I am always the first to admit that my taste in movies is abysmal. Frankly, I don’t plug myself into a screen to be shown something deep or earth-shaking. If I want my sense of the world challenged, if I want to see real talent, if I want anything other than sugary commercialized feel-good cheeriness, I go see a play. As a result, I am horribly behind in my acquaintance with classic movies of any genre. In addition, I am not a huge fan of horror movies. To be absolutely frank, they scare me. I don’t like to be scared. So I avoid seeing them.
It is no small surprise, therefore, that I had not seen Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi staple Alien until just last night. Another gem of a film on my “to-watch” list for aforementioned sci-fi class in the fall (see my entry on Avatar).
One thing that occurred to me as I sat down with my brother the film-maker for the viewing experience is how much our culture tends to envelope and dilute classics. Watching a classic or pioneer film for the first time is very much like seeing Hamlet for the first time. There are pieces of the film that, despite your previous lack of exposure to it, you nonetheless know simply because they have been repeated, spoofed, and paraphrased in other films, your life, and the lives of those around you. It’s like déjà vu, there’s a familiarity to culturally appropriated classics that makes seeing them like seeing an old friend for the first time in ten years; there are things you know about them that you didn’t know (or remember) you knew about them. Watching the chest buster pop out of Kane was very much like hearing the “to be or not to be” speech. You know the sequence and you can nearly repeat the words and/or actions with the actors (though perhaps with a few comical additions… in my version the alien busts into a high-energy rendition of “Hello My Baby” complete with top hat and cane just as usually I have trouble seeing the infamous Hamlet speech without picturing an irate Mel Brooks a la 1:59).
Aforementioned brother reminded us frequently during the movie viewing that “this wasn’t a stereotype when they did it”. How many times have you heard that in reference to Shakespeare? How many times has a high schooler seen Romeo and Juliet before they actually see Romeo and Juliet? This movie, just as most of the canon, was groundbreaking. This was where it started. It is difficult to maintain fresh eyes throughout the viewing of this movie and, just as I personally contended upon my first encounter with the bard, it seems like a load of strung-together clichés and outdated special effects.
Once I allowed myself to suspend this disbelief, I had to face the reality of what I was seeing. Here is a film obsessed with the idea of humanity. To me, it is a movie which explores the depths of the word. What does it mean to be human? When to we cease being human? Who is entitled to human rights and compassion over regulatory rules and proprietary means? When must a leader treat her crew like people and when must she treat them like hazards to herself and themselves?
The first manifestation we see of this is in the scene when Dallas and Lambert bring back a wounded Kane from their little excursion on the alien planet. Kane has a face-hugger on him which, unbeknownst to the crew at the time, is laying eggs in his chest. Ripley, acting officer upon the ships, reminds Dallas of quarantine regulations. Since something has happened, all three of them must wait outside the airlock of the ship for a period of time. Dallas and Lambert beg to be let in, saying that Kane’s only hope of survival is to get the thing off of his face.
Here, of course, is the classic first mistake which causes the downfall of the crew and precipitates the true action of the movie. Ash acts against regulations and against Ripley’s orders and lets his crewmates inside the ship.
This single action, Ash’s refusal to obey orders and protocol, sets the plot in motion. If the entire crew had listened to Ripley, the outcome of the movie would have changed drastically. Kane wouldn’t have been any more or less dead in the end, and everyone else would have been significantly more safe (and by that I mean there would have been hope for survivors other than Ripley). Was Ripley’s order humanitarian? No. Was it for the greater good? Yes. This decision precipitated a debate amongst myself and my fellow movie watchers; what would you have done? Your commanding officers orders you not to, clearly someone’s life hangs in the balance, not knowing what is about to happen (or even knowing what is about to happen), what would your course of action have been?
The general consensus amongst us was that it would have depended who was outside. Someone I don’t care for? Someone who I could care less about? Someone I love? These human emotions effect human decisions, and this (I think) is key to Alien’s continuing appeal as movie.
The big reveal of the movie is that Ash is an android with special secret orders from the company who hired the crew. These orders are to return with whatever alien life-form he can find, all other objectives being secondary to this objective, and that the crew is expendable. This adds a few more facets to the movie’s concept of humanity. It first and foremost begs the question can a robot be human? Without a doubt in the case mentioned above Ash’ actions (though motivated by a force deeper than compassion) were more humanitarian than Ripley’s. If something wears our face, can think for itself and act upon these thoughts, does that make it human?
And what about the “human” employers of this crew? How human can they be if they sent a group of individuals into space on what was essentially viewed as a suicide mission to reach an end important only to them?
One of the movie’s taglines is “sometimes the scariest things come from within”. Clearly this is a reference to the chest-buster and the fact that the alien was actually “birthed” by one of the crew members. This “birth” coupled with the tagline creates an anxiety about evil within the human. What are we capable of? What is growing within us that we may or may not know about? Have we, as a species, allowed this to grow there just as Dallas and Ash allowed the alien onto the ship? Are we clueless that it’s there just as Kane is clueless about his little friend until it bursts through his chest at dinner? What is this seed inside ourselves that can spawn so great an evil?
To me, the tagline is also a nod to aforementioned explored evils within humanity. The word “within” creates a binary; us and them. Without an “us”, there is no “within” to come from. Alien complicates that binary, forcing us to re-examine our qualifications for joining the softball team of the human race.