Alien Is Ridley Scott's Alien a Philosophical Film?

Upon its release, Ridley Scott's Alien was met with widespread critical acclaim and almost instant iconic status. The set pieces, the meticulously constructed science-fictional plot, the diverse and skillful performances, and the thrill of a space movie—so popular at the time, given the success of the Star Wars franchise—made it a classic. It scored high with film buffs and regular movie-goers alike, and spawned a loyal sci-fi/horror following that continues to this day. In short, its appeal was obvious. Even Ridley Scott said that the film was nothing more than it seemed, quoted as saying, "It has absolutely no message. It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror.” In spite of the director's insistence, however, Alien has garnered interest that goes beyond its purely aesthetic or genre-specific qualities to the realm of the philosophical and intellectual.

Indeed, Alien is a favorite object of analysis not only for film critics, but for academics, philosophers, and political thinkers as well. At the center of the story, many argue, is a fundamental philosophical quandary. Depending on who one talks to, this quandary takes different forms. While some look at the question of alien vs. human (vs. robot) and ask, "what constitutes humanity?" others are more curious about its psychoanalytic implications. In her article, "Horror and the Monstrous Feminine," academic Barbara Creed analyzes the scene in which the alien emerges from Kane's chest: "“The birth of the alien from Kane’s stomach plays on what Freud described as a common misunderstanding that many children have about birth, that is, that the mother is somehow impregnated through the mouth." While director Scott suggests that the images ought to be taken at face value, scholars have had difficulty seeing the film's evocative and often viscerally intense images as simply images. Instead, the imagistic vocabulary of the film—insemination, birth, gender difference, spawn, teeth, mouths—have profound meanings in psychoanalytic and philosophical discourses.

These discourses range from questions of the film's feminism to an appreciation for the film's apparent critique of corporate power. The arguments vary quite a bit. Some argue that Alien is an unabashedly feminist project—see: “Woman: The Other Alien in Alien” by Rebecca Bell Metereau—while others suggest that its treatment of gender and sex is hardly more evolved than the average slasher flick, in which a vulnerable (usually virginal) girl is set upon by a blood-lusty maniac. Marxists think the film offers a critique of capitalism and corporate alienation, but the film's high budget Hollywood appeal situates it in mainstream American film markets, and Ridley Scott himself offers no such critique.

Even if Scott attests that his film has no message, and even if the viewer just wants to experience a good thrill, Alien is far more layered and complex than it would initially seem, hence its fascination for intellectuals, critics, and audiences alike.