CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (19)
August 19, 2019
One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating some of our favorite action movies from the Seventies (1974–1983).
ALIEN | d. RIDLEY SCOTT | 1979
What do we remember about Alien? Ominous, fleshy glowing eggs the size of beach balls. Rape and impregnation courtesy of a face-hugging, strangulating nightmare. Parasitism. A bloody chest-bursting dining table birth. A sleek, deadly predator who kills with its tail and a retractable double row of teeth. Powerful and strange, the xenomorph holds the crew of the Nostromo helpless in the endless night of space. Ultimately paired with the “final girl” Ripley in an all stakes David and Goliath struggle for survival, the xenomorph alien has less screen time, but steals the show in its brilliant (if briefly shown) Giger form.
But Alien doesn’t just reliably trot out the stuff of great space horror. What’s so phenomenal about the film is how it relentlessly presents two key themes: the rise of the sublime in face of the ordinary, and the exemplar of this — the alien’s reproductive imperative, a form of violent and total domination.
The opening credits of Alien lay out these themes immediately. The vast, dark mystery of space is juxtaposed with the prosaic world aboard the weathered freighter ship, the Nostromo. The Nostromo is cluttered with crew mementos, filled with glitchy tech and comms and the crew’s repetitive background patter about fair pay. Later, as the crew explores the derelict alien ship, technical and human incompetence compound the doldrums of space travel for hire.
In this world, the prosaic throws the sublime into deep relief and vice versa. The alien is efficient, adaptable; so much about it is a commentary on the sloppy ordinariness of the crew, which only grows as their terror increases. As the adult xenomorph’s shiny black latex carapace, translucent teeth, and terrifying speed punctuates the absolute lumpenness of humans, so does its focused reproductive imperative reveal the banality of humanity’s scattered, petty concerns. Ash, science officer and an android also divorced from human interests, explains that the xenomorph is “The perfect organism.”
This is the central narrative of Alien, being dwarfed by the unknown and extraordinary and sacrificed to it. Ash and The Company that’s staffed this freight operation agree that the xenomorph is more valuable than the crew. When Ash’s duplicity and sabotage is discovered, he moves in parallel to the model of xenomorph domination, attempting to silence Ripley by shoving a rolled magazine down her throat. Behind him is a wall of naked pinups, presumably posted to keep some lonely crewman company. Sexual violence “unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality,” as Ash would put it, brings the horror home.
In xenomorph reproduction, orifices are misused, forced penetration and egress are reimagined, and the full process of transformation from one form to another is unknown. But, the process is uncomfortably familiar in what it is and where it places humans in the order of things — on the bottom, the soil from which this perfect organism grows. The horror comes from realizing that this familiar form of violence will be used against us, we are the slaves, the prey, easily beaten at our own game of dominance by something even more driven and perfect than us.
CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION | Madeline Ashby on BLADE RUNNER | Erik Davis on BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA | Mimi Lipson on CONVOY | Luc Sante on BLACK SUNDAY | Josh Glenn on THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR | Lisa Jane Persky on SORCERER | Devin McKinney on THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | Adam McGovern on QUINTET | Mandy Keifetz on DEATH RACE 2000 | Peter Doyle on SOUTHERN COMFORT | Jonathan Lethem on STRAIGHT TIME | Heather Kapplow on THE KILLER ELITE | Tom Nealon on EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE | Mark Kingwell on THE EIGER SANCTION | Sherri Wasserman on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK | Gordon Dahlquist on MARATHON MAN | David Levine on PARALLAX VIEW | Matthew Sharpe on ROLLERBALL | Ramona Lyons on ALIEN | Dan Piepenbring on WHITE LINE FEVER | Marc Weidenbaum on THIEF | Carolyn Kellogg on MAD MAX | Carlo Rotella on KUNG FU | Peggy Nelson on SMOKEY & THE BANDIT | Brian Berger on FRIDAY FOSTER.
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