By Kevin McCorry
Technology has been the spawn of man's limitless quest for material profit, while man is a child of his technology, as suggested in the diaper-like garments worn by the crew while under the care of their maternal spaceship, whose computer is named Mother. Technology has become part of a reproductive process, and people are assets begotten from it. It is the matriarch of this future world.
The mise-en-scene of the Nostromo, of the planet on which it lands, and of the alien ship where the Nostromo crew finds the eggs that spawn the creature, are best credited to production designer H. R. Giger, whose bio-mechanical motif likening the alien and technology (in the Nostromo) accounts for much of the aesthetic appeal of this film. In essence, the bio-mechanical motif broaches two corresponding ideas: organic machinery and mechanical organisms. The former idea is exemplified by the fact that Ash, one of the crew, looks human and organic, but is actually a machine, quite like the mechanical Nostromo having the look of a living thing. The other notion of a mechanical organism is manifest in the unrelentingly efficient, machine-like reproductive system of the alien creature.
The Nostromo corridors, similar to those of the alien craft where the crew finds the incubation area for the alien eggs, have scaly projections and indentations similar to the physiology of the alien organism, and the tunnel motif of the corridors likens them to the tubes inside a mother's belly. Pipes are situated on the corridors like blood vessels along the walls of a Fallopian tube, establishing a visual correspondence, a birthing motif, between the set design of the Nostromo and that of the alien craft. And so too is the ghastly, perverted reproduction of the alien aesthetically connected through set design to technology, which in this film, is depicted as an extension of mankind's "other", "alien", less-than-noble side of nature.
Ships of sail have frequently been given a female gender by travellers who wish a nurturing, protecting sense of security on the high seas. The Nostromo computer is given the designation of "Mother", "soul" of the ship, powerful maintainer or "giver" of life to its dependent crew. Indeed, the Nostromo sets have the look of the interior of a woman birthing, or in an obscure sense re-birthing, with her diapered adult occupants. Such imagery brings to mind a notion of regression by return to a womb. To not ascend or improve. To instead be as close as possible to the place of conception. To relive either the irresponsible childhood of an individual or that of the human race. Infantile primitivism.
Such a desire, for an adult male, is as perverse as the desire of an adult female to dominate a man, to be like an insect queen, with male progenitors entirely under her will. These are aspects of the "alien" other side of the human spirit, contrary to what is considered normal. And the concept that technology, as represented in this film, is becoming an extension and thus a part of man's darker side quite understandably gives apt rise to a fear of machines, upon which man is more and more dependent, becoming a replacement for the mother in the male id's regressive urge above described- and becoming akin to the monstrous, phallic female, or on another tangent to the same idea, phallic female organisms with mechanical ruthlessness. The alien in the film would appear to symbolise the darker side of the wild libido, from which man's ego has in the future still not liberated him, taken to its most twisted extreme.
The deliberate directorial style of Alien contrasts sharply with that of James Cameron's fast-and-furious sequel, Aliens. In both Alien and Blade Runner, Ridley Scott uses tension punctuated by brief but extreme bursts of violence and demonstrates a British preference for long, specular moments. Alien opens with an extended camera pan around the Nostromo's empty decks and tunnel-like corridors, so that the viewer is something of a voyeur prior to the coming-on-the-scene of the seven human characters. As they emerge from their cryogenic torpor, the first to rise is Kane, who ironically is also the first to die in the perverse birthing of the alien. Slow dissolves of Kane rising and adjusting himself suggest a time lapse of indeterminate length, an ersatz growth process inside the technological "womb", of which Kane's chest will be a macabre, biological extension for incubating the alien organism.
Scott's most provocative
image, noted by many appreciators of the film's visual style, involves a pulling
back of the film frame to show Kane, Captain Dallas, and Lambert venturing
inside the alien ship through a vagina-shaped entry port between its "legs" as
though they were three sperm, and finding themselves in a labyrinthine series of
darkened tunnels leading to a womb-like egg hatchery where the fatally curious
Kane finds the otherworldly extension of humanity's darker side taken to its
most extreme. It turns the reproductive process onto this man, making him the
carrier of an embryo, forcefully "ejaculated" into him by the alien "face
hugger", an alien organism that may be a representation of the phallic female,
the dark, negative side of feminist power, the female "animus", while Ripley's
heroism will represent a rather more positive aspect of the dominant
The alien seems to be the biological extension of human technology, which has been given a seemingly feminine power over humans as suggested in the imagery of the Nostromo and in the "Mother" designation for the ship's computer. The alien is deemed the "perfect organism", like a fool-proof machine grimly carrying out its assigned task, violently using humans as pawns in an inhuman and ghastly life cycle. The bio-mechanically designed alien is an entity devoid of pity or of "delusions of morality", quite like the robot Ash or like the computer, Mother, who is impassive to Ripley's pleas when Ripley tries to stop a preassigned self-destruct of the ship. The technology, the ship, and the alien organism are projections of an otherness within the human psyche, the dark beast of instinct that future man, in his less-than-virtuous, mercenary, seedy, and coarsely sexual lifestyle, has not transcended. Its ruthless life cycle is regarded by a corporation on Earth to have a commodity value rather like that of the rest of their technology, including the ships.
This notion is greatly enhanced by depiction of the alien coming out from inside a man and blending in with the technological surroundings, camouflaging itself in the cavernous tunnels of the ship. It seems very resembling of the technology, and aptly so. The set design of Alien suggests symbolic association between the alien and the Nostromo, projections of human vice, regressive mother fixations, and perverse feminine power.
In summary, the mise-en-scene of Alien proposes a dystopic future in which the flaws in human nature are brought with man as he moves into space for mercenary, gratifying purposes and is dependent upon technology such that the ship's computer- and by extension the ship itself- is designated as "Mother". Alien establishes a bio-mechanical motif to connect the ruthless alien organism to technology and to the spacecraft Nostromo, which, in its dark, grimy look, reflects the continued decadence of man. Spawned from the darker part of the imagination, it is the antithesis to what is considered normal for both sexes, evoking fear of the abnormal, of the dangers, both literal and psychological, of technology becoming tied to man's darker side- out-of-control, decadent capitalism and out-of-control id-release. It is the monster within the collective immature human psyche, which is manifested as a devouring beast. By playing to the almost primordial fascination with and fear of "the other" within the human psyche, Alien has achieved popularity and re-transformed science fiction's monster-from-another-world sub-genre.
Jung, Carl G., Henderson, Joseph L., et al.. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, 1964.
"The Making of Alien". Starlog # 23. Starlog Press, June, 1979.