The Scariest Thing About ‘Alien’ Is How Real It’s Become

Ridley Scott’s space horror classic just turned 40. It’s never been more relevant to our debates over sex, gender, and reproductive rights.

Illustration: Pablo Iglesias

WWhen Alien debuted in 1979, the sexual revolution seemed like a done deal. It was released in a post-feminist, post-birth-control-pill, post-Stonewall universe, when a gender-egalitarian future seemed not only possible, but likely. Director Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi/horror mashup, which turns the wonders of the cosmos into a haunted house, is getting its 40th anniversary rerelease this month. Yet Alien has become so ingrained in the pop culture firmament that we scarcely pause to reflect on how it reflects the politics of its era. That’s a shame, because Alien has never been more relevant than in 2019.

Alien was released six years after the Supreme Court legalized Roe v. Wade, seven years after the court made it legal for unmarried people to use birth control, and 10 years after the Stonewall riots kicked off the LGBT rights movement. By the end of the ’70s, the youth counterculture of the ’60s had long since normalized casual and premarital sex. The ferocious Christian anti-choice movement, the anti-feminist backlash, the AIDS epidemic, and the great rightward shift of the Reagan years were to come.

Yet Alien, somehow, predicted that a storm was coming. The movie is set on the starship Nostromo, which investigates a distress call on a far-off planet and finds evidence of alien life — and, just as quickly, discovers that the “alien life” is an unstoppable killing machine hell-bent on reproduction. Its plot is a kind of nightmarish allegory for the socially conservative backlash, in which a gender-egalitarian and sexually liberated future is torn apart by a monster whose only concern is impregnating everyone against their will.

The gender politics of Alien are shockingly progressive, even now. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is one of cinema’s greatest examples of a “strong female lead.” She’s no one’s wife, no one’s girlfriend, and no one’s mother (not until the sequel, anyway), a character whose main traits are her infallible common sense and her ability to keep her cool while everyone else is panicking. She’s the only person clear-eyed enough to recognize the threat the alien poses, she ably takes command of the frightened crew when both her superior officers have been killed, and she is resourceful and fearless enough to jettison the extraterrestrial rapist out an airlock while also saving her cat. But some part of her gender-stereotype-busting greatness derives from the fact that she wasn’t initially written as female. Famously, all of the roles in the original Alien script were gender-neutral, referenced by last name only, with pronouns added in when the filmmakers cast the parts. Ripley could have been a man, yes, but the ship’s captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) or the evil robot Ash (Ian Holm) could also have been women. Ripley is never pressured to conform to female stereotypes, and her male crew members never treat her any differently than they would a male leader, because the screenplay never defines Ripley around her gender — and neither, by implication, does the society in which she lives.

Among the movie’s devoted fan base, Alien is famous for having gender and sexual politics so far ahead of their time that they were censored out. Transition in this universe is both common and uncontroversial. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-them transgender backstories were written for both Dallas and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright); Lambert’s survives only as a brief mention on screen in Aliens (1986) and Dallas’ was written out. Of course, given that both characters are eaten by the titular alien (along with everyone else who isn’t Sigourney Weaver), it hardly counts as sterling representation. Still, when the movie premiered, pretty much the only transgender characters in horror — or anywhere else — were wild-eyed murderers like the villains of Sleepaway Camp or Psycho. It’s frustrating to know that the movie’s vision was straight-washed, but somehow thrilling to realize how far its vision reached. Mainstream filmmakers struggle to put more than one non-stereotypical trans or queer character in their stories even today; Alien almost had two, and they would have been the first sympathetic trans characters in horror.

It’s not that the future of Alien is utopian. Everyone on the ship is overworked and anxious about money, and their survival is contingent on the whims of evil megacorporations, which is another way the movie feels prescient. It’s one of the few horror movies to begin with an attempted labor strike, even if that strike is just Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) refusing to fix the spaceship until he gets promised a bigger bonus. Still, on the sex and gender fronts, it’s more or less the Future Liberals Want. At least, it is until the face-hugger shows up.

No movie has ever created a more viscerally terrifying picture of what it would feel like to be pregnant and unable to access an abortion.

Yet show up it does, and bloody, slimy, penis-shaped, chest-bursting havoc inevitably ensues. That’s where this really gets political: Alien is a movie about the tyranny of the body over the self. Culture and technology allow us some degree of reproductive and sexual agency. Alien is about how terrifying it feels to have all that agency stripped away by something that defines you purely by your body — how it feels to be turned from an adult human being to a fleshy vessel that can be used to host and birth someone else’s young.

This terror is closer to us in 2019 than it ever was in 1979. The crew of the Nostromo embodies the sexual politics we seemed to be moving toward in the late ’70s. Advances in birth control, abortion, and gender affirmation therapies, coupled with the renunciation of sexual (hetero)norms, stood to create a world where reproductive anatomy didn’t define a person, and in fact wasn’t even relevant most of the time. When Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon conceived of their world, it seemed improbable that those advances would be rolled back. Yet, in 2019, forced childbirth is increasingly a fact of life, with seven states passing total abortion bans disguised as “term limits” and Alabama flat-out criminalizing the procedure. Birth control for single women, which once seemed completely uncontroversial, is once again a target of Republicans. The Supreme Court is currently weighing whether gay and trans people can be fired for their identities — and, for trans people in particular, the case is tied to an ongoing conservative push to eliminate them from public life.

Scott almost certainly didn’t intend for Alien to be a polemic on the importance of reproductive rights, but no movie has ever created a more viscerally terrifying picture of what it would feel like to be pregnant and unable to access an abortion. The film is famously pornographic, and it probably won’t blow your mind to hear that the chest-burster sequence (in which an alien jams its fleshy tentacle down John Hurt’s throat, only to have its offspring explode bloodily out of his belly later on) is a demonic vision of rape, pregnancy, and childbirth. Yet, unsubtle as it is, the metaphor lands: Humans create an egalitarian post-gender society, and a bunch of evil ambulatory penises immediately start running around trying to rape and knock everyone up.

The rampaging Xenomorphs on our spaceship might be Brett Kavanaugh, or the state legislature of Alabama, or rape culture writ large. The alien’s brute force project of slamming everyone back into their bodies, and forcing people to serve as sexual targets and breeders whether they like it or not, is shared by the Republican-controlled judiciary, and the homophobic and anti-choice Christian right, and the transphobic conservative agenda that recently delivered a seven-year-old trans girl into the arms of a father who intends to withhold potentially life-saving medical treatment, simply because acknowledging his daughter as transgender “violates the father’s Christian religious beliefs.”

In 1979, we had the luxury of imagining the Xenomorph as something fundamentally estranged from humanity. It is, as Ash says, a being comprised of pure reproductive instinct, with no culture or intellect to get in the way of its drive to propagate the species: “A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Yet today, it’s precisely those conservative “delusions of morality” that are forcing people to live in bodies and lives they haven’t chosen and don’t want.

Culture, technology, medicine — all the tools that help us to live in our bodies while retaining autonomy and agency over them — are not only necessary, they’re what make us human. Alien rings true for us, 40 years later, because it understands that truth. It shows us that brute, mindless animal existence — a life concerned only with making more babies, no matter the cost — is hideous, horrifying, and destructive. Yet Alien was prescient in one other way that feels very 2019: The Xenomorph can’t help killing people. It is, in some sense, blameless. The real enemy is the human corruption and greed that sent people into the monster’s clutches; the aliens might kill you, but only because humans let them in.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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