Entertainment Discourse

I wrote the observations about Ripley and McCauliffe before reviewing the movie Alien. I hadn’t seen Alien since I was a child and what struck me was how powerful my image of Ripley had grown over time.

In the original Alien film, Ripley has to measure and balance her masculine (logos) with her feminine (pathos) in order to kill the Alien and make it off the ship. The image I had in my mind when I wrote the original entry for the Entertainment Discourse was a Ripley that was mostly logos-based, mostly male, mostly a plucky bad-ass.

But when I re-watched the film, I noticed that Ripley was terrified throughout. I also hadn't remembered that she is rule-abiding. The Alien gets onto the ship because she follows protocol and disobeys Dallas’ order to open the hatch so he and Park can pull Kane into the ship’s medical unit to try and remove the Alien from his face.

Ash, of course, overrides Ripley’s command because he is an android and following a secret protocol from “Mother.” Parker seems to be Ripley’s antithesis: the histrionic female; incapacitated by pathos. Emotion run amok.

What struck upon reviewing the film was not Ripley as Savior or strong female lead, but her deftness in managing to balance her fear with her instinct to survive and her ultimate triumph: never losing her humanity. This movie is even more poignant now, set against the modern backdrop of corporate-backed science, the rise and moral implications of hybrids, military co-opting of science-as-defense, parasitism and plague, feminism, forcible rape, even the treatment of animals.

Speaking of animals, I was also struck by the use of the cat “Jones” as totem, icon, and sage. The Egyptians were the first in the Western tradition to believe that at sunset, the Sun God Ra would die, descend into the underworld, and rise again with the sunrise. At night, Ra was in danger because he was virtually unprotected on his journey through the underworld. So, he was accompanied by the big cat, who could reflect light and thus see in the dark. The lion protected Ra and would kill the serpent if need be. Oh the parallels!

First, let’s not forget the Alien most resembles a giant snake. It lay coiled in the pipes and hoses of the shuttle. And, the Alien would not hesitate to attack, like the Egyptian serpent, putting the entire universe in danger. To illustrate how dangerous the Alien is, Ash says: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

Lambert: You admire it.

Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

This story ultimately explores many themes: humanity, sexuality, Big Science, corporatism, hybridism. But it makes use of common, quite old, symbols to tell a tale that is also quite old: how to combat threats without loosing one’s humanity.

And so, that’s the conclusion I draw from rewatching Alien. Yes, it's a movie with a strong female lead, but it's genius runs deeper than that. Alien explores what it means to be/remain human in a world not too far away from what Kurtzweil describes as the "singularity." Does being "human," as Ash suggests, cloud the conscience, which is already weighed down by remorse and morality? Is that bad? Without those qualities, Ripley would have left her shipmates alive as the Alien slowly sucked the life from them in the “cocoon” scene. Without those qualities, she would not have gone back for the cat, or tried to stop the craft from exploding at the peril of her own life.

Ulmer says that the position of Ripley to her diagetic world is analogous to my position in my family. He is looking for mood.

The implications of this comparison are unsettling. One of the features of the movie that was most apparent in re-watching it, but initially forgotten, was its constant and almost swallowing darkness. The ship itself was full of imagery that provokes primal fear: swinging, wet chains, and impenetrable fog, sudden movements.

In reflecting on where I was at that point in my life, the connection is clear. It was a terrible time for our family, and our house was indeed a place where one misstep or miscalculation could lead to violence. We too were constantly managing our fear. We also had a cat in the house, the first and only in-house pet we were allowed.

I suppose that, like Ripley, I didn’t know I had it in me to survive that situation, until I did. I too had to go through to get out, had to learn to balance heart and head, had to go into the deep wilds of space to find my humanity. And then, like Ripley, I had to destroy the monster, abandon and then destroy the Mothership.

My final impression is the tranquility of escape, a feeling, a mood, I know too well. When my mother finally left my step-father, we moved into a tiny little apartment we could barely afford but the walls were white and one of the first things she did was put up sheer white curtains. My room was bare of furniture or things, but there was a distinct sense of tranquility and silence that filled the space as the breeze pushed the curtains back and forth. And I remember lying on the floor for hours watching the curtains lap at the wall. I recognized the same expression on Ripley’s face as she reclined into the pod. She wasn’t sure if she’d be picked up when she made it to the Frontier some weeks later, but she had lived to tell the tale. And, she had done so without losing her humanity.