Fucking the Alien: Revisiting the Undersung Climax of the ‘Alien’ franchise

Maxwell Q. Wolkin
Feb 18, 2018 · 13 min read

What’s your favorite Alien movie? For most, it’s a question between Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 masterpiece, or James Cameron’s relentless 1986 sequel. The two films don’t have much in common, tonally speaking: one is a slow-burn horror story that vibes like a working-class 2001, and the other is a taut action-adventure picking up from where Cameron left off with The Terminator. While their subsequent sequels may be flawed entities, I’ve never quite understood the complaint that they deviate too much from the formula; David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) is called “too dark” for killing off beloved characters, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997) seems to have the opposite problem. It was considered something of a franchise-killer when it came out (Roger Ebert wrote that “This is a series whose inspiration has come, gone, and been forgotten”) and indeed seven years passed before the series was rebooted ignominiously as Alien vs. Predator, relegating it to the “B” status of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Most reviews were dismissive, and even favorable contemporary re-evaluations tend to focus on its dubious merits as a wacky sci-fi comedy — Ed Gonzalez writes that the film “should be approached as the comic-book actioneer that it is,” a backhanded compliment that seems to be tacitly apologizing for the film straying away from its more serious-minded predecessors. But this focus on its differences from Scott’s original miss the point: each Alien movie has been a unique opus, an auteurist spin on a malleable concept. In a sense, they are bound by little more than their anti-corporatist stance and the dual presence of Ellen Ripley and her xenomorph foes. I’d argue that Alien: Resurrection takes the xenomorphs, and their rich symbolic baggage, more seriously than any of its predecessors. Though it does bring with it some unwelcome humor and a weirdly high-key visual sensibility (Jeunet would follow it up with Amélie), Alien: Resurrection is at its heart a sophisticated evolution of the franchise’s central sexual metaphors. Only Janet Maslin seemed to get close to the heart of the film when it was released: she opened her review noting the “dripping, throbbing, drooling intensity of the ‘Alien’ movies” and focused on the sex appeal of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Indeed, for a film series so utterly preoccupied with sex — from its central rape metaphor to its obsession with alien reproduction, not to mention the erotic symbolism of the alien design itself — few critics have tried to engage with Alien: Resurrection on this level. But the film is, inarguably, the sexiest of the series, with its feline take on Ripley, its lesbian-coded gynoid, and its scientist-voyeurs lusting over caged beasts in heat. Indeed, rather than a fall from the simplicity, concision, and horror the franchise represents to many, we can view this final film in the original Alien cycle as a fulfillment of the messy erotic potential inherent, but heretofore repressed, in the Alien concept: a sublime, inevitable climax to the saga. Spoilers, naturally, to follow.

Since its inception, the Alien series has revolved thematically around a nexus of sex, death, reproduction, and power. In Alien, a sexless crew is shaken by the intrusion of the “face-hugger” egg. “Sexless” literally: the casting was apparently gender-neutral and characters don’t flirt, mansplain, or otherwise suggest gender difference. The word “face-hugger” isn’t actually said in any of the movies, but it’s commonly used by fans to describe the first stage of the alien life-cycle. A better name might be “face-fucker,” which is indeed what the creature does — grasping its victim by the head, inserting a tube down his throat, and depositing its seed into the victim’s esophagus. (I say “his” because other than Ripley and Lambert — Veronica Cartwright in a small role — the crew in Alien is all male, which, though un-remarked-upon in the film, subverts the traditional image of sexual victimhood, and underscores the alien’s prowess.) Attempts to remove this spider-like creature result only in it tightening its grip, and it can’t be cut off, because its blood is a powerful acid. The face-hugger, after having served its purpose, eventually falls off and dies, and the next stage in the alien life-cycle gestates inside its host over a matter of hours, before bursting out of the victim’s chest: the impregnated rape victim dies in childbirth. The alien (or “xenomorph”) itself is quite a sight. Designed by the erotic artist H.R. Giger, it’s inky black with a jagged body and a long, gently curved head, like the shaft of a thick cock. The xenomorph has no eyes and the head of the shaft is dominated by a wide, dripping maw lined with sharp, ice-colored teeth, recalling vagina dentata. Within the orifice is a second shaft and a second mouth, which the xenomorph can thrust outward to penetrate its victim. The entire thing seems to be oozing wet, translucent slime. When at last Ripley is the film’s lone survivor (she destroys the ship with the alien apparently on board) we find her stripping down to her underwear in order to enter suspended animation for a long journey aboard the escape shuttle, at which point she learns that the alien escaped destruction and is hiding aboard her shuttle craft. She finally defeats it, suggesting that it would have been impossible for the film to conclude without Ripley feminizing and sexualizing herself: the xenomorph is a creature of sexual violence and demands to be engaged with on those terms.

Ripley’s uniform for defeating the xenomorph

In Aliens, Cameron expands on these ideas while taking a different approach to alien sexuality. His film is more conventionally gendered, but no less intriguing in its sexual commentary — Ripley begrudgingly returns to the moon on which the xenomorph was discovered, alongside a cadre of space Marines who don’t think she’s “man” enough for the task. She proves herself qualified, of course — impressing them first by piloting a mech suit, and then, by saving all their lives — and along the way shows off her mothering instincts, rescuing and effectively adopting a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) who was orphaned on the planet’s surface. (The extended “Special Edition” of the film reveals that between the events of the first two movies, Ripley’s daughter had died, lending her adoption of Newt a touching dimension missing from the film’s punchier theatrical cut.) The xenomorphs themselves are subtly redesigned in a way that shifts emphasis away from their perverse sexuality — their formerly slick, smooth head-shafts are given ridges. Overall, Cameron focuses less on their sticky, genital curves, and more on their sharp edges: the xenomorphs look almost cybernetic in this film, blending into dark metal corridors and overall giving off a post-organic vibe. And there are many, many aliens in this film, which makes their threat that of an angry hive, rather than the sexual anxiety of the home invader in Alien. Nonetheless, as in its predecessor, plenty of fluid is secreted from these creatures, and indeed their reproductive habits and rituals are explored in much greater detail. In Aliens, victims of the xenomorph are not killed immediately but rather are kidnapped and cocooned in a thick sludge inside a sort of hatchery, filled with eggs. As the eggs hatch, the human victims are helpless to scores of face-huggers, who propagate the species on a mass scale. Laying the eggs is the queen alien, a huge, insectoid monster who sits stationary, attached to a massive birthing canal. But the queen is only immobile until threatened, and the climax of the film is a showdown of mothers: the queen protecting her eggs, and Ripley protecting Newt. Ripley defeats the queen from inside her Marine-issued mech suit, militarizing her own body to meet the aliens’ perfect, violent form. Once again, bodies are central to the film’s themes, and the way Ripley deploys hers vis-a-vis the xenomorphs is key to her success in this world.

Battle of the mechanized maternal bodies

Alien 3 finds Ripley and a face-hugger stowaway crash-landing on a remote planet being used as a penal colony, Newt having died in the voyage. This time, the alien gestates inside a dog (or an ox, depending on which cut of the film you see; I prefer the 2003 “Assembly Cut”), and emerges with canine features. This new twist on the franchise-spanning obsession with xenomorph reproduction pushes forward the unwanted pregnancy metaphor; the alien appears to take significant genetic information from its host, making it a sort of child. The creature runs free on this prison planet, which lacks the necessary weapons or technology to easily combat it, but it isn’t the only threat to be found on this world, as Ripley finds herself at risk of rape and assault by the inmates. For the first time, sexual violence between humans is introduced to the Alien franchise. Indeed, human sexuality has heretofore been largely absent from the films, but in Alien 3 it is newly central. Ripley, heretofore chaste, has (consensual) sex with the prison doctor Jonathan Clemens (Charles Dance), who is then quickly dispatched by the xenomorph. This brings to mind the teen slashers of the 1980’s, in which sex precedes certain doom at the hands of the killer. There as in this film, there is an implication that sex is itself dangerous, but the biology of the xenomorph is uniquely suited to suggest that human sexuality and the creature’s own type of violence are part and parcel of the same thing. The film’s iconic line is Ripley addressing the alien directly: “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.” The line recalls an abusive relationship, or perhaps more precisely given the role of Clemens in their triangle, a shitty ex. Immediately after killing Clemens, the xenomorph approaches Ripley, its face dripping, leering at her, its interior mouth-shaft flickering outward, as Ripley weeps in fear. We learn later why she is spared death: she carries its offspring, in fact, an infant queen. The film ends with Ripley committing suicide — having defeated the last remaining xenomorph, she’ll take no chances in aborting their unwanted baby.

An abusive relationship

And so the sexual mythology of the Alien franchise had developed for nearly twenty years by the time Jeunet was brought on to do its third sequel. The film’s title is highly literal: it begins with the resurrection of Ellen Ripley by the United Systems Military, her body cloned from a blood sample in order to extract the alien queen that was gestating inside her at the time of death (no, I don’t understand how this works either). As in previous films, the alien is a desired commodity — the first three involve the Weyland-Yutani corporation, Ripley’s employer, attempting to capture the alien in order to monetize it somehow as a weapon — but now Ripley’s body too is desired and commodified. Weaver’s Ripley is older, buffer, and more androgynous in her final go-around as the character — and more keenly aware of her sexuality than ever before. She prowls around the film’s sets, sniffing at the air like a hungry animal, and flirting menacingly with Winona Ryder’s Annalee Call, who, despite being of synthetic construction, appreciates the attention. (Androids are another recurring feature of the Alien franchise, and their bodies are also the sites of some interesting imagery — namely, their milky white “blood,” gushing forth as they are dismembered.) As a result of the cloning process — some of the xenomorph’s DNA was spliced into her’s — Ripley has developed certain skills and powers: super strength, heightened senses, incredible basketball moves. She also seems to have inherited the alien’s expressive and intimidating sexuality.

Ripley and the gynoid Annalee Call

The aliens themselves have never been sexier. Jeunet is smart enough to know that simply beholding the xenomorph, feasting on it with our eyes, is a pleasure in itself. His camera lingers on their forms, holding on them as they drip pornographically (they are wetter here than in any previous installment). The sensation of getting to spend this much time taking in Giger’s magnificent design, after three films that kept it in the shadows, is akin to a sexual release. The military scientists in the film seem to agree — they speak of the creatures rapturously (“The animal itself — wondrous!”) and their actual work has a leering edge: after hatching several adult xenomorphs at the expense of kidnapped human hosts, their research seems to consist of gazing at them through bulletproof glass windows as the aliens snarl and drool, and occasionally toying with them sadistically. This domination-based relationship connotes sexual slavery more than any scientific work, and introduces the idea that the xenomorphs might actually be considered an object of sympathy, a progressive twist on the earlier films’ single-minded insistence that their radical sexuality must be destroyed. Naturally, the aliens tire of this arrangement, and escape by tearing apart one of their own, its acid blood melting the floor of their enclosure. Much of the film’s subsequent runtime plays out like its predecessors, with Ripley and company attempting to outrun and outsmart the loose xenomorphs, but Jeunet’s pleasure in shooting the alien form elevates this material above the level of rehash. One standout sequence shows the aliens swimming through a flooded kitchen, their whole bodies twisting through the water like sea snakes, or deadly mermaids. Underwater action can be difficult to pull off, but Jeunet uses the slowness to his advantage, building tension and allowing the necessary time to absorb the alien biology in action.

The xenomorph swimming

At one point in Resurrection, Ripley teases “I’m the monster’s mother,” a reference to fact that the aliens in this film are cloned from her, and a nod to the host role humans play in their breeding, as well as the mommy imagery running through the series. This also turns out to be setup for a delightfully literal payoff Jeunet has in store: the human-alien hybrid baby — for me, the franchise’s best idea. (The film’s screenplay was written by Joss Whedon, but as he’s since asserted that his script was executed wrongly on every level, it’s hard to give him credit for the film’s sensual pleasures. It’s easy, however, to blame him for its dopey supporting characters and cringe-worthy banter — signatures of his work. Clearly, Jeunet elevated a weak screenplay, not the other way around.) As it turns out, the alien queen extracted from Ripley’s body was dosed with human DNA, much as Ripley’s own genes were mingled with the alien’s. Resultantly, the queen developed a womb, facilitating the live birth of a new type of alien offspring. The baby is pale and tall, standing upright with a protruding belly. Unlike other xenomorphs, it has eyes — dewy, mournful ones, that give its head the impression of a crying skull. The scene in which the baby is introduced is quite insane. Dr. Gediman, one of the horny scientists, now cocooned high on a wall inside the hatchery, narrates rapturously as Ripley comes face to face with the queen: “This time there is no host. There are no eggs. There is only her womb, and the creature inside. That is Ripley’s gift to her: a human reproductive system. She is giving birth for you, Ripley, and now she is perfect!” When the baby is born, he coos “You are a beautiful, beautiful butterfly,” grinning. The baby, for its part, has entered into the world already troubled, like a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. Sniffing curiously at the queen, it seems suddenly consumed by anger, and kills her by lopping off a chunk of her head. It turns instead to Ripley, eyes searching — she is its true mother. The horrified Ripley gets her chance to escape when the baby pauses to eat the top of Gediman’s head (he dies moaning, in simultaneous pleasure and pain), but naturally the baby turns up aboard her escape ship to threaten its crew. The scene in which the baby is destroyed is heartbreaking, and the franchise’s only moment of deep emotion. It is sucked out of a small hole in the craft’s exterior, bit by bit, gazing heartbroken at its mother who betrayed it. Ripley looks on, weeping. A necessary sacrifice, and yet, she has lost another child. This ultimate humanization of the alien creature summarizes Resurrection’s open-armed embrace of xenomorph sexuality.

THE BABY

Is Alien: Resurrection the best Alien film? Perhaps not. It has neither Alien’s sense of enveloping dread, nor Aliens’ propulsive action. It trades in Alien 3’s rich cast of characters for generic Whedon types dropping one-liners. But Jeunet has a clear take on what appeals about the Alien films, and what works across all of them, despite their differences in style. Ridley Scott, for his part, has a different interpretation of the franchise, as evidenced by his prequel films — Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, so far — which favor musings on the meaning of life and the nature of creation to kink and sexual metaphor. (It’s no coincidence that the brawny xenomorph design in Covenant is the least sexy of the entire series.) I’ve enjoyed his new takes on the material, but they feel separate from the cycle proper, where Resurrection is a logical conclusion. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite Alien movie, as each of them boasts its own unique strengths. But Resurrection can act as a key to decode and unite them all through its overt sexuality. This also lends it a deeper sense of humanity; it is both the Alien movie with the greatest likelihood to titillate, and the only entry with the capacity for tragedy. In a sense, it is the ultimate Alien sequel.

Or maybe I just love the baby.

Maxwell Q. Wolkin

Written by

I care a lot about film, food and drink, and not much else.

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