shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket”
- attr. W.H. Auden, cit. Alien Script, 1978
Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor
unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality” - 'Ash', Alien
|Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979|
|The Chain of Being, from Charles Bonnet's Œuvres d'histoire naturelle et de philosophie,1779-83|
|Man touched by Other, in Alien dir. Ridley Scott, 1979|
A synopsis is warranted to briefly underscore that the alien process of the 'creature's' lifecycle is central to the narrative. In 2122, the Weyland-Yutani commercial spaceship Nostromo is returning to Earth with its load of mineral ore and 7 crew members held in stasis for the duration of the voyage home. When the ship intercepts an alien transmission, the pilot computer, Mother, awakens the crew. Being obligated to investigate any systematized transmission indicating possible intelligent extra terrestrial life, a party descends to the origin of the transmission on moon LV-426, where they discover the wreckage of a vast alien spacecraft. Inside they find the fossilised remains of an alien crewmember ('spacejockey') and a large cluster of eggs, or pods. One bursts open and an organism ('facehugger') attaches itself to Kane, paralysing him.
|'Face Hugger' in Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979|
Ripley refuses to let the infected crewmembers back on board, insisting they follow the Science Division's quarantine law, but Science Officer Ash defies her orders. He wants to extract the creature, dissect it and study it for scientific advancement. Eventually the 'facehugger releases Kane and dies. The ship continues its journey but Kane goes into convulsions and an alien bursts from his chest, killing him.
|'Chest-burster' in Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979|
When the 'chest-burster' escapes, the crew must find and kill it. It rapidly grows into a huge, ferocious adult 'Xenomorph' (lit. 'alien-form') When Ash tries to kill Ripley for interfering with his 'specimin' she destroys him - revealing him to be an android. The Weyland-Yutani corporation deployed Ash to intentionally infect the crew of the Nostromo, thus capturing an alien sample and bringing it home to develop and possibly weaponise. The crew was expendable in his mission. One by one the alien picks off crewmembers, storing some in cocoons, until only Ripley is left. She initiates the ship’s self-destruct sequence and escapes in a tiny shuttle. The alien follows her into the shuttle where she forces it out of the hatch, blasting it into space. She sets course to Earth putting herself and Jones, the ship’s cat, into stasis.
|Xenomorph vs. Human in Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979|
Themes of extinction, parasitism, and metamorphosis are integral to the narrative and the focus for generating horror. Metamorphosis is a necessity of the alien species survival, and an advantage for species dispersal. It maximises the possibility of propagation by ensuring diversity of hosts, temporary as opposed to fixed habitats, opportunity to maximise food supply, and widespread dispersal of animals – in short: it ensures the advantage of adaptation and flexibility.
The alien Xenomorph also has the advantage of being parasitic and something approaching holometabolous. It has a similar lifecycle to some endoparasitoid insects, including some species of flies, cockroaches, and wasps. The Xenomorph lifecycle can be compared to that of Ampulex Compressa - an entomophageous tropical wasp that stings and zombifies a cockroach host with neurotoxins, then lays an egg on its leg and buries it alive. The larva that emerges from the egg then devours the cockroach host, ultimately killing it. In Alien, the creature's life cycle is similar yet it consists of four distinct phases involving two separate obligate parasitic ‘creatures’, the metamorphoses of which are dependent up on a dispensable host.
The Xenomorph is capable of instantaneous 'evolution' – its form varies depending on its host as it has the ability to appropriate genetic material from its host and it is physiologically capable of rapidly adapting to the atmosphere it finds itself born into. It uses host DNA to ‘evolve’ during gestation, becoming comparable with its prey and adapting to its environment. The human phenotype is a bipedal, insectoid vertebrate with acidic blood, a hard exoskeleton of 'protein polysaccharides', and both external mandibles and a retractable inner pharyngeal jaw of venomous teeth. As well as using them as hosts, Xenomorph capture creatures, storing them in cocoons for feeding or impregnation at a later point. In later Alien films, we learn that the alien species function as hives - super organisms generated by a formidable Queen. This is nonetheless inferred in Alien by showing the field of eggs as well as the practice of nest building and encasing live victims as food storage. Queens, which are much larger, more developed and more intelligent than ‘drone’ Xenomorph, control the actions of the lower creatures.
Critics might define Ripley by her moral stance towards her female biological capacity as a vessel for evolving creatures: she can make ‘people’, hence she can make 'creatures' - an act of biological warfare. Yet the 'creature' that threatens to supersede humanity is in fact amorphous - there is no 'Alien' and, horrifically, no individual entity to will its own survival (the self-aware Queen Alien in the later films being an attempt to continue the franchise beyond its natural demise). To survive, the Alien species, like some insects, separates its developmental stages into discrete beings the purpose of each being to secure the next, more evolved stage in its genesis. These discrete creatures nonetheless exert their roles and are prepared - unlike humans - to die in order to complete their purpose and ensure the perpetuation of the species.
What we see, then, is a reassertion of human species superiority over a parasitoid predator defeated, in the end, like any other animal, by human intelligence and technology. It took only one alien to wipe out Ripley's entire crew, so what if Earth were to be invaded by that species? Scott intended the ending to be the Alien biting Ripley's head off and answering the distress call response from Earth in 'her' voice. That ending would have more clearly spoken to the film's Darwinian anxieties and it is a great disappointment that he was not able to end the film like that. That ending would have made the film a much more powerful existential horror about evolution with no reassuring ideology about human species superiority. Had Scott done that, however, there could have been no sequels and, possibly, no prequel...
|Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012|
In Prometheus, Scott was able to more directly focus the film’s theme of evolution, and in that film we see human species superiority more shakily defended, and the question of the origin of the species - human and Xenomorph - uncompromisingly addressed. In Prometheus the evolutionary horrors of the original Alien concept are brought to the fore of a narrative that also speaks loudly to contemporary debates around creationism, intelligent design, and evolution.The premise of Prometheus is that the Weyland Corporation’s search for extra terrestrial life has been on going for decades. Before the Nostromo ever set on its voyage, Peter Weyland commissioned a search for not just aliens but the origins of life itself, believing that non-supernatural intelligent designers (the ‘Engineers’, or ‘Mala'kak’) created the human race. An alien is not so much ‘humanoid’ as humans are ‘alienoid’.
Prometheus opens with an alien being sacrificing itself on an ancient Earth. The being drinks a black toxin whereupon its body disintegrates, falling onto the water where its DNA becomes corrupted and reconstituted, seeding Earth with alien life. Human life, then, is directly shown to be the result of a conscious process of exogenesis.
|Seeding Earth in Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012|
On Earth, two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, find evidence in ancient wall murals of beings who came to Earth and seeded it with humans. Funded by the Weyland Corporation they travel to LV-223, a distant planet, where they find evidence of a civilisation as well as the severed head of an alien creature they take to be one of the 'engineers'. Back on the ship, the head is analysed and the Engineer’s DNA is discovered to be identical to that of the human race. The android David intentionally infects Holloway with the black substance to see if it will change him and/or cause him to impregnate Shaw with an alien.
On LV-223 abandoned crewmembers are attacked by serpent-like creatures and infected with the black fluid. When the rescue crew arrives, David discovers a live Engineer in stasis and a star map highlighting Earth. Holloway's infection is causing him to violently change and when Weyland Corporation supervisor Vickers refuses to let him aboard, he bids her kill him. Shaw is indeed ‘pregnant’ with an alien creature and, rather than return to Earth in stasis, as David wants, she escapes into a surgery machine and ‘aborts’ the creature. Peter Weyland is found in stasis on the ship, having contrived the mission solely to beg the Engineers for more life. The crew theorize that LV-223 was a military base for Engineers who were using the black DNA toxin as a biological weapon. When David awakens the dormant Engineer and tries to communicate with it, it decapitates him and kills Weyland.
|Speaking to the 'Engineer' in Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012|
David’s severed android head is able to tell the horrified crew that the ampoules of black toxin are destined for Earth: our creators have for some reason decided to destroy their creation. When the Engineer tries to take off for Earth, Shaw convinces the remaining crew to crash Prometheus into its ship, but the Engineer survives. Shaw’s aborted alien foetus has also survived and grown to gigantic size. When the Engineer attacks Shaw in the escape pod, she releases ‘her’ offspring upon him. Shaw and what is left of David take off in an alien ship to the Engineers' home planet to discover why they created, then tried to destroy, humanity. An alien bursts out the dying Engineer's chest (cue: Prometheus 2).
Prometheus modifies the Darwinian premise of the first Alien film, as well as acting as a rebuff to the metaphysical yearnings and ‘species supremacism’ of creationist or intelligent design theorists. The search for the origins of the species has shifted in Prometheus from the evolutionary development of life involuntarily exerting itself as varied forms, to fixed-point intentional interventions in the development of life in the universe. There have been scientific theories of extra-terrestrial processes of evolution, such as Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe, and that planet Earth was inseminated by genetic material (usually bacteria) on space debris such as meteoroids and asteroids. The theory does not yet explain how life initially began in the universe, only how might have been propagated.
Prometheus explores the idea that what some see as premeditated features of life on Earth are indeed the result of intelligent design, but adds a twist to the God/science debate by positing that the ‘designers’ are neither supernatural nor benevolent. What is more, their design (us) is not at the axis of their existence. Their ‘superiority’ is their creation of humans as a kind of technology; what little the voyagers learn about their creators leaves them as baffled about reasons for life on Earth as they were before.
|Alien vector in Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012|
The idea of the Xenomorph as also being created in this obscure programme of interventionist evolution is exploited in the Aliens vs. Predator franchise of films and videogames in which it is posited that Xenomorph are also used as ‘game’ bred on Earth and other planets by Yautja (Predators) for use in hunts. It is also suggested that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is again in some way aware of this activity. The darker side of evolution and creation in the universe is aligned with anti-humanist corporate exploitation, by which the ability to monetise and weaponise extra-terrestrial life forms supersedes any claim to scientific knowledge or human advancement. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation is integral to the narrative in that they – like the Engineers – are using Xenomorph for their own advancement but also, as their corporate mission states, Weyland are ‘BUILDING BETTER WORLDS’ - in other words, Weyland is a corporation intent on colonising planets by building artificial environments that support human life - ‘terraforming’ (this spoof 2023 Ted Talk explains Weyland's paradigm shift in cybernetics and world building)