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Alien (1979), More of the Gothic Same with a Crucial Twist

I love Alien; it's one of my favorite films, and has been for as long as I can remember. But why? I've often remarked how many cite the film as original, or one-of-a-kind. In reality, it's really not working with anything new and the things it changes are much smaller than one might think, with spectacular and long-standing results which speak for themselves.
Alien seems original, but wasn’t, drawing largely from classical Gothic literature. I arrived at this conclusion after watching the 1975, French, erotic version of Beauty and the Beast, when, in that film, the heroine is chased by the sexually-perverse monster through a dense, wild thicket. Vulnerable women chased by large powerful manifestations of prurient, abject sexual desire is par for the course, in Gothic literature, the monsters often, if not always, being larger and more powerful than the women being chased, and also male: phallic aggressors, much like the penis-headed creature in Alien that symbolizes rape and latent, repressed, invasive sexual desire. (Of course, there is always the notion of doubling, or the creature representing the other, latent half of its victims’ repressed impulses and desires--very much like Dr. Morbius’ Monster from the Id, in Forbidden Planet).
So why is the film seen as so original? The concept is certainly nothing new: a haunted house, in outer space (different setting, same digs) with a Gothic backdrop and proceedings. I believe it is largely due to the time the film was released, and to whom it was released to. In the 1970s, the slasher genre was in full swing and would have been aimed at younger audience members (the film was, oddly enough, even marketed to children, with Kenner’s alien action figures). These persons would have been largely ignorant to the film’s classical leanings, pertaining to Gothic literature (ranging from Lewis’ The Monk to Shelley’s Frankenstein to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness); at the same time, they would be ideal candidates for the Gothic mode, whose aim is to affect through visual stimulation, akin to a phantasmagoria. And what better director to deliver those goods than Ridley Scott, himself (who has, over the years, revisited the series and continued to explore its Gothic roots)?
In short, it wasn’t necessary for audience members to be familiar with the same old writing devices. In fact, it was better if they weren’t. And all the same, despite treading familiar ground, Alien works as well as it does largely because it also takes the same old ingredients and presents them in a way that feels fresh. Make no mistake: the Nostromo is a Gothic castle--but it makes the concept its own, is a strange visual hybrid of man and machine. It feels alive. The film, too, is revitalized by incorporating elements of science fiction into the proceedings that feel distinct, definitive, and idiosyncratic. As such, its unique visual approach to the Gothic story has often been imitated, but seldom equaled, and never, arguably bested.
Lastly, in regards to Ripley, notions of the Last Girl were already a staple of 70s films, including Halloween, which preceded Alien by nearly a year. Furthermore, as already mentioned, the idea of a beautiful, isolated woman being chased through a Gothic castle was hardly new. What’s notably different in Scott’s film is the same old ingredient, with a twist. We can recognize her as the heroine, when it happens, but the film presents her as simply a member of seven, early on. However, when the movie morphs into the Gothic castle, later, we can observe with a certain amount of glee, that Ripley isn’t as harmless as the film makes her out to be.
To be sure, she is relatively defenseless, throughout: she can’t kill the creature; her weapons are effectively useless in the face of its overwhelming strength and masculine invulnerability. But, the scene in the shuttle provides us with a delightful twist. She is portrayed as the Gothic heroine, the beautiful object, when she removes her clothes; she is beautiful, vulnerable and defenseless. Yet, in this pivotal scene, she proves to be resourceful, fighting back against the powerful unstoppable creature much in the same fashion as Laurie Strode versus the Shape; Sarah Connor versus the T-800; or Lady Amalthea, the Red Bull.
What’s important to recognize is Scott had every opportunity to pass Ripley off as the same old Gothic heroine, who is ultimately destroyed by the monster, in the same tradition upheld since Matthew Lewis had Antonia stabbed to death by Ambrosio, in The Monk, in 1796. The original ending of Alien has Ripley killed by the creature, who then assumes its victims position, acquiring her memories and voice (again, doubling). Instead, Ridley opts for the alternative ending, which allows for Ripley to gain the upper hand, and allow the film to end in a way we don’t see coming, much like we didn’t see it coming when the alien initially bursts from Kain’s chest, halfway through the movie. The key here, with the film’s appeal, is its ability to work with the same old material, and yet still surprise.
The fighting Last Girl may seem like old hat, now, immortalized with Ripley and other clones, including Samus Aran or Sarah Connor, but initially when it was unveiled, in 1979, audience members either would have been too fresh to realize the switch that was being pulled, on them; or they would have been expecting more of the same, just in outer space. What they got was certainly in outer space, but when it counted, it definitely wasn’t more of the same.

'Thanks for reading, guys. I love the Alien universe and love to write about it, apart from watching it. If you like my content, make sure to follow and share my work, as I always have something to say or share, concerning Alien, The Terminator, and other R-rated horror series' -- Nicholas van der Waard

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