When watching the “Alien” movies (“Alien” 1979, “Aliens” 1986, and “Alien³” 1992) for the first time, their grotesque potential did not occur to me at once – which might also be due to the genre (In the Sci-Fi mode, the audience is probably more tolerant towards the invention of new worlds and thus new creatures). However, going over the main themes again a few days later, certain elements revealed themselves to be fairly grotesque: The permanent threat to the boundary of one’s own body, and the issue of control over it.
More precise information about the three movies can be found on the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/), so here I will only provide a short overview of some relevant events:
In the first film (“Alien”, 1979), Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is part of the crew of the space ship Nostromo which lands on a foreign planet; this is where the unfortunate crew discovers the existence of a very dangerous species, the Alien creatures. In the course of the movie, the viewers learn that the creatures are hard to defeat because of their well-constructed lizard-like bodies and their acid blood. What makes the encounters with the aliens even more unpleasant is the fact that they need human bodies to breed: After a queen creature has laid a large number of eggs, small creatures hatch from them which remind you of spiders or crabs. These attach themselves to the face of their future “host”, injecting a small but fast-growing creature into the body of the helpless person (interrupting this process is lethal to the victim). This tactic is the reason why these crawling beasts are also called “facehuggers”. Directly after that process, the victim feels perfectly fine. However, after an astonishingly short time, he or she chokes, due to the alien creature forcing its way out of the body and destroying the host’s torso from the inside out on the way. In the course of the movie, all the crew members except for Ripley are killed; she is the only one who manages to escape and get rid of the last alien in her emergency shuttle.
As a sequel to the 1979 movie, “Aliens” (1986) describes the return of another crew to the alien planet, with Ripley on board again. A representative of the company Ripley works for turns out to be planning the production of biological weapons on the basis of alien specimen. It is not surprising that most of the new crew is killed, except for Ripley, a child they find on their endeavour, and the heavily damaged android Bishop.
“Aliens³”(1992) picks up the thread at this point, describing how the survivors land on a prison planet which is mostly inhabited by male convicts with a genetic anomaly (“double-Y”-syndrome). This time, a “facehugger” contaminates a dog, thus setting free an alien creature that starts killing instantly. When it attacks Ripley, she is completely unharmed by it. She later finds out that an alien queen embryo is growing inside her, protecting her from every further attack. Although her company wants to extract the embryo, she decidesto kill herself and the erupting queen creature in order to prevent a systematic breeding of the creatures and to make sure the aliens can’t cause any further harm.
As a genre in which horror elements are of a rather great importance, the grotesque takes over a major part in creating an uncomfortable feeling at some crucial points, thus keeping up the viewer’s interest as well as the tension throughout the movies. It is mainly the transgression of the boundaries of the human body that triggers ancient fears.
In all the encounters with the alien creatures, humans are degraded to the function of mere hosts for the reproduction of the stronger species, posing a permanent threat to the safety of their own bodies. The nasty fact that once infected victims have no chance to defend themselves against the foreign organism inside them, but appear to be perfectly healthy to their environment until their sudden and violent death, contributes greatly to the atmosphere of suspicion and tension in the movies: The audience can feel with those who face the danger of unwillingly hosting a hostile and deadly breed. It should be remarked that the person carrying the embryo is a woman, which could also be read as a grotesque and macabre degradation of human pregnancy.
It is the issue of this loss of control over the own body, its natural functions and its safe boundaries that makes the described elements of the movie frightening – and grotesque. For the aliens are grotesque, both following Bakhtin’s theory that the grotesque body extends far beyond the limits of what is perceived as a natural bodily unit, and taking into account which sort of creatures they resemble: Spiders, crabs, lizards, insects – all animals which are likely to be found in grotesque literature due to their peculiarities (large number of legs, way of movement, i.e.). Another analogy to Bakhtin is that the respective bodies are definitely in the act of becoming – in this case, via the parasitic pregnancy: Something new literally (and, unfortunately, violently) emerges from the old (whether the ‘old’ likes it or not).
If you are interested in the larger thematic complex, I can recommend Marie Hermanson’s “värddjuret” (German title: “Die Schmetterlingsfrau”), which also deals with an uncomfortable kind of “pregnancy” and the blurring of boundaries between a female body and an animal. The element of insect-like creatures already appears in Kafka’s text “Die Verwandlung”, which is not only grotesque, but also highly absurd.
The Internet Movie Database on the Alien-trilogy
Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Grotesque Image of the Body” (excerpts)