As prime mover and standout villain in Ridley Scott’s horror hybrid, Alien (1979), science officer Ash may be the film’s principal character.
What is Alien about?
The Nostromo is a commercial mining vessel in deep space. Onboard are 7 crew – plus a cat – in stasis for the journey back to the Earth. The ship’s computer, ‘Mother’, wakes them early after detecting a distress signal.
The crew are ordered to land on a hostile moon, to search for survivors on the ship that sent the SOS. During the mission, second officer Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by an alien organism.
Despite third officer, Ripley, (Sigourney Weaver) warning against it, Kane is brought back to the Nostromo – with the organism still attached to his face.
Once onboard, the alien rapidly develops into a ruthless predator and picks off each of the crew members in turn. With the Nostromo once more in orbit, there’s no way to escape its killing spree.
Important: This article unpacks and interpret Alien’s key themes. Reading past this point will reveal plot spoilers.
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Alien: the serial killer theory
As with other horror/slasher movies, Alien is about a murderer bumping off the cast one-by-one. Nightmare on Elm Street has Freddy Krueger, Halloween has Michael Myers; Alien has the xenomorph.
However, the alien isn’t the serial killer. That term isn’t appropriate for an organism that can’t escape its biological need to feed or survive. If a lion escaped from the zoo and ate two pensioners and a vicar, the lion wouldn’t be a serial killer, either.
Later, the surviving crew members discover Ash – who has been passing as human until this point – is an android. Not only that, but he violates Asimov’s ‘First Law of robotics’: don’t cause or allow harm to humans.
As ordered by the Nostromo’s commercial directors, Ash reroutes the ship with the sole intention of catching the xenomorph. His instructions are to treat the crew as expendable – and he carries that out to the letter.
We’re told the xenomorph’s value lies in its potential as a military weapon. But in fact Ash uses the weapon immediately. He directs the crew into the alien’s path as a means of keeping it unharmed, helping it breed, or feeding it, as required. Ash, as the alien’s human-faced alter ego is the de facto serial killer.
Arguably, there’s a chain of command which shields the real murderers. Ash uses the weapon, but under the command of the ship’s commercial directors. In other words, they kill the crew by remote control.
This theme is common across the Alien franchise (and Jaws). Profits ahead of people leads to destruction. Or, in other words, capitalism kills.
Sigourney Weaver was relatively unknown when originally cast as Ripley. Much later, she shared co-lead with Holly Hunter in Copycat (1995). What’s really interesting is the way Alien foreshadows some of the genre patterns of the later film – which is about a serial killer.
Isolation is a key theme in both movies. In Copycat, Weaver’s character has agoraphobia and can’t leave her apartment. This leaves her a sitting duck for the serial killer. In Alien, the crew unwittingly launch into space with the xenomorph already onboard – ironically, this removes their escape route.
Later, Ripley tries to blow up the ship – an act which traps her in even closer proximity with the alien. The film’s ending exactly replicates the earlier escape attempt, but on a smaller scale: this ramps up the tension considerably, because now there is literally nowhere to run.
Both films also use mimicry as a source of danger. In Copycat (and many similar movies), the killer hides behind a number of identities. He can’t be easily stopped, because he looks like any other human out there.
Inevitably, there comes a moment when the killer steps out from behind the mask and is revealed – compare also Hannibal Lecter taking off his ‘human skin mask’ at the end of Silence of the Lambs.
In Alien, Ash likewise pretends to be ‘any other human’, a deception that allows him to kill undetected. However he’s not human … Ash is literally alien: hostile, a foreign body, having allegiance elsewhere. In a sense, the movie’s title refers to him just as much as the xenomorph.
There’s a visual reminder of this mimicry in the film’s final scenes – when the alien hides in Ripley’s escape pod, and she can’t tell it apart from the craft’s pipes and machinery. It’s even repeated at the ending of Alien: Covenant, when we’re not sure which android is which. Again and again, the killers rely on mimicry.
Mothers and gods
In prequel film Prometheus, the human crew are on a mission to discover their creators. Things get muddied along the way: partly once again because of capitalism, power and greed, but also because of David’s desire to be more than a robot. He wants to create almost as much as Weylan wants to be a god.
Alien: Covenant shows David finally achieving this. He ‘gives birth’ to the xenomorph – albeit by using Shaw as a surrogate mother (completing the fate she escaped in Prometheus).
The theme of mis-creation first appears in Alien. The ship’s computer is called ‘Mother’. Ash uses a surrogate to birth the xenomorph, though this time it’s Kane’s body. Ash even refers to the alien as ‘Kane’s son’.
Across the franchise, whenever the alien respawns, it’s through the chest or throat – anywhere other than the womb (with Shaw’s Caesarean delivery/abortion in Prometheus perhaps coming closest to bucking the trend).
Alien (1979) followed on the heels of the first successful test-tube baby (Louise Brown, 1978), so it’s possible to see the film as a reflection of its time – when science was experimenting with conception beyond the womb.
Either way, the film forges a speculative cinematic world in which men, and then robots, usurp female acts of [pro]creation. This new vision of creation is not without its dangers: in fact, it seems almost indistinguishable from death. Of course, it’s not life that the corporate gods seek in the Alien franchise, but power, and that can be achieved through either creating OR killing. This is the lesson for the androids – and they learn quickly.
Alien (1979), dir. Ridley Scott.
Picture credit: copyright 20th Century-Fox (in composite)