Capitalism & Sex: The Themes Explored in Alien and Cannibal Holocaust
Alien and Cannibal Holocaust when first approached look to be two dramatically different films but when analyzed on a deeper more thematic level you can find that they do have multiple aspects in common. These similarities include capitalism as a plot device, overt sexual overtones, and subtle gothic elements.
Capitalism is shown in both films and in a way is the big bad of both. Of course in Alien the obvious foe is the xenomorph and in Cannibal Holocaust it’s the immorality of man. But what drives the two obvious foes is capitalism.
In Alien for example our crew consists of all blue-collar workers. All they want to do is do their job, get paid, then go home. But this is a horror film and of course none of that goes according to plan. When the crew wakes up prematurely from hypersleep they realized that the ships computer has rerouted them away from earth and towards a distress beacon. It turns out that the beacon is not an SOS but a warning to stay away. First of all that revelation was an incredibly subtle way to inject gothic horror in film that is overtly sci-fi. But by the time they realize it’s a warning it is of course already too late. John Hurt’s character gets attacked by a facehugger and is brought back on board the ship to be treated. Following protocol is mentioned a lot throughout the film but it seems nobody actually does. When protocol isn’t followed things go to hell. Could this be an allegory for the woes of a free market capitalistic society? Does the economy need a predefined “protocol” in order to benefit the most people? These are the questions that I think Alien proposes and through the horrific matters that occur on screen somewhat answers. John Hurt when in the med bay seems to be studied by Ian Holm’s character rather than treated. There is always something to gain. We find out that Ian Holm is in fact an android and was given a different directive than the rest of the crew. Now this reveal in the plot brings up another particular criticism of capitalism in my opinion. The company for which the entire cast is employed by only felt comfortable telling their true intentions to a machine! A machine that was programmed and that cannot disobey, this purposes that the only people able to follow what needs to be done for capitalistic gain are those that are extremely cold and calculating, bordering on sociopathic. There is another scene in which Ripley confronts the computer (Mother), which runs the ship and all of its systems. She finds out that Mother has been programmed with the directive that all of the crew is expendable except for the specimen they have retrieved. This is a direct metaphor for the over fluidity of the blue-collar workforce. The specimen has the potential to make the company a ton of money that takes priority over any jobs and in this case lives. These were the main ways capitalism was portrayed in Alien and how it helped progress the events of the film.
In Cannibal Holocaust capitalism also plays a role in driving the events of the film forward. First let me discuss the students’ escapades in the Amazon. Having film set in the deep rainforests of the amazon was a great way of adding a gothic element into the film. What many would believe or assume is that the students had noble motives, that they are there solely to learn and film and in doing so teach the world about these indigenous tribes. But the viewer learns throughout the course of the movie that this is not the case at all. In fact they’re motives could not be more ignoble. Their sole objective is to become rich and famous, they believe it’ll be easier if they stage a lot of their “documentary”. This is a mirror to the ruthless nature of a capitalistic economy. In the movie the protagonist, an anthropologist who works at NYU, brings the recovered film reels to the TV station that hired the students, which would still like to air them. The protagonist at first believes that this will help shed light on what happened to the ill-fated students and use it as a warning to the world. But as they watch the reels they discover how deeply sinister the students truly were. Their behavior was sociopathic bordering on psychopathic. This was the pursuit of happiness taken to its nightmarish extreme. One of the editors at one point says that he put some music in and cut some scenes so that it was better packaged and in turn would do better on television. The things occurring on the film reels don’t even faze him. All the editor is worried about is making the best possible product. It gets to the point that the anthropologist believes that they should no longer air the film but two of the executives of the station disagree. They claim it will be an absolute hit. The anthropologist warns them that they have no idea what truly is on the reels. So they watch it and by the end of it the executives are in a stunned silence. This was the depiction of capitalism and how it was used as a plot device in Cannibal Holocaust.
Sexuality is incredibly overt in Alien. A lot of Alien is a metaphor for rape. The ship for example in the very beginning of the film is portrayed as all white. White is symbolic for being pure, untouched, and innocent. When the xenomorph starts wreaking havoc among the ship the sets become exceedingly darker and blacker. Ripley being the protagonist of the film was a smart move. Woman have never had the best portrayals in media but having Ripley being a strong woman in the face of overwhelming adversity elevates the film especially since the film uses rape as one of its main themes. The life cycle of the xenomorph is also very sexual. The facehuggers mouth looks almost exactly like a vagina, and the chestburster is overtly phallic in nature. When the chestburster grows to become a full on xenomorph we see that its head is super phallic as is its second mouth it uses to penetrate its victims skulls, thrusting in and out. Lamberts death scene somewhat alludes to a vaginal stabbing from the xenomorph’s tail. The xenomorph throughout the film secrets a slime, which could either, be seen as semen or vaginal fluid. Ash, the android, has a white fluid in place of actual blood. The fluid is strongly similar to semen. Another allegorical rape action occurs when Ash is trying to kill Ripley he chooses to wrap up a pornographic magazine and stuff it in her mouth. The final scene when Ripley is on the escape pod with the xenomorph is not only incredibly tense but also dripping with sexual overtones. Ripley’s costume in the scene is a white top and white underwear; she’s the last survivor so it would make sense that symbolically she’s untouched. This also shows how vulnerable she is. When she starts to get the spacesuit on she puffs her chest out so that her breasts are very prominent. She isn’t doing this on purpose of course; she needs to do it in order to get into the suit. These were the many ways in which sexuality was represented in Alien.
In Cannibal Holocaust the sexuality isn’t as symbolic. It is much more in your face. They actually show a scene of rape albeit with the added aspect of vaginal stabbing between of the tribesman and a tribeswoman as well as that another tribeswoman being raped by the students later in the film but earlier in the films timeline. The students also come across a woman with a stake going through her vagina and through her mouth this was punishment for adultery. At one point the students set fire to one of the tribes villages in the aftermath, the female student and her boyfriend have intercourse basically among the ruins of the village. They were sexually turned on by the destruction. This is how sexuality was shown in Cannibal Holocaust.
Now I mentioned some gothic elements already in both films. The ship in Alien could also be seen as a foreign land but seeing as the crew worked on the ship it doesn’t really work in that respect. In Alien I’d say a big gothic element was where John Hurt discovered the eggs. That planet was definitely foreign and foreboding. But both films have subtle gothic elements rather than overt ones, as their subgenre of horror doesn’t lie in the gothic part. They can both be considered body horror. Cannibal Holocaust has the added layer of found footage and Alien has the added layer of sci-fi.
These two films use capitalism and sex to drive the story forward and to help fully realize the world that the directors have to set out to create.