The Alien. Xenomorphs. HR Giger’s monster. Dan O’Bannon’s “star beast.” Whatever you call it, it turns 30 this month and we’re here to see why everyone loves it so much.
For a few thousand nights, I woke up the same way: petrified, unable to move or scream for help. I felt small in my own body, a pilot trapped in some huge and immobile ship. Tympanic heartbeat on rib cage hull, hiss of shallow breath from struggling lungs. Counting both to keep time and track.
Today’s doctors call this condition “night terrors” but at the time it was my paternal Grandmother — an ancient woman who still prayed in broken English to saints from the old country — who had the better term for it. Sitting with gin and my parents at the family kitchen table, it was my she who gave my exhausted mom and dad a better diagnosis: Il Diavolo è seduto sul petto.
“The devil is sitting on your chest.”
I spent the first dozen or so years of my life terrified to go to sleep, sneaking out of bed with every opportunity and peering from the stairs as my parents watched movies. From between the slits of the banister I’d see the television reflected in the glass of a hung photo.
I saw a lot of movies this way, but none has stuck with me like Aliens.
55 minutes in, John Hurt hits the table. He starts to convulse and — just as if I’d been sleeping — I can’t scream. I can’t move. I sat in horrible rapture as the devil came out of Kane’s chest. I sat through the first two movies in rapt silence as the xenomorphs stalked their prey in the endless night of some unavoidable future. For three days afterwards I’d hidden the rented VHS, watching it each night after my parents had gone to bed. I committed the monsters’ movements to memory, studying them to more intimately know my enemy.
What is it about the xenomorph that captivates and terrorizes us? And how does it keep doing so after so many movies?
Well, we’re going to explore the first three and find out.
A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality
The best term for Alien doesn’t come from the director or the writer, though both are among my favorite in their respective fields. Nor does it come from the creature’s creator, visionary though he was. I was surprised to find that the best term for the movie came from concept artist Ron Cobb who referred to it as “future mythology.”
That’s really the whole of it right there in two words. Everything about the film is futuristic and mythological, from the end result to the people and processes that brought it to story to life. “Alien” is one of those miraculous works of art that seem to occur because fate demands it. A director making his second film, a cult writer best known for his work in French comics, and an artist virtually unknown outside the avant garde circles of Scandinavia and Paris get together to give the world a collective heart attack.
In this first film, the xenomorph really does play the role of a monster out of mythology or folk tale. It’s the minotaur at the center of the maze or the big bad wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing. The unknowable, indescribable horror made manifest and articulate. The clever brute that must be fought with cunning. Its only motivation is to kill all prey in its domain.
Even the design of the beast feels as old as it does new. It’s biomechanical to be sure, but the xenomorph shares that classic mixture of sex and violence, allure and repulsion that fuels many of those classic stories. The dichotomy of feminine lines and sexual imagery mixed with the primordial horrors of arachnids. The push-pull tension that keeps us riveted even when we’re terrified. Beneath slick, lustful silhouette Giger built is something (by the artist’s own admission) undeniably African that gives the creature a lurid shape stretched to impossible dimensions like shadows left by unremember dance and fire that whispers of a time when our nightmares didn’t need screens to find us.
Ripley’s victory is like that of early man’s: equal parts intellect and luck against bestial cleverness and brute force.
You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.
Aliens is basically Space ‘Nam. James Cameron – fresh off war movies like Rambo II and The Terminator – wanted a larger-scale bug hunt for this film. And at first this seems a departure from the original idea; we’ve traded in “truckers in space” for “space marines.” In place of the solitary, stalking hunter we have an enemy army that threatens our own.
But thematically it really is an extension and enlargement of the first film. As are the xenomorphs.
Mankind thinks himself wiser than other animals, and he especially thinks himself the clever hunter and warrior. So it makes sense to take the epitome of man’s might – military space travel, the extension of the Star Wars program – and set it against a colony of ants.
In this way, the xenomorph in the second film works as man vs. man in large scale. It is our fear of other cultures, other races, other economic interests and the combined ability and efforts of “them” to do harm to “us.”
And not just those around us, but future generations as well (as shown by both Newt and the Alien Queen’s eggs.) In fact, the Queen was a new addition. Not just the creature itself, but the behavior of the aliens around here and the whole notion of a hivemind colony propelling these creatures and their actions. The fearful intellect that would add strategy to the xenomorph arsenal of weaponry.
The queen changes the motivations in these creatures, turning them from hungry beasts into defenders of their breeding ground and the young it contains.
On a personal note, I think the biggest failing of Aliens was that it would have been more interesting without Newt. Aside from the fact that I’ve never liked her screaming through 80% of her screen time and doing too much to soften Ripley externally even as she’s putting her Rebooks in the powerloader, Newt’s character makes the story ultimately about mother versus mother. Which takes a little away from the most compelling part of the xenomorph in the film: that it’s fighting and sacrificing for the continuation of its species. The ability for a hive race to be purer of effort than squabbling humanity with its self-centered, panicking Hicks and its conniving, deceitful Burkes.
The singularity of purpose of the species calls back to Ash in the first movie saying “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
There’s nothing “for sure” in this place.
I like Alien 3. I realize that saying this puts me in an awkward standing, culturally, as there’s only maybe 10 other people who did like this film, none of whom were cast or crew. But from the movie’s horrible beginnings and its budget constraints came a world that feels older and more desperate than the first two.
The clean futurism of the first two films is replaced by a utilitarian dark age.
The weapons are scaled down to fire, torches and primitive implements. The E.V.A. suits and Marine fatigues are replaced with tattered rags, cloak-like hoodies and tunics, and work pants. Everything is rusted and filthy. Everything looks and feels medieval and apocalyptic in the biblical sense. And to cement this sense of the preordained end of the world, we drop a monster described by the prisoners as a dragon and revered, even worshiped by the inmate Golic.
The Aliens’s motivation even feels like a classic devil’s tale like Rosemary’s Baby; the xenomorph wants only to make the prison safe for the queen growing inside Ripley.
Mankind’s cleverness is gone and he is left with superstition.
And so the xenomorph, with its symbolizing Satan in the film, becomes our fear of ourselves. In a world brought low by temptation and sin, the Alien becomes the symbol of our voluntary damnation and how seemingly powerless we can be at fighting it. How something terrible could be small and unseen in us but growing and changing us. A seed that turns into psychosis or a cancer, hoping burst through and kill us and all we’ve made.
For all its faults, this movie is perhaps the most cerebral of the series, evolving the alien to be the worst kind of threat. The unavoidable threat; ourselves.
Why we love the Alien
It all comes down to versatility breeding unpredictability and all the best villains are both.
- The Joker is more than just a serial killer; he’s a leader, a schemer and strategist, the inventor of and chemical engineer behind a whole suite of neurotoxins.
- Hannibal Lecter isn’t just a serial killer; he’s a psychologist, a surgeon, an artist and musician.
- The Xenomorph isn’t just a monster; it’s a patient hunter, a hive-mind army, and the cancer waiting to burst forth form your own body.
This is the brilliance of a good monster; their ability to adapt to the needs of the story and find new ways to frighten us. Better yet, the xenomorph is free of pretentious motivations. Its only needs are animal — feed, reproduce, and protect its young — means that not only do our heroes shine in comparison, but the xeno looks single-minded and relentless in its purpose.
Over the course of the series, the xenomorph has become this monster — both ancient and futuristic — undistracted from its purpose of adapting to be the perfect killing machine. And that’s why we love it.
Why Others Love the Xenomorph
The creature we finally ended up building is biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat, – he’s integrated totally into the function he performs. — H.R. Giger
I just love their nature and their look. I suppose with such a strong monster designed by an artist that considers the human psyche and then having that made into a mind blowing horror film…then watching it when you’re seven…does things to you. — Godmachine, Illustrator
The xenomorph (at its most effective) is about what you don’t see, what the director doesn’t show you. When you see it, usually, it’s too late. It is the unknown given teeth. — Dennis Detwiller, Game Designer for Delta Green
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