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Adapt, Improvise, Evolve: The evolutionary terror of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’

We all know how the famous tagline goes: in space, no one can hear you scream. But in reality, the truth is a little more terrifying: in space, you literally can’t scream. The suffocation of outer space seems like a perfect backdrop for horror cinema, but unfortunately, the oft-maligned subgenre rarely gets the treatment it deserves. Few films since Ridley Scott’s Alien, often considered the high water mark of sci-fi/horror crossovers, have managed to so perfectly infuse science fiction with scares and chills.

In many ways, Alien co-screenwriter Dan O’Bannon could be considered the founding father of sci-fi horror. Although not quite a horror film, his first screenplay, Dark Star, served as John Carpenter’s feature debut. Alien, for which he wrote the screenplay and acted as a visual supervisor, is often regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, sci-fi or otherwise. 1985 saw him collaborate on Lifeforce with famed horror innovator Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist fame. Not only did O’Bannon’s concept for Alien outline a rubric which almost all sci-fi horror films since have followed, it created a visual world that has captivated generations, thanks also in large part to concept artist H.R. Giger’s grotesque creations, the xenomorphs.

Dan O'Bannon Alien set

But Alien isn’t interesting just because of how well it blends science fiction and horror. Many of the best genre films find a way to sprinkle a little social subtext into the mix, which Alien does with ease. O’Bannon seems fixated on sexual grossness, which he also explores in Hooper’s Lifeforce, a film that will be explored later in this series. Who can say what in O’Bannon’s life triggered his interest in the subject, but regardless, his screenplay for Alien manages to cram a lot about human relationships and evolution into its imaginative – and terrifying – world.

The plot of Alien is so simple that it hardly needs recapping. It’s a haunted-house-in-space film in which a crew of galactic miners aboard a ship called the Nostromo stumble upon an ancient vessel filled with alien eggs, one of which latches on to a crew member’s face. From there, the creature hatches, evolves into a fully-grown monster, and proceeds to harvest the crew and ravage their ship. The only one aboard the ship who proves capable of standing in the alien’s way is the resourceful Ripley, played by Signourey Weaver. But Alien is also more than this; in many ways, it could be considered a science fiction retelling of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, with Ripley as Spencer, the spaceship as his apartment, and the xenomorph as the baby. Just like Eraserhead explores anxieties about parenthood, Alien digs into our fears about evolution, sexuality, and reproduction. What’s scary about Alien isn’t what happens to the crew, although that informs our immediate reaction to the film. The true terror lies in what happens next, in what could occur if the monsters escaped the haunted house and turned all of humanity into pregnant puss pods. Ripley doesn’t just fight for herself; she fights for us all. Her dedication to survival must require some level of self-interest, but along the way, she rescues the ship’s resident cat, Jones, which demonstrates that Darwin hasn’t totally done away with her humanity.

Xenomorph from Alien

Alien’s horror comes not just from our fear of the physiological Other, but of evolution itself. Like the xenomorph, which adjusts regularly on a biological level to changes in its environment, Ripley herself begins to adapt out of necessity. She isn’t even the film’s main character at the start, but as natural selection runs its course, the narrative moves her toward the center. Ripley expresses an extreme will to survive from the beginning, remaining steadfast to the guidelines designed to keep the crew safe. As those rules are ignored and man-made order collapses, natural law takes over. Ripley’s knack for adaptation allows her to keep going despite the lack of structure. Even without a mooring to hold on to, she’s resourceful and never lets go. She survives not because she’s the most conventionally fit, but because she has the strongest resolve to survive. In essence, all horror films are about that will to survive, the drive to stay alive no matter what terror stands in your way; Alien translates that idea into primal terms by showing how the need to survive relates to evolutionary processes. One thing evolution does is remind us as humans of our own animalistic nature. Although technology and human progress often cause nature to favor us above other animals, we can never escape the death caused by natural selection. The xenomorph, in all its gross, sexual glory, reminds us of biology and the role it plays in our lives. The alien oozes and sheds wherever it goes; we witness it live and change in real, visible time. As the alien-obsessed android Ash puts it, the xenomorph’s ability to adapt is “pure.” It has no goals other than reproduction and survival as a species.

Because the Nostromo’s crew members maintain strictly professional relationships, sex exists only in the darkest corners of their minds. The xenomorph pushes sex back to the forefront, no matter how hard they fight back. As a director, Ridley Scott has a cold and often unfeeling style that can make it difficult to engage with his work. But in some ways, he’s a natural fit for Alien; his detached and unemotional sensibility collides with H.R. Giger’s raw, sexual designs in a fascinating way that articulates through the images the struggle between sexuality and repression, evolution and order.

Ellen Ripley Alien

Humans as a whole tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that we might exist only to survive. The concept confuses and scares us, making it feel like we’ve been left to drift forever in space. But many of the drives that keep us going as people are rooted in the need to survive, both on a personal level and on a larger scale. Much has been written previously about the sense of sexual horror in Alien. But perhaps film’s terror isn’t just rooted in a general queasiness about intercourse, but a fear of the changes caused by evolution. In our day-to-day lives, evolution doesn’t scare us because we can’t see it happen, at least not in real time. But the xenomorph, which constantly adapts depending on environment, reminds us of what we don’t want to be reminded of, namely that our existence as humans (or at least what we typically think of as “human”) isn’t fixed or permanent. We may rule today, but we could be dead tomorrow- or at least transformed into a slimy, slippery, chest-bursting beast.


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