Alien: What’s in a Name

For GateSlashers, Cass Arellano writes about what Alien’s title means in the first of many pieces about horror set to come out this month.

At first glance, the title of the classic 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien (a now classic film which has spawned numerous sequels, two crossovers with the Predator franchise, an upcoming TV series, and tie-in comics), seems a bit dull, it’s like if Jaws was simply called “Shark” or if Halloween was called “Crazy killer with an inside-out Captain Kirk’s mask”. It just seems like producers and writers could come up with a more creative title, but once you give it some thought the title can change your perception of the film. 

The word “alien” can be used in two ways, as a noun to refer to a subject who does not belong and comes from a foreign territory, or as an adjective to describe a subject or object that has the qualities listed above. If we interpret the title as a noun, I believe my early criticism is a solid one, the title is just a simple reference to the movie antagonist. But if we read the title not as a noun, but as an adjective, the movie goes from “the movie about an alien” to “an alien movie”, a foreign movie, one which does not belong. With this simple change, this movie becomes an exploration of what is that which we describe as alien, and I believe here is where the beauty of the film is found. 

The Xenomorph (Bolaji Badejo) in Alien (1979) | 20TH CENTURY FOX

This is not just me talking, when the writer of the film Dan O’Dannon was trying to find a title for the project he struggled a lot, going through multiple titles (“Memory”, “They Bite” and “Star Beast” for example), but after seeing just how many times the word “alien” appeared on the script and realizing how well it worked as both noun and adjective they decided dad was the perfect title for the movie. 

For all intents and purposes, talking about the alien (even thinking about it) should be impossible. The alien is by its own definition that which escapes meaning, it exists outside of our understanding, outside of our reality (or at least reality as we perceive it). How could we even begin to conceive it, let alone bring it to the big screen? If the alien is inhuman how can humans even represent it? 

What makes Alien such an amazing and horrifying movie to represent that which is alien, it doesn’t just rely on H. R. Giger’s wonderful design for the Xenomorph or Bolaji Badejo’s great performance as the creature. Instead, every aspect of this movie works to create an alien feeling for the viewer. With the way the film is shot, the claustrophobic sets, the uneasiness of the crewmates’ interactions, and the grotesque visual effects the movie creates an atmosphere the viewer can’t feel at home in, an alien atmosphere. But perhaps it’s in the themes of the film where its most alien aspect resides. 

Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and The Xenomorph (Bolaji Badejo) in Alien (1979) | 20TH CENTURY FOX

In addition to being a movie about survival, this movie is clearly a criticism of how big companies treat their employees, and how twisted and inhuman these companies’ priorities can be. One of the main reasons the crew has such a hard time capturing and killing the alien is because Ash (who is later revealed to be an android placed secretly by the company amidst the crew) is trying to protect it because it is company protocol to make the capture and retrieval of a live alien specimen the ship’s main priority, even if that means making each member of the crew completely expendable. Here the movie presents us with something completely inhuman, completely alien: the disregarding of human lives in order to turn a profit. In this movie this is shown as a horrifying prospect (and it really is), it is shown as one of the most alien aspects of the whole narrative. The thing is this is not something that just happens in science fiction movies, this is something that happens every single day in the real world. The movie critic is so powerful because it shows us that even the most alien of actions can come from humans themselves. 

And that is how the famous chestburster scene becomes the perfect analogy for the alienness of this movie. What makes this movie a perfect incarnation of its title is that it represents the alien coming from within the human, it gestates inside of it, takes the most human elements, and corrupts them to create a monstrous creature, the perfect organism to show us what exists outside of our reality. When it’s ready to come out it comes out in an explosion of guts and blood, and “human” becomes an adjective of the past.

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