Sunday, 24 October 2010

Growing up with a Facehugger

Ten years ago, I first watched Alien. I’m pretty sure it was a Wednesday night, with school the next day. ITV used to show a major movie every mid-week; often a series. For many people my age, their four month dedication to showing every single Bond movie (up to Tomorrow Never Dies at that point), was the first chance we’d had to catch the full series. Some time a decade ago, they decided to show the original Alien trilogy and a childhood dream was achieved. It’s somewhat ironic that I’m returning to the series now; as a kid, I begged my parents to let me watch Alien by telling them that, by the time I was 18, it probably wouldn’t be around anymore. To that eight year old kid, ten years seemed like a lifetime away. I only watched Alien once, and I still remember the emotions it stirred like it was a few days ago. I had never experienced anything like it before.
As a child that grew up within the 90s action movie merchandise boom – who related licensed action figures to overblown special effects extravaganzas, Alien, when I first started watching it, was pretty odd. That opening scene seemed to last forever. And where is that big yellow Robo-suit they sell in Woolworths? Things got a lot more interesting once these guys landed on the alien planet. I was being presented with images of bizarre, organic-looking caverns which seemed to carry on forever, and a giant skeleton space pilot?! It was pretty awe-inspiring stuff, and I can’t deny being quite disappointed when I re-watched the scene of the Space Jockey today and, whilst still instilled with dread, failed to be transported. Growing up diminishes the ability to experience wonder; Ash’s malfunctioning, white fluids spewing everywhere, whilst still arrestingly perverted, no longer disturbed me to my core. And the Chestburster scene? I wasn’t scared. But I was disturbed in a way I could not have comprehended at the age of eleven.
Alien is about childbirth. Specifically, it is about man’s fundamental inability to grasp the processes of conception, gestation, and labour that women endure during procreation. Penetration, growth and parenthood are all forced through the filter of one that finds the event totally removed from their emotional and physical experience. Kane as father-mother is not only raped but impregnated, the mythic pain of childbirth and primal fear of bodily ejection being realised in a wholly male-based biology where even the newborn looks like a giant, bloody penis. It is not enough to refer to the alien as parasitic; it has a particular vampiric quality to it that renders it as an active, violent threat. Yet where Count Dracula may be invited, and his brand of intercourse suspiciously female (you orally invade his open wound to become a vampire), the facehugger is always the male, no matter what.
In many ways Alien is a companion piece to Eraserhead. Both look at the father’s role in bringing a being into the world so far removed from their life that they cannot relate to it, and are ultimately antagonistic toward it. Eraserhead’s industrial landscape of unnatural nightmare becomes Giger’s biomechanical caress that is all too organic – impossibly so. This is obvious in the case of the crashed Space Jockey, whose chair has strongly phallic suggestions (a visual marker that we are entering stage one of the procreative act; sexual intercourse), as well as of course the androgynous alien, a creature that has all the disparate elements of visual attraction, but no welcoming unity. It matches Shelley’s description of Frankenstein’s monster as a being whose perfection makes it terrifyingly non-human (another male-mother figure, ironically). Yet the Nostromo itself, with its padded lines and maze of corridors, is reminiscent of the inner body, the crew waking up from their cryogenic sleep through a series of dreamy, overlaid shots that strongly suggest a process of birth. More tellingly, the rail that connects their scout vessel to the ship at large, and from which they detach when they descend to the alien planet, is referred to off-hand as the ‘umbilicus’. And let’s not forget conscientious Ash and his ‘Mother’, the artificial relationship that sets itself as diametric opposite to that of Kane and the alien.
The Giger-ian product of male-male intercourse can only ever be a singular Other, now-classic Horror/Slasher tropes melding with stronger Freudian notions to create a specific feeling of dread that few movies – not least the sequels – failed to reproduce or truly build upon. Ash’s utterance, ‘Kane’s son’ is of course a play upon Cain’s son, the Biblical notion of the fallen family that threatens us, Abel’s descendants. It’s easy to remember that Alien was the first formidable Sci-Fi Horror. It’s hard, it seems, to remember why. When I first watched the movie, these ideas of birthing would have been alien to me, and to some people probably still are. Yet they are irrefutably there, and were clearly noticed by later filmmakers. What it became for them however was almost as troubling to contend with as the idea of a laconic Englishman giving birth at the dinner table. Aliens consciously refuted the biological nightmare, firmly grounded in human intercourse, in favour of a commentary on the Military-Industrial complex (repeated unashamedly in Avatar), mingled with an admittedly strong maternal battle against the alien culture, now reconfigured as a caste-system akin to Bees. One glance at the production history of Alien 3 reveals a troubled tackling of the disparate issues these movies raised that ultimately aided neither. And Alien Resurrection? Just step away.

This begs the question, could the parental anxiety of Alien really be taken any further? Ellen and Newt's relationship in Aliens sets itself up as the unbreakable antidote to this issue, staring right back in the face of masculine fear. Did Alien say everything it needed to say and leave the door open only for the eventual prostitution of its iconic nemesis? Maybe this, ironically, was a fitting end for a creature that so commanded our own fears of sexuality.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing essay! Was a great reading! Have you read "Alien" Zone, a compliation of science ficción essays by Annete Kuhn? Your writing has that level!! Congratulations and thanks again for this great reading!