#44: Alien [1979]

The beauty of being a postgrad student is you can pretty much do what you want, so I spent today in the British Library reading up on science fiction/dystopian literary theory (turns out scholars write it as SF not sci-fi, so I'll be aspirational and do the same).  It was this more than anything that inspired me to finally write up my review of this film which I watched with my dad and brother a couple weeks back. This information is important because it was with them that I last watched Alien, ten years back. I can hear you doing the maths: yes, I was 12 when my dad first sat me down to watch this film. Yes, my mum was very, very angry.
The thing is, I was still scared at 22, having watched it before, knowing what was coming, and having recently seen Aliens and Prometheus: on paper I should have been completely prepared. Getting up half an hour into the film to get a cushion to hide behind revealed I was woefully underprepared for the assault director Ridley Scott launches against the viewer. I don't think the shivering was entirely to do with the snow outside. Pathetic whimpering provoked sympathetic shoulder patting, but there was nothing to be done - they were being eaten one by one.
Well, were they? We don't really see what's going on. The crew of the Nostromo, space ship from some far-distant future earth on its way back from a mining mission on the other side of the galaxy, wake up from stasis to find that they're not even halfway home, and that the ship is on course to investigate a possible SOS signal from a potential unknown extraterrestrial life form. You can see where it's all going to go wrong really, can't you?
The material I was reading today was talking about the "novum" - the fictional item/concept within a SF fantasy which classifies it as fictional, not from our reality, and around which the other reality of that world orbits: think artificial intelligence and lightsabers. The idea is that this is the kind of stuff you have to consciously assimilate and therefore makes you feel separate from that reality and its dangers. The thing is, with Alien we don't really have any reassuring nova. You see, the spaceships and fancy medical equipment don't really count; not only have we seen these before (though perhaps not so impressively) in Star Wars/Trek so that we now do actually assimilate them fairly rapidly, these don't give us an insight to the separate reality of the world the crew live in. With the information we're given, their society seems similar to ours, post-industrialist and probably capitalist, just with swankier toys. In fact, the only real novum (aside from the alien itself, and that's contentious, so I'll come back to it) is Ash (Ian Holm), who turns out to be some form of highly intelligent android. His programming and purpose in the plot, however, simply point to a capitalist, profiteering company behind the crew of the Nostromo, so actually serves to anchor this SF-inspired world to our own. So that's my first point made really - the fancy ship isn't enough to distance us from the terror of the crew, and so we ourselves are not exempt from the terror. 
Let's move onto the alien itself. Can it be a novum? I'm going to argue it is - after all, it's the central idea of this reality: we might not know much about their culture or ideologies or whatever, but we do know a ruddy great alien life form is rampaging through the ship and killing all the crew. Let's face it - it's messing up their reality. I'm not sure if the scholars would like this reasoning, but they're not reading this, so we'll continue as we are. So then, if we have finally identified our primary novum, we should now start talking about its function. You see, these tricky little devices are two-faced. At first glance they distance this other reality from our own because of difference, but then, realising this separate world functions within a different form of reality (or at least it should, if it's well-written enough to have a logical internal consistency) we begin to question our own world. You see, if a totally separate world works without our primary frames of reference, then we lose sight of what is solid.* Hence the terror inherent in SF: if it's like your world then it's scary; if it's nothing like your world then is this world even a world‽ Terrifying. You don't even need aliens.
Perhaps I should get to the actual film just before I end though. You know the premise: big alien, big deaths. Although as I mentioned earlier, you don't really see much. The fright factor isn't in the gore, like Prometheus, which had me sweating and squirming, and it isn't in big action set pieces, like in Aliens. It's in the cold, claustrophobic ducts of the ship, scurrying somewhere behind you, and probably seconds away from eating your liver. Ash calls the alien 'the perfect life form', which harkens back to the novum idea - is there any inherent point in humanity? The horror is in the fact that you cannot reason with this thing, and you might not even have the right to. I agree with Ripley (Signourney Weaver) and her description more though: 'You Bitch!'

*Jean-Luc Nancy would contend that you cannot conceive of a world you do not already share in, but he's nasty and a bad writer, so we'll ignore his evidence.