Roger Ebert Home

Book Excerpt: Becoming Alien: The Beginning and End of Evil in Science Fiction's Most Idiosyncratic Film Franchise​ by Sarah Welch-Larson

We are proud to present an excerpt from Becoming Alien: The Beginning and End of Evil in Science Fiction's Most Idiosyncratic Film Franchise by Sarah Welch-Larson. Get your copy here and find the official synopsis below, followed by the excerpt. 

Synopsis: The Alien films are perceived to be a fractured franchise, each one loosely related to the others. They are nonlinear, complicated, convoluted: a collection of genre movies ranging from horror to war to farce.

But on closer examination, the threads that bind together these films are strong and undeniable. The series is a model of Catherine Keller’s cosmology as a cycle of order out of chaos, an illustration of her concept of evil as discreation.

When viewed through the lens of Keller’s Face of the Deep, the Alien films resolve into a cohesive whole. The series becomes six views of the idea of evil-as-exploitation, its origins, and its consequences. Each film expands on the concept of evil set forth by its predecessors, complicating that conception, and retroactively enriching readings of the films that came before.


Alien opens in the dark: first blackness and a hint of stars, then a slow pan over a planet and its moons, title and credits sharp white against black, all outside light blotted out by the bulk of the planet. The title assembles itself patiently from a series of abstract lines, each letter spaced out from each other, making strange glyphs before resolving into a brief, familiar word: Alien.

In the beginning, there is a tower-like ship pushing its way insistently through the depths of the void. We start in medias res, although we do not know it yet. Soon enough, we will learn that the ship is not going away on a long voyage. The Nostromo is a commercial towing vehicle returning home, its refinery towers loaded with valuable ore. Its crew are not adventurers. They are truckers, shippers, ordinary blue-collar workers in the depths of space.

The audience is introduced to the interior of the Nostromo through a patient, roaming look through the ship’s dark, empty corridors. The passageways are both massive and claustrophobic, octagonal, wider than a typical earthbound hallway, but crammed full of pipes, wiring, and switches: apparent chaos, but in a way that suggests some worker on board can make sense of the tangle, and that the tangle can make the ship go. As the camera floats through the corridors, we feel like invaders. There are no humans in sight, but evidence that they exist is everywhere: in the dippy birds on the kitchen table, in the wind chimes hanging in the doorway, in the papers rustling under an air duct outlet, and in the helmets staring blankly at computer screens on the bridge. For the first few minutes, we see no one, but we know people live here, somewhere in the innards of this massive cathedral-spired ship,[1] always already on their mission.

Catherine Keller’s conception of the universe is nonlinear, unbounded by hard beginnings and endings; the universe exists in a constant state of becoming. The “In the beginning” of Genesis also begins in medias res,[2] the spirit of God hovering over the face of the deeps (“tehom”), from which God creates the universe. These tehomic waters predate everything; they are a source of chaos, both frightening and full of delight, an unformed reality pregnant with unending, ever-changing possibilities, as deep as space, ebbing and flowing like the sea. They are both literal and figurative, the building blocks of the universe scattered before their assembly into a recognizable shape. Keller marks the beginning not as a fixed point, but as “a beginning-in-process, an unoriginated and endless process of becoming”[3] that does not exclude any part of creation, but that seeks to enfold all parts of creation back into itself, iterating and re-iterating itself like a fractal.[4] Chaotic, dark deeps are no longer reduced to something to be feared—darkness is reclaimed as a good thing in a tehomic understanding of the universe[5]—but are understood to be rich with possibilities. The deeps are a source of all good, regardless of culture, creed, or communication.[6]

Like Keller’s work to bring about a tehomic understanding of the universe, Alien begins at the beginning, which is already in motion: the Nostromo is on a return voyage homeward, the Company’s plot to capture an alien for their bioweapons division already in place. The whole of the film is set in the darkness of space, except when it is set in the darkness of a primordial planet, blurred by nighttime and inhospitable weather, less a view of an alien world than a suggestion of one that might still be in the process of formation. The planet, like the Nostromo’s voyage and like creation itself, is in medias res.

The plot of Alien sets a template for all other Alien films to follow: under orders, a crew investigates something they should have left alone, and for their pains they are gruesomely eliminated by an alien monster, one by one. The crew of the Nostromo are ordinary people, despite their fantastic setting: they might sleep in flower-like cryopods while voyaging through the depths of space, but they wake up like anyone else, blinking slowly in the light, complain- ing that they are cold, sniping at each other over breakfast. There are only seven of them—five officers and two mechanics. Each one is a unique person, instantly recognizable in all their own quirks and neuroses. Their personalities bump off each other, harsh as the white clinical lights of the ship’s interior, their breakfast conversation ebbing and flowing like chattering water.

The crew have been awakened halfway through their return trip with orders to find the source of an apparent SOS signal, unappealing work because it adds a detour to an already-long voyage. The Company they work for gives them no choice: the contract the crew is under stipulates that all shares they have already earned are forfeit if they do not obey orders. The audience instinctively understands the rules of the film’s world because it maps so closely to our own. It is a world of contracts and pay bonuses, traffic control, bad working conditions, and worse company food. Orders from the Company become jobs, which lead to profits, which lead to extended contracts with the Company: a cycle of work that is bearable, not good.

None of the characters talk about their personal lives, nor about their plans when they reach Earth again, except to say that they want decent food once they are off the ship. For a film that has been interpreted to be about fear, about fear of rape, and about the knots human beings tie themselves into in order to fit into an economic system that is not built to favor them, Alien spends very little energy explicitly talking about those issues. It is an elegant example of the old adage about showing, not telling. None of the crew are in love, none are homesick, none have anyone waiting for them back home; or at least, if they do, they do not waste their breath pining about it.

The crew’s understanding of normal, and by extension their values and actions, is dictated by protocol. Their adherence demonstrates the norms of their society, which maps closely to those of American society in the 1970s, with a key difference: there are women on board, with no one commenting about their gender or presence. Ripley and Lambert’s positions as warrant officer and navigator are remarkable precisely because the film considers them to be unremarkable. The crew of the Nostromo was scripted to be gender-neutral, with freedom to cast male or female actors in any part[7]—the universality of Alien’s story is baked into its script. The other unremarkable aspects of life on the Nostromo reveal the crew’s values and beliefs. Dallas (the captain) and Ash (the science officer) are the only two with access to Mother, the ship’s computer, indicating a hierarchy; Mother is separated from the rest of the ship by a long corridor, a series of codes, and a door, with the computer itself housed inside a pristine white room lined with blinking lights, visually distinct from the crowded corridors of the rest of the ship. Mother’s orders are relayed from the unseen Company, a further separation in the chain of command; this hierarchy is part of a larger system of rank and class that extends to everyone else on board. The officers—Dallas, Kane, Ripley, Lambert, and Ash—work on the upper deck, with the mechanics—Parker and Brett—sequestered below. The physical deck levels between ranks (and pay grades) provide a physical, ordered boundary, separating the crew from each other, exacerbating class differences between officer and mechanic. Parker and Brett poke at this boundary by dragging their feet during repair work and by attempting to achieve pay equity, a constant struggle that subsides only when the crew’s physical well- being is threatened by an outside force. Each crew member has a slightly different definition of what is right, and what should be right; their collective moral compasses make up a microcosm of society. Although the crew’s value systems diverge—Kane is adventurous, Lambert is cautious, and Parker and Brett are engaged in low-level class warfare with the others—the values they do share are built on a standard of normalcy that they never think about. The Company is in charge. There are procedures to maintain and protocols to follow. There is a job to do. The crew’s lives are bounded by rules, both written and unspoken.

At the beginning of the film, the characters cannot see the boundaries that govern their lives, although Ash seems to be able to navigate them, and Dallas at least is aware that they exist; like any good ship captain he knows better than to steer too close to the edges. After Dallas and Ash break quarantine procedure by bringing Kane back on board, an alien organism attached to his face, Dallas defends his actions to Ripley, who is upset that protocol has been violated. “Protocol, my dear, is what they tell you to do,” he snaps.[8] Dallas understands, even if only subconsciously, that the good of the crew is only in the Company’s interests when that good serves that interest.

Ripley’s adherence to protocol is grounded in a strong sense of what is right and what is typical. Before this voyage, procedure has never failed her; for Ripley, following protocol is beneficial because doing so will complete the job and result in bonus pay. Adherence means less friction, which means, perhaps, more contracts with the Company. Her actions are dictated by pragmatism and blind faith that Company protocols are good ones, specifically because she herself has never been harmed by these procedures; they create boundaries between what is safe and profitable and what is not. Boundaries are useful. They keep the air- less void of space out of the Nostromo, and they provide a semblance of order in what would otherwise be a chaotic existence on board the ship: an imposed hierarchy, created by the Company, to keep the crew alive within the void of space and to help them to cooperate in achieving the Company’s assignments. The crew accepts these boundaries as rules by which they are to live, neither good nor bad, but tolerable—the way the crew expects things to be, because they are just the way things are. When performing her duties, Ripley treats procedure as a good authority, but procedures can be twisted by those who know how to exploit them. The actions of the Company reveal their procedures not to be the only way for human beings to survive in space, but as a structure created by a corporation to exploit human beings.

Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers: www.wipfandstock.com.

Link to purchase Becoming Alien here: https://wipfandstock.com/9781725283008/becoming-alien/

[1] The Nostromo was designed to look like a “cross between a tramp steamer and a cathedral” (Titan Books, Alien: the Archive, 32).

[2] Keller, Face of the Deep, xvii.

[3] Keller, Face of the Deep, xvii.

[4] Keller, Face of the Deep, 44.

[5] Keller, Face of the Deep, xvi.

[6] Keller, Face of the Deep, xviii.

[7] Rinzler, Making of Alien, 24.

[8] Scott, Alien.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sasquatch
The Secrets She Keeps
In the Earth

Comments

comments powered by Disqus