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From the Wire: 'Alien' and Film Scholars

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by Matt Singer
June 6, 2012 7:04 PM
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"Prometheus."
"Prometheus."

Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks people are hungry for smart writing about the "Alien" franchise this week. At Slate, Tom Shone asks "Why are academics so obsessed with 'Alien?'" After all, it's just a horror movie, one of thousands people could write about. Even in the eyes of its own director, Ridley Scott, "Alien" is a film that "has absolutely no message." Scott says "Alien"'s "only point is terror, and more terror.” So why the hang-up from film scholars, who have, as Shone notes, written about it from every conceivable angle and plenty of inconceivable ones as well ("We’ve had 'Alien' as feminist allegory... 'Alien' as mothering fable... 'Alien' as abortion parable...")?  As Shone sees it: "'Alien' has issues."

"It has mommy issues. And sex issues. It has a thing for strong women (who it also likes to ogle in their undies). It’s a hot mess -- a Freudian fever dream, with its crabby and post-coital atmosphere, its rebirthing imagery, its queasily gynecological production design, its night-sweat of male anxiety. A 'particularly horrifying confusion of the sexual-gyneacological with the gastro-intestinal,' wrote James Kavenagh ('Son of a Bitch: Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien') of the famous John Hurt birth scene, in which 'a razor toothed phallic monster gnaws its way through his stomach into the light -- a kind of science fiction phallus dentatus.' Is Scott’s alien a boy or a girl? A 'phallus dentatus' one minute, Kavenagh endows it with 'vaginal teeth' a few pages later."

It's an interesting question to explore -- and one that definitely crossed my mind during the hours of research for that "Alien" franchise reading list. Certainly some of the fascination is due to "Alien"'s popularity and impact --  and the fact that it's the rare mass entertainment made with intelligence, craft, and understatement. Still, that doesn't completely explain the glut of academic essays on the subject, or why a lot of them, as Shone notes, are completely contradictory: the alien is a penis metaphor to one critic, a vagina metaphor to another; Ripley is a feminist critique of action movies to one scholar, an objectified object of misogynistic urges to another. How can they both be right?

They can, in a sense, if Scott is correct. When he says the movie has absolutely no message, what he really means it has every message. Scott's no dummy. He didn't make the movie message-less, he simply didn't let thematic coherence get in the way of a really good visual. And he clearly embraced the idea of contradictory imagery, which not only disorients and unsettles the viewer (what's creepier than a creature that looks like both male and female genitalia?) but leaves things open for multiple interpretations. On, obviously, an enormous scale.

Read more of "Woman: The Other Alien in 'Alien.'"

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