Dr Alien, PhD: the horror classic that academia loves

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the sci-film inspires an industry of papers, talks and research

It has scared generations of filmgoers; triggered sequels, prequels, computer games and graphic novels; and made a star of Sigourney Weaver. But most of all, the film Alien – which is about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first screening – has spawned an academic industry unsurpassed by any other film.

Over the past four decades, dozens of books, hundreds of journal articles and innumerable college courses have analysed, frame by frame, Ridley Scott’s story of a bloodthirsty creature stalking the crew of the spaceship Nostromo. No other film, not even The Godfather or Psycho, has generated quite that amount of attention.

And now that academic outpouring is about to reach a new peak as the film approaches its anniversary next month. Events will include the release of new Blu-ray versions of the film, the screening of a documentary of its making, Memory: The Origins of Alien; and the staging of a two-day symposium, 40 years of Alien, that will be held at Bangor University in May. Speakers will give talks on “Alien and race, ethnicity and otherness”; “Alien and psychoanalysis”; and “Alien and neoliberalism, post-industrialism and the rise of multinational corporations”. Proceedings are scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press.

“The amount of academic work that has been written about Alien is phenomenal,” said Alice Haylett Bryan, a fellow in film studies at King’s College London. “But in a way that should not be surprising. The film contains themes about motherhood, gender politics, post-humanism, biology and so much else. Almost everything we can do in film studies we can do through Alien.”

But 20th Century Fox was certainly not seeking intellectual respectability when it began production of Alien in the 1970s. Its executives simply wanted to replicate the massive commercial success of Star Wars and plumped on a science fiction script that writer Dan O’Bannon had been shopping round Hollywood. Scott agreed to direct.

Last woman standing: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley.
Last woman standing: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Crucial to his approach to the film was the creation of a sense of intense claustrophobia on Nostromo which, he decided, should appear as if it had been drifting around space for aeons. Its interior was constructed out of old plane parts while smoke was blown through the whole set to give the film a gritty appearance. Intellectual aspirations were never in his sights, Scott later recalled. All he wanted to do was make “a straightforward riveting thriller”.

And he succeeded, steering his film from a relaxed opening to a final, gripping ending. First reviews were mixed, but Alien quickly generated strong box office takings and slowly attracted an increasingly strong cult following.

Today it is recognised as a classic, thanks mainly to a number of extraordinarily powerful scenes: the alien – which is only ever seen in glimpses – stalking characters through Nostromo’s dimly lit ventilation shafts; the sight of the character Kane, played by John Hurt, squirming on a table as an alien foetus with teeth and a tentacle erupts from his stomach; and the final battle between Ellen Ripley (Weaver) and the marauding, acid-dripping extra-terrestrial.

And it is this imagery that has generated so much academic interest in Alien, said David Sorfa of Edinburgh University. “It is quite astonishing how much academic work Alien has triggered and from such a wide range of approaches. For example, there are psychoanalytic analyses which stress the importance of the alien as a kind of all-consuming mother figure. The birth trauma of the alien erupting from Hurt’s innards also plays to Freudian interpretations of the film’s significance.”

Others stress the blind force of the alien that seeks to reproduce itself at the expense of anything in its path. “It is as good an example of Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power, the main driving force in existence – to survive and reproduce at all costs,” added Sorfa. “Alien is intriguing when viewed from that philosophical perspective.”

And then there is the issue of feminism. From the start, the film was praised for its powerful female character Ripley, the only member of Nostromo’s crew capable of taking on the alien in their midst – although film studies lecturer Amy Chambers of Manchester Metropolitan University counselled care in making too much of the impact of Weaver’s role.

“It is striking that Alien’s 40th birthday falls at just the same time as the release of the new Captain Marvel film which also has a strong female character. However it was still felt necessary to make a lot of fuss about the fact the new film had a strong woman as its lead. In other words, we are still supposed to be shocked by the fact that a major film has a strong female lead – 40 years after Ripley played her part in Alien. Not that much has changed in women’s appearance in films, it would seem.”

• Fortieth anniversary re-releases of Alien in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and Limited Edition 4K Ultra HD SteelBook are out on 22 April


Robin McKie

The GuardianTramp

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