Humanity has obsessed about life beyond earth for centuries. Some picture benevolent beings of higher-intelligence, while Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger imagined a dribbling apex predator: the Xenomorph. Scott is back with his iconic parasite in #AlienCovenant, a film that critics are calling the goriest Sci-Fi movie of all time.
This isn't the only parasite to slither into entertainment news recently. #SonyStudios recently dropped the exciting news that they were developing a #Spiderman spin-off focusing on #Venom, the symbiotic villain/anti-hero.
These vastly different films highlight a trend of alien depictions that dates back to the 1950s. Creatures that infect and assimilate. Repulsive 'others' that threaten from the inside, reducing us to hosts. This taps into some of our most primal fears, from sickness to rape, yet there's something even more insidious going on with these oozing creatures from the stars and the following films and characters have tapped into it remarkably well.
- Directed By: Ridley Scott
- Initial Release: 1979
Alien is a masterclass in learning how to terrify an audience. Haunting shots of familiar yet surreal architectural. Long-gestating periods of near-silence punctuated by false-jumps. But it's that repulsive antagonist that delivers the true shock-horror moments. No amount of nail-biting tension can amount to the skin-crawling disgust of that Xenomorph tongue bolting through someone's skull.
The very biology of the species from the egg sacks to the Facehuggers is designed to disgust and terrify the audience in a very specific way. It's the fear of rape.
Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon explicitly stated this in previous interviews, claiming:
"One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex... I said 'That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually. And I'm not going to go after the women in the audience, I'm going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.'"
This idea was visually achieved by Swiss painter H.R. Giger, whose surreal collection of art depicting sexually-explicit biomechanical imagery landed him the job. Their combined efforts led to a fictional universe saturated with distorted and twisted sexual imagery, from the phallic design of the Xenomorph to the visceral birthing sequence that became one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.
- Created By: Todd McFarlane, David Michelinie, Mike Zeck
- First Appearance: The Amazing Spider-Man #252 (May 1984, as "The Alien Costume")
The trope of an alien parasite doesn't always manifest in such a Freudian way, with #Marvel perhaps contractually unable to present the Venom Symbiote as an interplanetary rapist. Venom has an enormous fan following, despite the unpopular big-screen iteration of the character in Sam Raimi's Spiderman 3, and news that #SonyPictures is working on bringing the character back was met with uproarious approval.
The alien we've come to know as Venom made its first comic-book appearance in 1984, when Peter Parker inadvertently bonded with the alien Symbiote on a jaunt around Battleworld. The parasite used Parker as a host, taking power over his body as he slept, leaving him exhausted and with no knowledge of the Symbiote's exploits in the morning. While this plays on fears of being used and remaining ignorant, it's a stretch to say that there's a sexual connotation to this physical attachment. There is a sense of contraction however, with the Symbiote appearing as a poisoned-chalice of power and sickness. In an interview with Newsarama, Venom co-creator Todd MacFarlane expanded on this, saying:
"When I created him [Venom], he was a monster first, then a guy underneath".
This extra-terrestrial parasite is an intelligent creature that symbiotically bonds with a host, offering enhanced powers and abilities while fatally draining the living-thing of adrenaline. Again, it helps that the design of the creature is both creepy and awesome, but it's this manipulative state-of-being that makes #Venom one of the most sinister anti-heroes/villains in Marvel's arsenal. It's a sentient addiction, offering you the power to be a superhero at the unspoken cost of your life.
The physicality of Venom itself represents a physical struggle against something that threatens to encompass and become you, while offering an unimaginable high that makes the claustrophobic nightmare of total mental and physical domination seem a small price to pay.
- Directed By: David Fincher
- Initial Release: 1992
By no means the worst episode in the Alien franchise, Alien 3 was an unnecessary and awkward sequel that unfolded with with Ripley crash-landing at an intriguing location. The foundry-prison planet of Fiorina 161 is a typically barren environment that made audiences feel more queasy than LV-426 due to its greasy male occupants. As one exchange during the film highlights:
Ripley: Wanna get me some clothes, or should I just go like this?
Clemens: Given the nature of our indigenous population, I would suggest clothes. None of them have seen a woman in years...Neither have I, for that matter.
The subtext of male anxiety becomes an overt parable of masculine hostility, with the threat of Ripley's gang rape only evaporating once the Xenomorph arrives on the scene. At which point the movie almost becomes a retributive slasher; delighting in the butchery of these criminals and zealots while leaving Ripley in an elevated place of safety – all because she's pregnant with an alien Queen.
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Ripley's survival was the paramount plot-point of the previous two films, but her pregnancy in Alien 3 puts a unique spin on that central conceit. This time around there's a definite terminus for the Alien veteran, even an impetus to see her die.
Eradication of the Xenomorph is the comforting end-point of all three films in the original trilogy. Whether it's blasted out of the airlock, disintegrated in a nuclear blast or dragged screaming into a molten furnace, audiences need to believe in the extinction of the creature, even at the expense of one of the best on-screen Sci-Fi heroes of all time.
This is because the individual Freudian threat is overshadowed by a much more glaring, Darwinian problem. These creatures are more powerful than humans. They're better equipped to survive and more capable of murder. The continued existence of the Xenomorph represents a continued threat to mankind. It's why the death of Ripley at the end of Alien 3 comes as a relief and not a point of mourning. Her sacrifice is the just thing to do, because her body now represents the alien threat that she's been fighting.
This is also prevalent in #SpiderMan, with the Symbiote being recognized by S.H.I.E.L.D as one of the biggest threats to humankind. It poses the difficult problem of turning us against ourselves, symbolically twisting one of the most conscientious and morally-upstanding superheroes into a shadow of himself. Venom turns Spider-Man's mentality on its head, presenting power not as a responsibility, but as an obsession: a high.
Venom has appeared in numerous variations in many different forms of media, from the anti-heroic antics of Eddie Brock to the downright carnivorous villainy of Mac Garnan. There was a shift toward outright goodness when the character bonded with high school bully Flash Thompson, but there's always a dichotomy between parasite and host, which is the toxic nature of the Venom relationship.
These parasitic alien forces represent the danger of being assimilated into something external to our very species, something that is threatening on a fundamental level, from biology to primitive psychology. It threatens our concept of who and what we are.
- Directed By: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
- Initial Release: 1997
Alien Resurrection is the final homecoming for Ripley, who finds herself cloned and hybridised with the Xenomorph she's come to despise. Now the beneficiary of superhuman powers, she finds herself at the center of a conflict in which she'd previously been firmly planted on a specific side. Still, she maintains her allegiance to the human struggle and aids in the localized eradication of the alien species before finally returning to earth.
However, as Ripley states in the film:
"I'm a stranger here myself".
The character as audiences knew her in 1979 no longer exists. This new character is a fabrication of science, cloned from surviving DNA which had fused to the alien Queen. Despite the fact that she's finally home, there's no comfort in the return. Earth is just another alien planet filled with hostile indigenous lifeforms.
The idea of colonization has permeated the Alien franchise, from the decimated colony of Aliens to the doomed mission in Scott's upcoming Alien: Covenant. It's the exciting prospect of unknown territory, a basic human thrill of discovery and expansion. The converse of that is the fact of indigenous life.
Yet the Xenomorph has never been considered indigenous to anywhere. It's thought of as the antithesis of humanity: cold; ruthless; predatory. An ultimate weapon, perhaps created by the Engineers of Prometheus as a means to enact global extinction. Assimilation with such a creature is a near-impossible task, and those that manage to do so would be considered "strangers."
It's been hundreds of years since Ripley's last memories of earth however, so her comment could simply be referencing how much her home-world will have changed in that time. But there's no escaping the fact that she herself is absolutely a physical stranger to earth. This version of Ripley has never been home. She was created, like any one of the Synthetic Persons operating throughout the franchise.
- Directed By: Ridley Scott
- Initial Release: 2012
Prometheus dared to do something different with the Alien franchise, landing on the rocky premise of existential angst. This new preoccupation is one of creation itself, sending the crew of the Prometheus out on a search for our creators. What they find are the Engineers, and a murky almost-answer to the age old question: where do we come from?
The evolution sequence at the beginning of Prometheus was taken by many to mean that humanity is descended from these bald and shredded intergalactic sperm-donors who seed the galaxy with life. Scott debunked the theory that these Engineers created the Xenomorphs however, claiming that:
“It shouldn’t have really ended, so we’ve come back with a very simple idea: Who made them? [Alien] was just about there it is; it exists. And this is what it is…So we’ve reinvented the idea of Alien, I think, which is that Covenant gets us a step closer to who and why was this thing designed to make human beings. And if you think it’s them [the Engineers], you’re dead wrong.”
This suggestion hints at a larger struggle between higher cosmic beings, ultimately coming back to the literary influences of Prometheus. Alien: Paradise Lost was the original title for Prometheus, referencing Milton's epic poem about the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden. Yet, there is no God in Prometheus, and very few answers.
What it does do, however, is belie the fact of Ripley the "stranger" as fabrication by openly acknowledging the fact of our own creation. We're a product of evolution, arriving at this point through a series of accidental occurrences. There's no divine meaning behind existence and no God-given right to life. This nihilism is one of the most frightening aspects of the Xenomorph. It exists purely to expand and devour, with no apparent purpose other than destruction.
Humanity itself isn't hugely different. Science fiction has a long history of criticizing the expansionist and callous attitudes of humanity, as far back as Wells's War of The Worlds. The narrator spends a good portion of the classic novel deliberating on how humans are similar to the Martian harvesters, coming to the conclusion that intellect and colonial expansion are the natural paths towards becoming just like the invaders.
The Alien franchise is no different. In it, we're a meddling species with far more in common with the Xenomorph than we'd care to admit, travelling the galaxy in our egg-like cryo-chambers only to awaken and attempt to take control over the nearest planet. Which is why the idea of assimilation and co-habitation is so repulsive.
Venom is different in that he is multi-faceted, combining with a host symbiotically to represent the best and worst of humans and the Symbiote. This version of assimilation is much more optimistic, but still culminates in murder, cannibalism, and worldwide threat. He also represents self-destruction, leading us down a dark path of addiction with the bright and shiny lure of a superhero-high.
Alien: Covenant And Venom
(Note: The below contains potential spoilers for Alien: Covenant)
These villainous alien parasites are so scary because they frighten on multiple levels. They make us fear infestation, and our own destructive natures. We're repulsed by their oozing, insectoid exteriors and the very method of their continued existences. It's a terror of total physical and mental domination, as well as a reflection on our own parasitic nature. Whereas Venom distorts our personal natures, the Xenomorph betrays our mentality as a species.
We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.
Recent footage from Alien: Covenant teased the possibility that the android David created the Xenomorphs, using the primordial goo found during Prometheus. This revelation makes humanity responsible for the creation of the ultimate weapon, shedding new light on Ash and Bishop's admiration of these creatures in Alien and Aliens. They're able to look at the creature as a creation, unfettered by disgust or terror.
We created androids in our own image, and they created the Xenomorphs as they see us. Base and biological. Driven by primitive needs to impregnate, populate, and expand.