Since the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant at the beginning of this summer, FilmFisher editor Joshua Gibbs and contributing writer Timothy Lawrence have been trading thoughts on the science fiction horror franchise. What follows is their conversation.
LAWRENCE: Your piece on Ridley Scott’s The Martian has done a lot to shape my opinion of the man’s films. In that essay, you argued that Scott’s atheism undercuts his art by limiting the scope of his vision to a materialistic universe with no interest in larger questions. I agreed with your assessment of that film, and think it applies to many others in Scott’s oeuvre. Do you think his entries in the Alien franchise suffer from this same problem, or do they manage to circumvent it somehow? What about the sequels helmed by other directors?
GIBBS: There are at least two ways of being an atheist. On the one hand, you have Friedrich Nietzsche. On the other hand, there are college sophomores who think Richard Dawkins is brilliant. While both deny the existence of God, they have little in common. Nietzsche was a romantic, and he did not reason like a materialist. There are moments in Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spake Zarathustra where Nietzsche’s philosophy strikes me as far more spirited than the average American Christian. When Ridley Scott’s soul is attuned to the story at hand, he is Nietzsche. When Ridley Scott is in cash-grab mode, he sadly wastes his talent away on crass materialistic, nonromantic, unenchanted atheism. Ridley Scott had a hot run of romantic films early in his career, though I think that when the credits rolled on Thelma & Louise, his star fell for more than fifteen years. In that time he released a number of muscular, big money films, though most of them have not aged well. Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, Robin Hood… You know how Hollywood films which are about Hollywood films always feature fairly hokey, overly obvious films? Think of the “movies” featured in the plot of Notting Hill, say, or Andrew Niccol’s Simone. The middle passage of Ridley Scott’s career saw a lot of “movie-movies,” Hollywood movies, movies which lacked the singular vision of Blade Runner or Alien. These films don’t strike me as the work of an atheist or a nihilist, but the half-hearted work of a capitalist.
LAWRENCE: What do you think of the way these films incorporate other material? Alien: Covenant, for instance, is fraught with references to everything from Byron to Shelley to Milton, and Prometheus has its repeated nods to Lawrence of Arabia (“Just something from a film I like,” says David). Does this strike you as pretense, layering on literary references as a shortcut to the appearance of thoughtfulness? Or do you think the Alien films are actually entering into substantial conversation with these other works?
GIBBS: These kind of references don’t do much for me, really. When the references are so close to the surface of a film, when the director is too eager for the references to be noticed, it strikes me as cloying, or pandering to the kind of viewer who is overly ready to pat himself on the back. Obvious nods to “old poets” are meant to give a film capital I “Intellectual” status. In the same way, when the hero of a film dies with his arms outstretched, I usually conclude the director knows very little about Christianity or semiotics. Unless a reference is a joke, I think references work best when they are buried below a few layers of plot and theme. In the last thirty years, science-fiction films have become especially reference heavy, though. The widespread knowledge that George Lucas worked with Joseph Campbell meant sci-fi films had to appeal to the wine & cheese crowd, and so I think reference-heavy sci-fi pictures are often guilty of throwing in the references after the fact. Wall-E is a great example of references done right. The references to old musicals haunt the film rather than anchoring it, or skimming the surface.
LAWRENCE: In his review of Alien: Covenant, Matt Zoller Seitz writes that these films don’t function by real-world logic, but instead must be judged “by the standards of a fever dream or nightmare, a Freudian-Jungian narrative where the thing you fear most is what happens to you.” There are certainly Freudian overtones to the original H.R. Giger designs which are so central to the franchise. Does framing them as nightmares or fairy tales strike you as the right way to interpret the Alien films? Does this seem at odds with the aesthetic of the films, which often seems to be aiming for the appearance of something like scientific verisimilitude?
GIBBS: Yes, this strikes me as the right way to interpret these films. The question is not really whether such a film makes sense, but whether the film is affecting. After hearing another man describe a nightmare, no one replies, “That does not make sense. I do not know why it scared you. It sounds like gibberish.” Nightmares terrify us because they are nightmares, not because they are coherent. A certain degree of incoherence is par for the course. That said, most films like Alien slide into the nightmare, and the film works if the introduction of the nightmare is properly paced, symbolic, open ended, appealing (or not) to the subconscious. Years ago, I heard a story/rumor that H.R. Giger was haunted by the abortion which his wife/girlfriend had; further, I heard reference to a piece of art he had made which depicted a woman with a blown out womb and a fetus growing out the side of her head. The interpretation? Abortion is not a merely physical problem, but a mental one, and that after the child has been removed from the body, it lingers in the imagination. Granted, so far as I can tell, the story of Giger being plagued with regret over his aborted child is simply a rumor. If it is true, though, does it do anything for unpacking the centrality of motherhood/birth in the Alien franchise?
LAWRENCE: Using an artist’s work to psychoanalyze the artist always strikes me as a dubious affair. That said, based on the Alien films, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if that story were true. The original Alien hinges on what is essentially a metaphorical rape and unwanted pregnancy, but with the twist that the victim who bears the child is a male. It doesn’t feel like a huge leap to read this as a manifestation of Giger’s guilt over impregnating his wife/girlfriend – putting himself in her shoes, as it were. If the story is true, it’s easy to read the Xenomorph that is birthed from Kane’s chest as another form of guilt and regret, the specter of Giger’s aborted child continuing to haunt him. The story also reminds me of the early passages of Cameron’s Aliens, in which Ripley is plagued by recurring nightmares in which she gives birth to a Xenomorph. (Talk about “lingering in the imagination.”) Parental regret reoccurs in another form in Aliens, as Ripley’s arc hinges on the loss of her daughter while she was lost in space for decades, and concludes with her accepting a maternal role towards her surrogate daughter figure, Newt. In Aliens (and others of his films, like Terminator 2), Cameron – the most optimistically humane director to helm one of these movies – leans on motherhood as a feminine ideal almost as heavily as Lucas leans on fatherhood in the Star Wars films, and this emphasis seems like a kind of direct contrast to the perverse denial of birth motifs so prevalent in Scott’s original film.
GIBBS: In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes, “If your dog has bitten the child next door, or if your child has hurt the dog next door, which would you sooner have to deal with, the master of that house or the mistress? Or, if you are a married woman, let me ask you this question. Much as you admire your husband, would you not say that his chief failing is his tendency not to stick up for his rights and yours against the neighbours as vigorously as you would like? A bit of an Appeaser?” The xenomorphs are, at very least, a matriarchal race, but they might be an entire race of females, as well. They are also exceedingly brutal. Connection between the Lewis quote and the plot point?
LAWRENCE: I’m hesitant to read the Xenomorph as female in Scott’s original film; in fact, I think it’s rather explicitly coded as male, with its phallic head and tendency to go about impregnating people. Cameron retroactively made the Xenomorphs a matriarchal race in Aliens – the queen lays eggs, in a marked contrast to the imagery of insemination that permeates Scott’s earlier film (and is also present throughout his later prequels). That said, the queen in Cameron’s film is more vicious than any of her underlings, and in the end, the showdown between her and Ripley is a confrontation between mothers protecting or avenging their offspring. (This comes after most of the male characters on both sides have been removed, slaughtered en masse.) I think it’s telling that the examples Lewis uses here both revolve around children; Cameron’s film is constructed around the fiercely protective relations of mothers to their offspring, which seems to dovetail with the series’ Freudian undertones; surely Freud would have us believe that fathers have much more ambivalent relations with their children than mothers do. Scott fixates on the other side of this coin in his prequel films; both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are haunted by the relationship between Fassbender’s android David and his “father,” Weyland.
GIBBS: I’ve always found the Alien series delightfully fraught with Jungian/Freudian weight, and the first film was released at a time when a lot of scholarly critical attention was being directed at horror films. Care to comment on the fact that, so far as xenomorphs go, mouths proceed from their mouths? Acid for blood? What of the physical design/shape of the alien? How does it matter?
LAWRENCE: The design of the Xenomorph is rife with bodily horror, and not just of a sexual nature. In the original film, the bishop Ash describes it as a “perfect organism,” which makes sense in this franchise’s perverse, upside-down cosmos. This “perfect organism” is designed to devour (hence the proliferation of mouths), destroy, and spread; its black color allows it to blend into the shadows of the franchise’s many darkened corridors, suggesting a kinship with darkness and nothingness. I would be hesitant to limit interpretations by claiming that the Xenomorph represents any one particular concept or theme; much of the effectiveness of its horror comes from its unknowability and ambiguity. In the first film, a reading of the alien as a symbol of sexual menace seems most apt. The final confrontation in the escape pod is rather explicitly coded as a bedroom invasion scene, complete with the heroine undressing and subsequently hiding in a closet, evoking memories of cinematic voyeurism in Hitchcock’s films, or, say, Blue Velvet. After she successfully ejects the creature into space, she is able to sleep in a hibernation pod that visually recalls Snow White’s glass coffin – an image of sexual purity if there ever was one.
Subsequent films in the series don’t lose this undercurrent of sexual menace entirely, but they do become broader in their connotations. In Aliens (described as a “bug hunt” by one character), Cameron leans more on unknowable, primitive terror, playing up the subhuman nature of the creatures (tellingly, I think Cameron’s film is the one where the acid blood is most emphasized). Fincher’s Alien 3, the series’ bleakest, most nihilistic, and most apocalyptic film, seems to cast the Xenomorph more as a symbol of the inevitability of death, while also giving it overtones of religious terror, as Golic reverently refers to it as a “dragon.” Scott’s Xenomorph is a nightmarish perversion of Freudian Eros, the desire to propagate, while Fincher’s is an embodiment of Freud’s death drive, the will to nothingness and oblivion. (“I’d rather be nothing,” says the damaged android Bishop, essentially asking Ripley to euthanize him.) I suspect that the enduring impact of this series stems from the way its titular monster unites these two contradictory impulses in a dreadful paradox. The films’ final images can clue us into their different thematic interests. As noted above, Scott’s original film ends with an image of sexual purity, while Cameron’s ends with one of motherhood: mother and daughter in peaceful repose, a reassertion of a nuclear family unit as opposed to the Other represented by the Xenomorphs. Fincher’s ends, fittingly, with an empty tomb of sorts — though in this godless universe, the tomb’s emptiness symbolizes not resurrection but the return to nothingness.
GIBBS: The claim you made about James Cameron focusing on motherhood and the idea that Cameron’s films are the most humane struck me as strange, but the longer I think about it the more true it seems. I suppose Cameron doesn’t seem like a particularly humane fellow, but when you compare him to David Fincher or Ridley Scott, he’s very nearly Pollyanna. What is fascinating with Prometheus, then, is that a story about a horrific encounter with a mother has turned into a story about the search for a mother. I am using the word mother a bit broadly here, but we do have people tromping across space trying to find out where they came from. It is a kind of search for home, I suppose. Once the Prometheus crew finds their “mother,” she is a monster, but Shaw determines our real mother must be something else. There is some sense in the closing moments of Prometheus that we have a heroine who is finding turtles beneath turtles beneath turtles or rather she is fated to do this. Because Ridley Scott is something of a materialist, I don’t know if he is aware that that is the kind of story he has entered into. I don’t know if he is aware that he has set this woman on a search which is not ultimately completable. For once she finds her mother’s mother, she may not like what she finds and just search for her mother’s mother’s mother. This may seem a little cruel, but one of the reasons why I like Prometheus so much is for the beauty of the ill-fated nature of Shaw’s pursuit. Her journey will be bleak, but I admire the naivety to undertake it.
LAWRENCE: I like your account of Shaw’s journey in Prometheus, and I think Covenant works very well as a continuation/inversion of that search. Both are preoccupied with searching for one’s origins, and if Prometheus frames the question in maternal terms, Covenant is definitely more concerned with fatherhood than motherhood. Moreover, both are fraught with the kind of hostility towards one’s creator that has obsessed Scott as far back as Blade Runner, in which Rutger Hauer killed his creator, and with which Covenant shares some explicit similarities. Covenant actually reminds me of your take on Frankenstein, what with its various perverse relationships between creators and creations, narcissistic fathers and their artificial offspring: the Engineers and humanity, Weyland and David, David and the Xenomorphs. Covenant‘s emphasis on a diabolical masculinity strikes me as a kind of reversal of Prometheus, in which Shaw (because of David’s meddling) gave birth to a distinctly vaginal alien (a marked contrast to the phallic Xenomorphs) that saved her life by killing the male Engineer. In Covenant, David meddles even more horrifically with Shaw’s feminine capacity for birth: unable to impregnate her in the natural way, he turns her into a mother of sorts by (it is implied) using her corpse as a breeding ground for his diabolical experiments. In Covenant, the maternal/feminine has been excised almost entirely from the creation process: an idea reinforced by the homoerotic scenes between the two Fassbender androids. Scott’s stated intention to title the film “Alien: Paradise Lost” strikes me as rather pretentious, but he does a surprisingly fine job casting David as a Miltonic Satan figure.
GIBBS: I suppose I have one very final question: assuming that the series continues over the next decade (and given the hard franchise tendencies ascendant in Hollywood at the moment, this seems a fair bet), where would you like to see the next several Alien films go?
LAWRENCE: Part of what I admire about the franchise is how distinct its entries are. Scott’s original film is quite different from Cameron’s, and Cameron’s from Fincher’s, and so on. Conversely, I think Covenant is at its weakest when it’s most reminiscent of the earlier films (crew members getting munched by aliens) and at its best when it’s something entirely new (android brothers ruminating on creation). I couldn’t tell you what I want specifically out of the next film, but I can tell you I want it to lean more on the latter and less on the former. I like how Scott seems to be making an effort to refocus his story on the androids, rather than the titular aliens, and I think that’s a smart choice. The Xenomorph seems likely to be a case of diminishing returns from here on out, particularly if the films continue to rely on CGI rather than physical effects. Fassbender’s David, on the other hand, is compelling and scary, and I’m intrigued to see what he gets up to next. I like the idea of a David-centric trilogy to complement the original Ripley-centric trilogy, and if Alien and Prometheus were about birth, and Aliens and Covenant are about parenthood, I suppose it’d make sense for the next film, like Alien 3, to be about death, the end of the life cycle. But who knows? Maybe I’m just a sucker for trilogies that mirror each other.