[originally published in Film Comment, July-Aug 1992]
A Greimasian semantic rectangle will foreground the structural importance of the cat in the complex of signifiers generated from the notion “human”:
[see diagram at right]
The founding term in the film is human (S), represented by the image of Ripley as the strong woman. The antihuman (-S) is, of course, the alien, and the not-human (S) is Ash, the robot. The cat, then, functions in the slot of the not-antihuman (-S), an indispensable role in this drama.
—James H. Kavanaugh, “Feminism, Humanism and Science in Alien”
Assaulted by such academically approved gobbledygook, one of the most provocative and principled of my grad school mentors—an Irish scholar dead this last April—was wont to curl back his lips and snarl, “Now that you know that, what do you know?” This brand of self-evident, infantile pushing-about of alphabet blocks doubtlessly advances today’s hapless young faculty on their tenure tracks. But its dominance, along with related forms of theory that can be expressed only in obscenely inorganic, anti- and inhuman language, ensures that the world of books and movies, images/ideas, is drained of color, wit, idiosyncratic heat, joy, and sensuality, for starters. What horrors these mechanics must perpetrate in the classroom! What kind of sad new species must be matriculating in the humanities these days, armed for life with “scientific” diagrams, arid, angry definitions of art’s myriad social and political sins, and dead silence where sustaining speech—by critics and artists—used to sing.
The rich and diverse fabric of language fleshes our humanity, keeps us alive. In the Alien trilogy, what’s always in harm’s way is humanity signified in the flesh, the spirit named in physiognomy, skin, blood, and even fur. What means to invade and abrogate the aesthetics of flesh and blood is nada, the airless, featureless dark of space itself; the corrosive climates of the dead or dying worlds where each of these sci-fi sagas plays out; the “crew is expendable” Company, whose critical inquisitiveness/acquisitiveness is aroused by a perfect imago of antilife; and most viciously, the undifferentiated, ebon exoskeleton, fanged, hooded, dragon-tailed, fueled by acid in its veins, shapeshifting at will from phallus dentatus to vagina dentata. It’s entirely possible that the babyfaced, white-blooded Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), android Judas in Ridley Scott’s Alien, might derive useful data by reducing to a Greimasian diagram the potentially Miltonic grandeur of a new Christ harrowing Hells that house “that old worm, the Devil.” But Ash and his ilk always make me turn in memory to that professor who taught me Yeats a quarter-century ago: those who belong to his passionate tribe can never sit still for bloodless smalltalk. Like him, they “beat upon the wall / Till Truth obeys [their] call.”
In the nothingness of outer space, the integrity and particularity of flesh is everything. Home is literally where the heart is–the body being the last bastion of warm, colorful, imperfect, familiar biology in a totally deracinating environment. In the first Alien (’79), the camera/our eyes gravitated to the faces of the Nostromo’s crew to escape the absolutely inhuman environs of the scrap-metal mining ship, as well as the alien spaces in the incubator/ship on the dead world. In the midst of dun-colored, dreary tunnels of tubing, hanging chains, ribbed-metal walls, rust and damp—where the titular alien makes itself at home—Sigourney Weaver’s visage is nothing less than oasis, art, icon. Our gaze presses toward and rests on the beautiful clarity of her features, the wholly unembellished curves and planes that connote appetite and intelligence, as well as a spirituality that will, by Alien3, laser her flesh down to Falconetti-like spareness as she reaches the inevitable destination of her three-film via dolorosa. Feminists have complained about Weaver’s stripping down to sleeveless T-shirt and bikini pants at the end of Alien—but surely even these puritanical elders should see this Susannah’s need for ritual cleansing after passing through the Nostromo’s charnel house. And the celebratory inventory of the elegant lines of Ripley’s torso and her long, bare arms and legs mark precisely Alien‘s mortal stakes. These fleshly signatures underscore the strength and beauty of the human body, differentiating it from the alien anatomy (much admired by Ash and the Company that covets it) of the killing machine that even then is nesting in her escape-ship’s wall.
Though the Nostromo’s crew emerges from “Mother”‘s (i.e., the ship’s computer) cryogenic eggs like a clutch of groggy clones, consider how quickly we come to know them up close and personal—as male, female, black, white, blond, brunette , curly-maned or cropped, bearded or clean-shaven, fur-bearing, skinny, robust, etc. Likewise, in Aliens (’86), as the Marines are birthed out of cryogenesis, their faces, voices, and physical styles almost immediately announce them as nonconformists, idiosyncratic in the extreme. (Especially memorable is Jennette Goldstein’s chunky little Hispanic warrior, who wields her huge gun with joyous machisma and improbably partners a great, yellow-furred, flat-faced redneck.)
Director James Cameron’s “in the belly of the beast” mise-en-scène includes still-living humans incorporated into the very tissue of the alien, on their way to being processed into gooey baby-food. Unlike inefficiently individualized humanity, the alien is a true child of space, its endlessly replicated nightmare form simply signifying annihilation—the territorial imperative of nothingness. Only in Aliens is there evidence of ‘otherness” among the death-dealers: the towering, crowned, Kali-like queen hangs in an insectile baby-factory, an immense tube spewing out loathsome eggs like an organic assembly-line, while smaller warrior-drones stand guard. In both Alien and Aliens, human “families” are comprised of communities of professionals, in which oddball alliances and eccentricities may serve or disrupt the greater good. Ripley, as evolving ur-mother, takes in a feline and a Newt, finally achieving her apotheosis of creativity in suicide and abortion. Such paradox is beyond the “purity” (Ash’s term) and perfection of the mitered demon against which Ripley must eternally war.
How many aeons have the alien’s eggs (in Alien) waited patiently in the moist darkness for a lover to kiss? Opening like a flower (a Venus fly-trap) as Cain’s face lowers toward it, the thing seems to promise a plush embrace, but the crab creature that erupts from its innards flings itself around Cain’s head, completely hiding his features and orally raping him. This unspeakable copulation essentially robs him of his face—the site of identity—and makes a thing of Cain (John Hurt), while the alien plants its third and final gestating stage in his belly. Even as the recovering victim kids with the rest of the crew during their “last supper” before Mother freezes them again, he himself has become food—a piece of bloody meat out of which a sharp-toothed, shrieking little worm rises triumphant. This is Death in sci-fi guise, but a grim reaper that must devour and mortify and use the flesh, violating it in every fashion—as though such atrocity might militate against resurrection, any re-membering of the body into a state of humanity. (There’s an apposite medieval engraving of a naked Eve and Adam in which a snake winds its way in and out of the couple’s decaying bodies: the snake is sin, devil, and death. Only in the trilogy’s last entry is the wyrm/dragon/alien pretty directly associated with a variation, upside down as it is, on Eve’s terrible fall inEden that condemned humankind to death. The second film, however mentions the doomed colonists’ attempt in “shake and bake”—i.e., terraform—the aliens’ planet-sized hideout into a brave new world.)
By second and third narrative openings, Ripley’s emergence from icy stasis is less like birth and more like the rising of an increasingly weary revenant from a glass-lidded coffin. In Aliens the Hispanic Marine dubs Ripley “Snow White”; she is in fact a Sleeping Beauty, a Lady Lazarus, whose wakeup calls come not from a savior’s kiss (in contrast to her alien adversary), but from the blue-beamed lasers of salvagers or leftovers from a maximum-security prison. Despite her return to Hell in Aliens, there seems some hope for Ripley in the natural reconstitution of family; with the Marine Hicks (Michael Biehn) as father and Newt (Carrie Henn) as new daughter, the three umbilically linked—or “engaged,” as Hicks cracks wise—by a pulsing “locator wristband” that moves from the Marine to Ripley to Newt.* To make herself a mother, Ripley must dive into and crawl through a maze of vents, pursuing the nearly feral child into her hidey-hole, a metal womb knee-deep in memento mori, debris, and family snapshots from life before the Dark Queen became the only locus of fertility—a black maw into which all flesh must go and be transformed.
The familial trinity breaks down when Hicks the father is incapacitated by the alien mother, and Ripley must make the final descent into the underworld to rescue her entombed/enwombed Persephone. Ripley’s ascension, moments ahead of billowing flames, is completed only by the partial, momentary restoration of that original trinity: the addition of an angelic “holy ghost,” the airborne android Bishop (Lance Henriksen). Cameron initially introduced Bishop in lengthy closeups, emphasizing the Goyaesque melancholy and beauty of this “synthetic person”‘s stark features, His face possesses a childlike purity that marks him as Ripley’s kind, despite his imitation of human life. Practically his first words in Aliens are “Trust me,” and his facility in the lightning-fast knife game is predicated on never breaching flesh, drawing blood. Bishop is symbolically sliced by the Dark Queen into a half-man at the precise moment he, Ripley, and Newt, believing themselves saved, emotionally cleave to each other. As Ripley turns mechanized golem, armoring her vulnerable flesh in the steel arms and legs of a massive “loader,” the fallen angel-android makes of himself an anchor, holding Newt back from the oblivion of space. Bishop’s role in Ripley’s pilgrimage is fulfilled in Alien3 where he doubles as good and evil oracle/priest, synthetic person/human. Cruelly, it is the “real” Bishop, creator of android clones of himself, who devilishly tempts Ripley from sainthood.
For maximum impact, Alien3 requires recent screenings of the first two films in the trilogy. I’d like to say that this is a positive new development in sequelmaking, but it’s really more a matter of a director—27-year-old music video veteran David Fincher—who cagily borrows and echoes potent ingredients from the visions of first-rate filmmakers Scott and Cameron. Though he has almost no feeling for the integrity and logic of space (narrative space, strategic space) or action-in-space, and not much of a gift for character individuation, Fincher’s by no means a total write-off. Alien3 often looks and feels like an expression of some of the darker elements of Christian and pagan myth in the Sturm und Drang style of those avant-garde comic-book novels abrim with ambitiously apocalyptic artwork. And some of Fincher’s coopted echoes do resonate interestingly in this popcult version of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc.
Once more bereft of family when she is resurrected at the beginning of Alien3—Hicks and Newt having been ambiguously terminated in transit—Ripley finds herself the only female in a kind of maximum-security monastery, an all-male beehive of celibate criminals who have converted to fundamentalist Christianity. This is a “basement” version of a kind of blastedEden: into this artificially maintained climate of innocence, where the fleshly pleasures are eschewed by a community of penitentés, comes Woman, that old root of all evil, bringing with her the serpent that means the death of humankind. No paradise on planet Fury, just rusting cells and old leadworks, a Boschean garden of delights for sinners.
Once again, Ripley’s face becomes our only sanctuary in a hell bent on the erasure of passion and personality as they speak through the body. From film to film, her hair has grown shorter; here her head !s completely shaved, revealing and emphasizing the skull beneath the skin, a perfect Brancusi sculpture. Ripley’s journey has taken her closer and closer to pure spirit; death and rebirth, the mythic bouts with her old adversary, have used up her body. She is ripe for transsubstantiation. Significantly, for the first time in the trilogy Ripley chooses to stop for sex. It is as though, in satisfying the flesh’s appetite for primal connection, she is assenting to that final crucifixion, the moment when she will take leave of the physical home she has defended so long.
Even before the Prison doctor, Clemons (Charles Dance), enters Ripley, he has hideously penetrated Newt’s flesh in the autopsy her “mother” demands to make sure the child isn’t “pregnant.” We cannot feel the full horror of this violation—as Ripley is forced to witness it—unless we carry Newt’s face palpably in memory; Fincher never reveals her body. But the doctor’s body is frequently the cynosure of the camera, which makes a warm and welcome landscape of its strongly modeled contours and freckled, gold-haired skin. Yet even this rich flesh has been dehumanized: the back of Clemons’s neck bears a bar code, the mark of Cain signaling his culpability for many deaths. A sinner doing endless penance in Hell, Clemons, post-confession, asks Ripley’s trust and forgiveness; it takes the form of her allowing him to slide a hypodermic needle into her arm. In a deliberate allusion to Bishop’s rape by the alien’s tail and subsequent dismemberment at precisely the moment he is granted the mantle of humanity (in Aliens), Ripley’s absolution is barely given before the complex Clemons is a casualty, his body whipped up and away as though it had never been.
Ripley has remained a virgo intacta throughout the trilogy, her flesh never breached by demons, as was Cain’s in Alien and the unlucky dog who figures in Alien3. Two of her own daughters lost to time and demonkind, it remains only that she discover that the cancerous “child” of her enemy has taken up residence within her. When this possibility arose in Aliens, “husband” Hicks promised, “If it comes to that, I’ll do us both.” But that promise was made within the context of what was primarily an action-genre movie, and it recalled every Western we’d ever seen in which the hero saved the last bullet for his wife or lover as the Indians closed in. In Alien3 Ripley turns to the spiritual leader (Charles Dutton) of Fury’s felons, erstwhile raper and murderer of women, for release. Take this cup from me, she pleads, turning to face the camera through prison bars, her arms spread wide as though welcoming crucifixion and parole from her long vocation.
But not even that ease will be granted Ripley, who must yet face her last temptation and stage-manage her own auto-da-fé. Bishop’s reappearance in human form seems momentarily to hint at surcease. But the white-robed inquisitor, hot for the knowledge buried in Ripley’s belly, plays her false. Offering her life at the cost of her soul, he lures Ripley with the possibility of family, children in her future—the same celebration of the flesh for which Martin Scorsese’s Christ deserts the Cross.
In a reversal of her warrior-mother ascension of nuclear fire at the climax of Aliens, Ripley plunges backward, her arms once again spread in cruciform position, into a veritable sea of flames at the conclusion of Alien3. In the midst of Ripley’s felix culpa, the Devil’s child is born, ripping open soon-to-be-sanctified flesh, eager even at the hour of its death to devour its “mother” in terrible communion. In Aliens the devil is a woman. By saga’s end, Ripley herself has been fired into godhood, becoming mother and messiah of humankind. The falling star that opens the last chapter of this space-age myth portended not the advent of monsters but Ripley’s—and Sigourney Weaver’s–birth out of the cycle of time, free at last from both ice and fire, flesh and foe.
* The resemblance of this child to the Lillian Gish of Broken Blossoms is often uncanny.Griffith’s film unbearably essentializes the agony and terror of a little girl claustrophobically besieged in a closet by a murderous father, a creature so mindlessly brutal as to be classified an alien.
Film Comment, July-Aug 1992
Copyright © 1992 by Film Society of Lincoln Center