When Ridley Scott’s 1979 sleeper hit Alien arrived in theaters, it revolutionized special effects and kicked the wheezing horror genre into high gear. While Alien is without question Scott’s best movie, tightly paced and claustrophobic, Swiss painter H. R. Giger’s legendary creature design is what sets it apart from everything that followed it. Aliens, its 1986 James Cameron-helmed—yes, he used to make good movies—sequel, builds on and exaggerates Giger’s work so effectively you’d be hard-pressed to find modern sci-fi unmarked by its slimy fingerprints.
What makes Giger’s designs so successful, though, isn’t just their insectoid ickiness or the liberal quantities of slime with which they drip, but the overt sexualization of their life cycle and physiology. The phallic barbs of the adult aliens’ tails, the pulsating, gonad-like sacs of the facehuggers, the queen’s sopping wet ovipositor and bloated, sagging abdomen—every visual detail of the alien’s design points toward an invasive and repugnant sexual ferocity. The aliens, their mouths Russian nesting dolls of teeth and cocks, are as obviously suited to rape as fish are to swimming.
It’s this focus on sexual violence that gives Scott’s and Cameron’s films such an intimate quality, a sense that the inhuman anatomy we’re looking at relates in some terrible way to our own weak, vulnerable bodies. It’s what makes our skin crawl and our sphincters tighten when we see the alien slip from concealment and rear up to its full height behind an unsuspecting Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). The movies are communicating to us in a tongue of which we all know some painful personal dialect, but which it is taboo to speak out loud: the language of sexual violence.
Penetration and Pregnancy
Alien’s first and only explosion of gore comes when the infant creature rips its way out of Kane’s chest in a grotesque mockery of childbirth. Science officer Ash (Ian Holm) even refers to it later as “Kane’s son”. If Kane’s impregnation by the “facehugger” is meant to show us that to the creature the men of the Nostromo’s crew are as sexually vulnerable as the women, its violent birth comments on male anxiety over loss of bodily autonomy. Kane is raped, and the child he’s forced to carry to term tears his body apart and discards the bloody, spent remains.
To cisgender men, pregnancy is something located firmly in the body of the Other. To be subjected to it is to be thrust into a world of vulnerability with which men have no experience, which heightens viewers’ physical reactions to the violent birth the film depicts. It’s the movie’s most famous scene for a reason deeper than blood spatter and clever puppetry—it taps into the primal fear of involuntary penetration, of feeling that which is outside the body force its way past the frail barriers flesh and society afford us.
Once violated, the body and self become treacherous. In effect, the alien’s host is made to nurture it, the process of gestation and birth weaponized. Any movie monster can pull its quarry apart, spray the walls with their blood, howl over their ruined corpse, but only the alien needs its prey alive. It’s a cruel mirror to the reality rape survivors have struggled with since humans started hurting each other. An assault has an end, but afterward you’ve got to keep on living with it, irrevocably changed, host forever to its parasitic memory. The threat of the alien is not that your body will be destroyed, but that it will be turned against you.
While the threat the aliens pose is a distinctly masculine one, their hives revolve around massive, bloated queens, images of distended and misshapen motherhood. Maternal and infantile imagery permeate both films. In Alien, the ship’s crew awakens in diapers in a nursery-like white cabin where they sleep in stasis pods heavily reminiscent of incubators. The onboard Artificial Intelligence is named MOTHER and speaks in a soft, soothing feminine voice. All of it underlines the crew’s helplessness and ignorance, depicting them as children being hunted by a rapacious adult.
Cameron’s Aliens makes the issue of motherhood much more immediate. The first film’s sole survivor Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is recovered by salvagers and awakened from stasis to discover decades have passed and her daughter, left behind on Earth, has died of old age. The night before she learns of her daughter’s death, she experiences a post-traumatic stress dream about an alien gestating within her. Unlike Kane’s parasite, the alien reveals itself not in her chest but in her womb, pushing at the soft skin of her belly, as though her unconscious mind already knows the creature has robbed her of her child.
On the remote colony world where the bulk of the film takes place, Ripley struggles to save a little girl, Newt (Carrie Henn), who survived the slaughter of her settlement by an alien swarm. As the bond between orphaned child and bereaved mother deepens, the film delves deeper into images of motherhood and birth. Newt is dragged underwater by an alien, a sort of reverse birth into the slimy, immobilizing womb of the alien hive under the colony. When Ripley finds her she’s wrapped in membranes of iridescent tissue, her hair matted with gunk. She looks, in other words, like a newborn in its caul.
In the dank, dripping dark of the colony’s underlevels, Ripley, Newt on her hip, comes face to face with the most appalling incarnation of motherhood imaginable. The alien queen, designed by Cameron himself and brought to life with miniatures, stop motion, and a full-scale animatronic puppet, excretes eggs through a clearly vaginal ovipositor while her termite-like abdomen quakes and gurgles, so vast she’s bound by its weight to the egg chamber where her brood incubates. It’s a repulsive scene, to be sure, but there’s something crucial in the anxious hesitation with which the queen regards Ripley’s flamethrower inches from one of her eggs, and in the anguished screams she gives voice to as her children burn.
If the violence the aliens do is more intimate, more sexual than that done by other movie monsters, it carries with it a corresponding vulnerability. Realizing, as we watch the queen scream and thrash, that these things have some kind of palpable bond to one another transforms the films from white-knuckle survival horror to an ugly commentary on what people are capable of doing to each other. The heartless corporate treachery carried out by the android Ash in Scott’s original and by the oily Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) in Cameron’s sequel serves to emphasize that in a way, these movies are about human depravity, not just animals following their instincts. Knowing that the aliens think, that they feel, makes their sexual predation all the more uncomfortable to watch.
People who rape, who abuse, who harm children are commonly referred to as monsters, but it’s a word we use to cover up the much uglier idea that only accidents of circumstance and brain chemistry separate us from each other. Alien and Aliens sublimate this fear, transforming our worst nightmares into living creatures that ooze and hiss and scuttle in the dark. The creatures were made to resemble the parts of ourselves with which we most closely associate shame and vulnerability, molded from the raw filth of our hatred for our own bodies. That’s the reason Giger’s monsters have stayed so firmly rooted in our collective imagination for all these years—they were always there.