By Jed Mayer | Press Play June 6, 2014 at 5:42AM
The cover of the June 1979 issue of Newsweek featured an image of Sigourney Weaver from Alien under the caption: "Hollywood's Scary Summer." I was thirteen, and the horror movies released that summer would form a kind of grotesque carnival that mirrored my own and the world's anxieties. Earlier in the spring, the disastrous nuclear accident at Three Mile Island had occurred, and that summer major oil spills polluted the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic. This was also the year when oil prices doubled, Margaret Thatcher was elected, and the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power. As I became aware of the political and environmental degradation around me, the films I watched reflected my awareness, as well as my own desires and fears as a thirteen year old, back at me.
I was caught between being a nerdy kid and a nerdy teenager; the marketing strategies for promoting Ridley Scott’s Alien were similarly split. Following on the success of Star Wars, the film boasted special effects that would rival its predecessor. Reading about its production in magazines like Starlog and Heavy Metal, I joined other fanboys in the building anticipation for its summer release. The fact that Alien mingled SF with horror elements only further whetted my appetite, but when the film was released with an R rating, I was consigned to seeing it only through its comic book tie-ins and bubble gum card series. Surely this was the only R-rated film to have spawned its own action figure, yet the peculiar split in this marketing campaign seemed to reflect my own divided self, too old to play with toys, too young to get into adult films.
As Newsweek’s chosen symbol of a new wave of Hollywood horror films, Alien embodied other split identities. Formerly considered a disreputable genre, associated with cheap special effects and lurid story lines, horror seemed to be emerging into the mainstream, backed by mega-million dollar budgets and featuring distinguished actors and directors. The process that had begun with 1973’s The Exorcist, and continued with 1976’s The Omen, seemed to reach its tipping point in the summer of 1979 with Alien and The Amityville Horror, culminating in Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining the following winter. According to Newsweek: “What Alien proves is that the B movies of yesterday provide the formulas for the A-movie blockbusters of today.”
But any admirer of Ridley Scott’s film knows that the story is anything but B movie fare. While its last half-hour seems patterned on the kind of murderous chase sequence perfected the previous year in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), this is only one of the film’s many complex dimensions. Interestingly, it is likely that this sequence, along with the infamous “chest-burster” scene, brought the film its R rating, while in fact its science fiction premise (the element of the film most ostensibly appealing to younger audiences) more clearly mirrored what was going on in that adult world I would soon be reluctantly entering.
While Star Wars was predicated on an escapist premise that used science fiction conventions to blast us into a galaxy far, far away, in the universe of Alien, space is confined, claustrophobic. It is a universe very much like our own, subject to the laws of supply and demand. As we watch a complex mass of space-borne metal slide slowly across the screen, superimposed text tells us this is the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, hauling a refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore. Space, the final frontier, has become, like all frontiers, a resource to be exploited. The imposing size of the ship is in perverse contrast to its seven-member skeleton crew, presumably the result of corporate downsizing and its technological ally, automation. It is some time before we encounter any humans aboard, as the camera explores the ship’s instruments awakening to a kind of ghostly, simulated life. When the crew is finally awakened, they emerge from steel cocoons that resemble both eggs and coffins, clearly anticipating the deadly alien eggs the crew will later encounter, but also figuring their grim dependence on the ship’s technology.
But of course it is not simply technology itself that threatens the crew, but the exploitative uses to which it may be put. The film gradually reveals that the real villain of the story is not the fierce predator of the title, but the crew’s employers, mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani, referred to simply as “The Corporation.” Chief science officer Ash (Ian Holm) is later revealed to be an android planted by the Corporation to superintend the capture of the deadly alien for the company's bio-weapons division. Like the mineral ore the ship already carries, the alien is yet one more resource to be commercially exploited, at whatever cost.
Although I wasn’t yet old enough to have a driver’s license, like everyone in 1979 I was highly conscious of rising gas prices and their effects. I didn’t understand the relationship between what President Carter and Walter Cronkite repeatedly referred to as the Oil Crisis, or the complex geopolitical issues centering on the Iranian revolution and the Ayatollah’s return to power. Regardless, I watched those daily images of gas station lines, so long they looked like shanty towns, with a grim fascination, as they so closely resembled the conjoined images of excess and destitution common to those post-apocalyptic films I loved from that era, films like The Omega Man, Damnation Alley, and Soylent Green, films that seemed half in love with the world’s death. What did the Earth the Nostromo’s crew were trying to get home to actually look like? Probably something very much like the one depicted in these films, and to which the images I watched on the nightly news seemed to be offering a disturbing preview.
For kids who wanted to act out scenes from Alien (a film they weren’t allowed to see without a chaperone), Kenner offered their 18-inch action figure of the monster created by the disturbed imagination of the late H.R. Giger. Given the fact that this was ostensibly an R-rated toy, with sublimated sexual imagery typical of its designer, it is somewhat odd that this is the first action figure I regarded as too childish to buy. Taking the alien to school would be an invitation to bullying, and playing with it alone at home just seemed sad. I still had my extensive collection of Star Wars figures, but these were beginning to gather dust on the shelf, reluctant as I might have been to part with them.
Looking back now, with my wariness of buying any products that aren’t ecologically correct, I can retroactively congratulate myself on not purchasing a large plastic figure made largely of petroleum products. The smaller, 3 ¾” size of the Star Wars figures, as compared to the foot-long G.I. Joe of eras past, was a deliberate response to the increased production costs brought on by the Energy Crisis. So the foot-and-a-half long Alien figure was actually an avatar of wretched excess lurking in the toy aisle, a fitting embodiment of the film’s tacit themes of consumption and exploitation.
The other reason I couldn’t bring myself to buy the Alien action figure is that there was something kind of sad about it. Produced as a single unit, there were no other figures it could play with: no Kane action figure to eat, no Ripley for it to chase. It was over four times the size of my other action figures, so had I bought it the alien would have stood alone on the shelf, never fitting in, a large wasteful consumer product good for nothing but packing away, eventually to be sold on eBay, shipped in a FedEx package, hauled to its destination aboard a vast commercial aircraft, most likely piloted by a skeleton crew of seven, reduced by corporate downsizing.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.