CW/TW: Themes of Sexual Violence
Examining the sexual violence of the Alien film franchise.
Alien from 1979 is considered by many to be one of the definitive Science Fiction films of all time. Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Dan O’Bannon, and starring Sigourney Weaver, Alien paved the way for many tropes and familiar elements in the genre and was the first massive science fiction/horror film. It was an instant hit with audiences and critics alike and went on to spawn four sequels, a spin-off film (Prometheus), and two crossover films with the Predator franchise, let alone the countless video games, comics, novels, and action figures made.
However, in this commercialization of the film, the original’s subject matter of the horrors of sexual violence and violence against women has been very much forgotten. In this essay I shall explore this core theme of the original Alien film and why I feel the franchise has avoided, and yet also come back to this theme at multiple points over its lifespan.
In Alien (1979) the story begins with a group of working-class people working on a space freighter, named the Nostromo, being woken up to investigate a distress signal coming from a mysterious planet. As they land on the planet to investigate, one of their lead officers named Kane, played by John Hurt, stumbles upon a mysterious cavern filled with egg-shaped objects, and in the center is a massive dead body.
As he investigates the eggs, one opens up and fires a mysterious creature through his helmet. As he is brought back into the ship, the creature covering his face cannot be removed, and if it’s cut, it bleeds acidic blood. However, it shortly dies after the analysis and Kane wakes up and appears to be fine. At dinner that night, Kane seems to be acting normal until he has what seems to be a seizure, only for another creature to burst through his chest. It is determined that the initial creature implanted an egg in Kane.
Already at this point, we can start to see the allegory for assault and rape in how the titular Alien reproduces. It violates its victim in an incredibly obtrusive and harmful way, only to get worse. Much like how PTSD can represent itself. According to the film’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, this was intentionally meant to reflect how in horror films it is usually female characters who are subjected to this kind of sexual violence
“Alien scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon argues that it also functions as a metaphorical dramatization of the male fear of penetration. He says that the oral invasion of Hurt’s character was ‘payback’ for all those horror films in which sexually vulnerable women were terrorized by rampaging male monsters.”Mark Kermode; The Guardian; October 19th, 2003
As the plot continues, the crew of the Nostromo continues to be whittled down one by one until the final survivor is one of the crew’s only two female members. Ellen Ripley played by the aforementioned Sigourney Weaver. It is, in the end, Ripley who manages to outsmart the Alien and survive, and it is in this message that the true theme of feminist strength is revealed.
By having Ripley be the one to overcome the Alien and not a male character, it is a woman who overcomes the horror of rape that is represented by the Alien. This can be seen in its style of birth and reproduction, and also in its design by H. R. Giger which has been interpreted as phallic in shape, specifically in its head.
Alien 3 and the Post-Alien Franchise
However, as the franchise continued on, this message began to, in a way, almost die out. The sequel Aliens by James Cameron focusing more on the themes of motherhood and also having more of an action bend than a horror bend. This would be seen time and time again with the franchise. With one major exception. That major exception being Alien 3 by David Fincher.
Alien 3 to me is a deeply personal film. As a young woman that is a survivor of sexual assault, the themes and allegories in Alien 3 are ones I can deeply relate to. Ripley never being able to truly escape the Xenomorphs, only finding solace in taking control of her own destiny after losing everything she loved because of it, is something I’ve dealt with at multiple points. Surviving and healing from sexual assault is something that takes a lifetime and often feels like you can’t win. It’s those emotions that Alien 3 conjures up.
Alien 3 picks up right where Aliens left off, with Ripley and her newfound family in the form of adopted daughter Newt, love interest Hicks, and close friend Bishop leaving the planet from Aliens after surviving an attack from the Queen Alien. However, along the way, the Queen was able to lay the last final egg in their ship. The hatching of the egg leading to the spaceship breaking, causing it to crash on a prison planet, killing everyone on board besides Ripley.
It is in these opening moments of Alien 3, that everything is once more taken from Ripley by the Alien, having already lost her own daughter to the passage of time in Aliens, in a cycle that would repeat in Alien 3 with Ripley proceeding to lose her love interest in the film (Played by Charles Dance) and culminating in Ripley sacrificing herself to wipe out the final Alien, the one laid in her chest.
It is in this cycle of loss and grief that Alien 3 fully explores the effects that rape can have on a person. Much like a rape victim, Ripley struggles with PTSD from her encounters with the Alien, as seen when she hyperventilates and feels instant despair upon learning she’s been infected with the Queen’s egg. The theme of loss as a result of Ripley’s trauma is also very relevant to rape-induced PTSD with it being as life-changing as Alien 3 shows.
However, after Alien 3 this aspect of the franchise was forgotten or trivialized. 1997’s Alien Resurrection entirely foregoes these themes in favor of over-the-top action, as does the Alien vs Predator duology of 2004 and 2007. Ridley Scott would return to the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus and its follow-up Alien: Covenant. However, like the three entries before them, the allegory that had once defined the series was not used in any significant way beyond one sub-plot in Prometheus that did not amount to much.
Despite this, Alien will always be remembered as being groundbreaking in its allegorical nature and what it explored. Ensuring that the original themes of sexual violence and sexual abuse in Alien will forever be discussed, no matter what the franchise does from this point forward.