Alien and Aliens have been part of my psyche for as long as I can remember. When I first got into scary/weird/non-little-girl movies my Dad warned me that Alien was the scariest of all scary movies and that my older brother actually ran out of the cinema when he and his friend went to see it. For the purposes of this post (and because it's my favourite and so there) I'll be mainly referencing the first film.
I can't remember when I first saw the film but it traumatized me. It was not only scary but unsettling and its unsettled nature came from human nature. The aliens were not necessarily the scariest part of the film (although they didn't help). Alien open up an entirely new world of Aliens, Alien 3,Alien Resurrection and (this summer) Prometheus. This film series became a pop culture movement unto itself. My favourite Alien "addition" being:
Initially the film received mixed reviews when it was released in 1979. Some critics got it, some did not. (my favourite negative quote being from Time Out who said the film was an "empty bag of tricks whose production values and expensive trickery cannot disguise imaginative poverty". So maybe not everyone got it. This was a completely revolutionary film, let alone science fiction film. From the pacing to the violence to the effects to the reality that was created on the Nostromo it was a whole new bag for audiences around the world. Despite some critics, the film became a commercial success influencing the next generation of films and spawning it's history that continues to fascinate audiences and scholars alike.
And what happens when something becomes popular? Analysis. Lots of it. Surely these people must have done something special to create a film so beloved and wildly popular. Mm. MM!?!?!??!?! And of course, there are people who love the film and want to talk about it because they love it. And there are the academics, who see lots of essay opportunities and theories to be applied. As an academic myself (I have a very useful MA thankyouverymuch) I have to say I think the best academic writing can illuminate aspects of the object being examined and place in a context of understanding ourselves as human. That's not to say all academic writing is good academic writing. However, even the most seemingly arbitrary decisions we make reflect on our species, right? The seemingly innocuous decision to make Ripley a female rather than a male character still reflects something. Perhaps that we assume characters will be male until the creators make a decision to differ that.
If you're at all interested in the Alien Universe I highly, highly, highly recommend you check out the blog Strange Shapes and for the purposes of this blog post check the post on Strange Shapes entitled Dispelling the Alien Critique which comprehensively cites all the famous quotes by the creators of Alien saying there is no underlying meaning to any of this. It's simply entertainment and should be taken as such.
My personal take is that it can be either or. Great art, to truly be considered "great art", should work on a pure visceral level of enjoyment and be ripe for dissection. It's desperately intriguing to me that a woman survives again and again in the world of the films. The imagery in these films is ripe with birth imagery, castration and oppression. To ignore implication of these images would be doing ourselves, and the films, a disservice.
Ellen Ripley often falls into the Final Girl category, a term coined by academic Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, and states that in order to survive Final Girls must become masculinized. Ripley, though possessing many Final Girl traits never accepts female traits and therefore is never in the position to accept masculine traits. In the version that we all know and (I hope) love there are scenes edited out that imply romantic (at the very least) sexual relationships between Dallas and Ripley and Ash and Lambert. (I know, right) While I am aware of these scenes they are not in the film as we know it so we'll pretend they don't exist. In the film Ripley is not sexualized (we only learn in Aliens that she has a daughter on Earth). When she strips at the end of the film to a tank top and underwear it is more about the vulnerability of Ripley rather than a moment of titillation for the audience. Ripley is at her most vulnerable when she is met by the most terrifying monster to have under one's proverbial bed.
The most shocking and violent scene to me as an adult watching this film is when Ash becomes the outright aggressor and tries to choke Ripley by shoving a porn magazine down her throat. A P0RN MAGAZINE PEOPLE!!!! In academic terms it's the female voice trying to be supressed and controlled by a male voice.
In Stephen Mulhall's essay In Space No One Can Hear You Scream: Acknowledging the Human Voice in the Alien Universe he remarksof that scene that it is “the film’s most explicit equation of male violence with the desire to annihilate the female voice.”
In Katy Gilpatric's essay Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema Gilpatric asserts that even the most celebrated female action heroes succumb to a feminine need/desire for men/family/empathy etc (Which Weaver spoofs wonderfully in Galaxy Quest). Ripley does not. She is compassionate but does not suddenly spring to life when a man enters the room, or rush to find her daughter (a scene deleted from the second film), she is the motor for these movies. She is the catalyst for survival and redemption. She is woman, watch her use a flame thrower.