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Written by Mason Tabor
The "Frankenstein" element
Although the crew is not responsible for the existence of the alien, they are culpable for its birth. Their curiosity is the reason Kane and two others first boarded the alien craft. It was the desire for scientific advantage that led Ash (via his programming) to override Ripley's attempt to follow quarantine protocol. The consequence was a monster that wanted them dead. Of course, the comparison with Shelley's novel eventually breaks down, but it is still a helpful way to understand the monster as a consequence of human curiosity.
Ash as android
This is perhaps the second-most obvious symbol in the work only behind the actual alien itself. Ash's mechanical composition may be unsubtle, but it was certainly not predictable. It adds an element of frustration to the film's argument, namely the frustration with corporate agendas, and the difficulty distinguishing man from his search for profit. This detail plays on the disposition to look negatively on corporations, and perhaps not for a bad reason. The corporate agenda for money-making makes daily life difficult to navigate and the most untrustworthy folks tend to be those climbing the corporate ladder.
This is the most pronounced symbol for human ingenuity and technology in Alien. Whereas Ash is a human with robotic elements, Mother is a robot with human elements. Mother is responsible for initiating the curiosity by waking the crew from hypersleep. She is also powerless to stop the alien once it is fully grown and imposing. Her main function is information exchange (she teaches Ripley about Ash; she is responsible for the technology on board the Nostromos). Thus, she is impotent to save us. The implied message is that technology can't save us from the things that lurk under our bed or in deep space, wherever the unknown may lie.
This motif is also pronounced in Frankenstein. When Ash calls the alien "Kane's son," he is issuing a double entendre, alluding to the Biblical story of Cane and Abel. Cane kills Abel out of jealousy and is punished. In Steinbeck's East of Eden, he makes a comment tying all of humanity to this sin, and it seems that Alien is doing something similar. By calling the alien the son of Kane, Ash is accusing man for the birth of monster. And in fact, the monster is born from within the human.
This is an allusion to Judeo-Christian theology, that evil is foreign to man's design, but through some fault of man, evil is born from within him. That 'sin' leads to death both in Christian theology and in Alien. Both 'sins' are initiated by a search for knowledge (Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge; the crew investigates the alien spacecraft to investigate an unknown signal according to the ulterior motives of the corporation that sent them).
For the audience, this should translate to a type of fearful penitance. This is common in the horror genre. The effect of good horror should be that the audience is relieved at their survival (the "Thank God it didn't happen to me" effect) and is also rendered fearful at their own future (the "Could that happen to me?" effect). The fact that Alien achieves this end through religious or moral means evokes guilt and fear as its effect.
In integral motif in any thriller/horror story is its use of the unknown to challenge our modus operandi, our comfort, our apathy. Alien does that by telling a story about an alien that may or may not exist, but if it does, it's extremely dangerous and blood-thirsty. The audience understands that, although, yes, the year is not yet 2122, and we are not interstellar space-travellers, there are still elements of our own lives that are scary. Maybe not always in a way that makes us sleep with a night-light, but always in a way that makes us uncomfortable.
The beauty of this motif is that it allows the audience to explore unknowns that both makes us aware of the possibility that something dangerous is lurking in the dark, but that there are ways to avoid falling into the snare of the monster. The fact that Ripley escapes the ship alive offers the viewer hope that the unknown might not defeat us.
This motif is also evocative of the mortality of man, especially in a film like Alien wherein people die terribly and often. Death is the ultimate unknown, the ultimate darkness, and any film that deals with terror as a subject matter gets the benefit of exploring mortality in a creative, constructive way. For instance, in Alien, the subject matter of extra-terrestrial life offers a unique challenge to the typical idea of an afterlife.
Horror movies concerned especially with death might employ supernatural themes, but Alien evokes similar emotions for the audience by way of interstellar travel, which seems quazi-supernatural in Alien.
Fear of the dark
In Alien, this theme is coupled with Claustrophobia to produce a complex fear: the fear of an unknown future in which your control is diminished. This theme is also complemented by the difficult complexities in the plot (e.g., acidic blood that prevents them from killing the alien, a crewmate who is actually an android). The movie offers a highly difficult experience explored in a way that is still violent and unideal, but in which the main character survives. The entire movie is filmed with an eerie mood that something could pop out of the darkness at any moment. Both this motif and the fear of the unknown motif allude to a type of dreamlike/nightmare-ish experience wherein the audience investigates "what-if"s in a way that allows them to learn but remain safe. To this effect, notice that the movie begins and ends in hypersleep, adding to the dreamlike quality of the film.
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