What elements of cultural anxiety do the Aliens films represent?
September 10, 2004 8:35 PM   Subscribe

My sister once took a film course where she learned that each film in the Alien trilogy (not including the 4th one) is supposed to represent some kind of cultural anxiety. [more inside]

She remembers in the third installment it was AIDS (i.e. something about the all-male prison), and she thinks the second one was about illegal immigration....... but she's not sure. And she has no clue about the first one. Any ideas?
posted by invisible ink to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I remember in semiotics class learning all about how Ridley's room was a vagina.

So... post-partum depression?

(I am actually not kidding)
posted by bcwinters at 8:58 PM on September 10, 2004

My guess for the first one would be yuppies vs. non-yuppies, or haves vs. have-nots, considering how much the labourers bitch about not being paid enough, and the rest of them just flip switches and "talk" to the ship. :-)
posted by shepd at 9:08 PM on September 10, 2004

I've heard the second film described as a sort of "vietnam in space", the aliens are "charlie", the marines don't know where they are or where they are coming from.

As for illegal immigration, I think some people have read too much into the line "Somebody said "alien" she thought they said "illegal alien" and signed up!", which is merely an in-joke about the actress who played Vasquez, who showed up to the audition thinking the film was about illegal aliens.
posted by bobo123 at 9:15 PM on September 10, 2004

I think your sister's film professor was giving the filmmakers a bit more credit than they deserve. There's no master plan at work here: each film was driven by a completely different creative team, and each only really existed because the previous one was a financial success, not because there was some new theme they wanted to tackle.

The first film is about anxiety, but it's not a cultural anxiety -- it's a more universal anxiety about sexuality and reproduction. The film is notoriously rife with sex and childbirth imagery, from the design of the monster to the fact that the crew retreats to a round room with soft, padded walls and warm, diffuse light to connect with the ship's computer -- which is called "Mother". This imagery was actually toned down; Giger's original design for the alien eggs was rejected as being too obviously vulva-like.

The second film plays it much more straight. Thematically, it's about the maternal instinct and the nature of female strength, but you don't have to dig very deep to find everything the film has to say on these subjects.

The third film was definitely intended to work as an allegory about AIDS at one point in its tortuous development. However, this angle is, at best, really only suggested by the film that was ultimately produced.
posted by jjg at 9:22 PM on September 10, 2004

Different writers. Different directors. Hard to imagine how they'd be able to consciously plan such extended subtext. My guess is that they were merely telling good stories and we're superimposing ideas on them after the fact.
posted by RavinDave at 9:43 PM on September 10, 2004

Res ipsa loquitor. They are monster/horror movies, with larger budgets than most at the time.
posted by davidmsc at 9:44 PM on September 10, 2004

My guess is that they were merely telling good stories and we're superimposing ideas on them after the fact.

If you think this is bad, you should try English Literature.
posted by reklaw at 9:52 PM on September 10, 2004

A little googling suggests rape, war and AIDS for 1, 2, and 3. Though the first two subjects could be associated with countless horror films.
posted by bobo123 at 10:11 PM on September 10, 2004

All horror movies reflect some kind of anxiety, and most anxieties are based in cultural norms. Think about it for a second - if the anxiety was supposed to be produced by relating to people's fears of alien attack whilst aboard a starship, no one could relate to that at all, because no one goes on starships.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:12 PM on September 10, 2004

I've heard the first one compared to battling cancer.
posted by dogwelder at 10:38 PM on September 10, 2004

Res ipsa loquitor. They are monster/horror movies, with larger budgets than most at the time.

Monster/horror movies have always been very thinly veiled expressions of cultural anxiety. Think Godzilla in post-war Japan, or Psycho in the era of women's lib. In literature this is even more obviously the case. Invisible Ink asks a valid question (to which I don't have an answer).
posted by Hildago at 10:52 PM on September 10, 2004

I don't think I buy Alien3 as being "about" AIDS. It just doesn't fit -- there's no contagion, there's no spreading sickness, there's no wasting. There's nothing there that fits the pattern of AIDS, near as I can tell, except a bunch of men. There's just a monster with big damn teeth. I don't mind people reading in meanings to a movie that the filmmakers might not have consciously intended, but this one feels like a real stretch.

I usually think of them as being about Ripley (and others) learning/doing different stuff. Not from consistent intent on the part of the series-makers, but just sort of by happenstance.

Alien is about surviving and escaping.
Aliens is about fighting back and defending others.
Alien3 is about sacrificing yourself and rising above what you've been.
Alien Resurrection is about self-indulgent shots of you clawing your way out of a big milky plastic bag while bare-assed nekkid so we know you're still hot even though you're fiftywhatever.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:17 PM on September 10, 2004

Alien: Haunted house in space
Aliens: War movie in space
AliensAliensAliens: Sucky movie in space
Alien Resurrection: Even suckier movie in space
Although the swimming aliens were kinda cool.

Or, alternatively:

Alien: Sigourney Weaver's hot
Aliens: Sigourney Weaver's a badass
AliensAliensAliens: Sigourney Weaver needs cash
Alien Resurrection: Sigourney Weaver needs a better agent
posted by kirkaracha at 12:09 AM on September 11, 2004

Heh. Am I seriously the only person who liked the movies on a rising scale? Sigourney didn't look hot until she didn't have hair. That afro just freaked me out.
posted by stoneegg21 at 4:03 AM on September 11, 2004

I thought all the films were about aliens.
posted by SpaceCadet at 5:08 AM on September 11, 2004

jig and bobo123 are right on. (Though I buy that "Aliens" is about motherhood more than it's about war--motherhood is definitely the main theme, esp. with the big mama alien).

I would add, I guess, that the films aren't "about" these anxieties at all; as others have said they're "about" big aliens killing people in a spaceship. One of the reasons they're so involving, though, is that tell their stories within certain freaky contexts. That a monster wants to eat you is pretty scary, but what gives the Alien moves their very *distinct* brand of horror is that the monster wants to forcibly put its long probiscis down your throat, inject its eggs there, and then force you to become pregnant and bear its child, which will result in your extremely horrific and agnoiziing death. Personally, I find that what makes me recoil from those movies and find the whole concept so disturbing is indeed the sexual subtext, which is just nasty. It's definiely there -- it's why "Alien" is so much more imaginative and freaky than say, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
posted by josh at 6:42 AM on September 11, 2004

Almost nobody likes Alien 3, eh? I've always thought it had such a great atmosphere, great setting. In the 'Behind the Scenes" or "The Making of..." they said it was originally to be set in a monastery on a remote planet, but they ended up opting for the prison setting instead. I think either would have been a great concept, though the prisoners were very much like monks anyway with their vows of celibacy and adherence to some strange sect of christianity. Both would work well with the theme of sexual repression that's so prominent.

Oh yeah, Charles S. Dutton was great.
posted by crank at 7:21 AM on September 11, 2004

crank, I'm a big fan of Alien 3, actually. I love the atmosphere as well, and I love the audacity of the way the story handles most-all of the characters from Aliens, it really sets the tone of loneliness and isolation, right from the start. I also love the beauty of the themes in it of self-awareness and trying to overcome your baser nature. I hate the ending, but I love the rest of the movie. I like it substantially better than Aliens, which is my least favourite of the four, heretical as that may be, I find the second one almost unwatchable, I find Sigourney strident and insanely irritating in it, and the story just leaves me cold.

I love the fact that there are so many different themes people can find in these films, but I agree with the others who've said that what the movies are concretely "about" is different from the themes people can find in them.
posted by biscotti at 8:24 AM on September 11, 2004

This comic really put it in perspective for me...

VG Cats 114 - "That's saying a mouthful"
posted by bobo123 at 8:25 AM on September 11, 2004

For an excellent discussion on some of these themes, check out Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. I could go on and on about this, but I'm not going to. If you really are interested, get Alien Zone - it has 5 or 6 very good articles on Alien alone - and then go through the bibilographies.

Also, whomever said that science fiction always presents cultural anxieties is 100% correct. That is the use and purpose of the genre. This makes it an incredibly useful vehicle for investigating the socities that produce them, a realization that is only just engendering the serious academic study the genre deserves.
posted by ChasFile at 8:38 AM on September 11, 2004

I would agree with the sentiments that say SF represents and reflects cultural anxieties. To tie it into the "sequels only get made because the previous iteration made money" argument, I would put forth that the movies that hit the cultural anxiety button in a current time period are likely to make more money precisely because they speak to a wide audience and represent what everybody is thinking about.

It would seem to me that's why Aliens was super macho war-like in the 80s with Star Wars, Cold War, and unstoppable super powers, while Alien3 was much more angsty, defeatist and grunge like in the early 90s - when everyone between the ages of 20 and 35 mostly hated everyone else and thought it was all over. :) Alien3 got made because Aliens made money, but Aliens made money because of its theme and tone, and Alien3 was designed with a different theme to speak to a different audience (and thus made some money).

Admittedly, I'm not a cultural anthropolgist, or a film critic, just an armchair pop culture junkie. And I might be giving Hollywood too much credit. Or everyone else not enough credit. Or something.
posted by Cyrie at 9:36 AM on September 11, 2004

Uh, I would say (the much-maligned, and I think unfairly so) Alien Resurrection is about abortion. Like when you see all of the "aborted" Ripleys? Or when the baby alien gets vacuumed out into space, leaving a little baby human skull behind? Yeah.
posted by blueshammer at 7:54 PM on September 11, 2004

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