans and machines in an overtly sexual, bio-mechanical relationship. In his design for Scott's alien creature, Giger referenced the influence of Francis Bacon's 1944 painting Three Studies For Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the writhing animal-like creatures with dripping, sharp-toothed mouths, balancing on some choice interior design. Bacon, in turn, was obsessed with the Greek myth of the Furies, the underworld goddesses of vengeance who pursue the living.
On an intuitive level, Giger understood how humans express ourselves in sexual terms; how it's rarely far from our minds, and how we attribute all kinds of positive emotions with the enjoyment of sex and its capacity for new life. Alien took something we're conditioned to view as wholly beautiful, joyous and celebratory—and twisted it into a nightmare.
Do men really require a science fiction scenario to understand how horrific unwanted violation of the body is?
Some theorists have interpreted this as a basic fear of womanhood. In his book Primitive Mythology, American mythologist Joseph Campbell says in reference to Alien: "There is a motif occurring in certain primitive mythologies, as well as in modern surrealist painting and neurotic dream, which is known to folklore as 'the toothed vagina'—the vagina that castrates."
Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon has gone on record to say he used Giger's design motifs to force male audience members to reflect on the effect of sexual violence; he wanted to force male audiences to understand and experience the visceral horror of rape and sexual assault.
"The Alien movies visualize the two things so many men look upon with disgust and horror—getting penetrated themselves, and watching a woman giving birth," Arroyo says. "In the Alien films, and very much in Alien: Covenant, moments of rape are always moments of impregnation. They provide a dual, intensified horror.
Some feminist critics have their concerns over this element of the franchise. MaryAnn Johanson, the founder of the film blog FlickFilosopher, tells Broadly: "Do men really require a science fiction scenario to understand how horrific unwanted violation of the body is? Maybe if our culture treated male-on-male rape like the horror it is, men wouldn't need to turn to science fiction movies to understand the problem. Even if some men require such a prompt for their empathy, the Alien franchise still isn't one that offers much in the way of true access to women's relationship with rape."
Others, like Screen International and Sight & Sound film critic Nikki Baughan, argue that the effect that Scott was hoping to have on male audiences has yet to materialize—and that you only have to look at the violence meted out against women in cinema to see this.
"To describe the Alien franchise as a metaphor for male rape is to forget that the women of the Alien franchise are treated equally as invasively. And yet this sci-fi impregnation doesn't compare to the violent brutality frequently dished out to female characters as par of course across the breadth of cinema," says Baughan.
"It's no bad thing to encourage men to rethink the way in which women are treated on screen. But whether they recognize or appreciate this subtext—let's wait and see."