One thing the release of Prometheus (2012) has made abundantly clear is that people really care about Alien (1979). In particular, the huge amount of press coverage garnered by Prometheus saw the film incessantly discussed as the Alien prequel. Evidently, it is hard to approach the more recent film without having the older one in the back of your mind. But this may well have been its downfall – it’s not as scary, not as exciting, not as interesting as Alien. However, one scene has been singled out for praise in Prometheus – the emergency abortion. This unflinching portrayal of a woman removing a monster from within not only provides an incredible cinematic moment that sends ripples of repulsion and amazement through an audience, it is also the clearest connection between Prometheus and Alien. It is the violent sexualised imagery of Prometheus that actually carries the same sort of effect as Alien, rather than any narrative connections which just appear as unnecessary additions.
“The entirety of the film’s design seems to revolve around sordid, dangerous, and violent sexual imagery.”
But what is this sexual imagery? Where can we see it in Alien and Prometheus? Why is it used? Well, it all begins with H.R. Giger. During the early developmental stages of Alien, then called ‘Star Beast’, the producers turned to the work of artist H.R. Giger to provide some inspiration for their monster. Film academic John L. Cobbs views Giger’s particular speciality as “genitalia, male and female, a subject he presents incessantly.” Ridley Scott also looked into Giger’s work, in particular his Necromicon, and found it deeply affecting due to its disturbing sexual connotations. Giger was soon employed as a designer on Alien in the hope that he would be able to carry across these disturbing elements to the screen. So where in Alien do these sexual images appear?
If you look at the design of the monster itself you can easily see its sexual elements; the phallic head shape and thrusting inner jaw in particular. As soon as the humans encounter the alien spaceship the film begins to swarm with sexuality. Or as Cobbs describes it:
Vaginal doorways, cervical mazes on the walls, phallic sculptures in the alien starship, and bulbous mammary projections everywhere – virtually every scene works itself out within a matrix of sexual suggestiveness.
The entirety of the film’s design seems to revolve around sordid, dangerous, and violent sexual imagery. But these same ideas permeate through the narrative as well.
As the crew explore the alien ship they discover a room full of eggs. One opens with unsettling labial dexterity and from its midsts leaps a ‘facehugger’ which attaches itself to the helmet of one of the crew, Officer Kane (John Hurt). The monster burns its way through the helmet and orally impregnates him. This scene is a mish-mash of sexual imagery: the facehugger resembles a hyper aggressive placenta, it orally rapes the male crew member who then becomes pregnant. This scene is notorious for attempting to trigger a fearful response in a male audience – male on male rape. Any sort of rape imagery is a sure-fire way to scare and unsettle an audience, for obvious reasons, but to have a male member of the crew raped and then impregnated puts both male and female audiences on the same fearful footing.
“Can we ever accept an apolitical representation of rape on-screen?”
As Kane begins to ‘give birth’ the other characters hold him down as if he is going through labour. The rapist’s baby bursts out of his chest in an explosion of gore and disappears into their ship. The film draws from and distorts social fears about the children of rape victims – will they be monsters too? In this case the child is the real monster, a silent predator that stalks darkened corridors ready to pounce on unsuspecting victims, its weapon of choice being its phallic thrusting inner jaw that fires in and out of its slobbering mouth. It is not just a monster, it is an amalgamation of tabloid press scare-tactics and the fear of sexual assault. The film uses rape irrationally and incoherently; by turning it into a design element, and removing any motives for the monsters actions, the film seeks to avoid a political position. Arguably, the desire to render this subject apolitical is proof enough of a political position.
Prometheus continues the preoccupation with the violent sexual imagery that defined Alien, but in some ways this imagery has been updated. The oral rape committed by the facehugger in Alien gets a pornographic overhaul for the first deaths of the crewmen. This time they are attacked by a giant white phallus which proceeds to deep-throat one of them to death. Again it is the male characters that experience the most explicitly sexualised deaths.
The pregnancy in Prometheus appears in a more nefarious way than Alien’s oral impregnation. This time it comes about through the utilisation of a particularly current and media-frenzied form of sexual assault – ‘date-rape’. David (Michael Fassbender), the android, places a small drop of alien material on to his fingertip before surreptitiously dipping his finger into a drink and giving it to Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). Similar to some date rape chemicals, the victim’s libido sky rockets and he has sex with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who despite being infertile becomes pregnant with the mutant baby. The allusion to date-rape in the film appears to be a fairly flippant attempt to scare younger generations, but it also shows the filmmakers conscious attempts to capitalise on the rape motif of Alien.
Upon realising that she is ‘pregnant’ Elizabeth instructs an emergency surgery machine to abort the pregnancy through a caesarean section. Both Elizabeth and the camera climb inside the sterile, cocoon-like, machine where the full-frontal abortion is to take place. This sequence manages to really affect the audience; it is hard to ignore the fear of having something monstrous growing inside you, the product of a date-rape incident you were unaware of.
“We are happy to see things taking place on-screen that we would not agree with if they add to our overall enjoyment of the film or its artistry.”
In both Alien and Prometheus a wide array of sexual imagery is used to create a mood of apprehension amongst the audience. This effect is far more successful in Alien where it permeates throughout the entire film, whereas in Prometheus it just appears at moments that are easily overshadowed by the general milieu of faux-science inflected mysticism. Despite both film’s attempts to include an apolitical image of rape in their films, we cannot avoid the fact that they are intentionally using rape to manipulate and scare their audience. The political implications of this fascination with rape are complex. On one hand, the film puts men in a position that is normally unknown to them – fear of rape and pregnancy. On the other hand, it uses homophobic connotations, violent oral rape, to scare men. The sheer quantity and diversity of sexual imagery in Alien is an attempt to dilute any political implications because a coherent argument or stance is too hard to recognise. There is no way that an audience watching it for the first time would be able to form a clear understanding of all of this sexual imagery. After all, these design elements are encoded throughout the film and are not always immediately obvious beyond the level of tone. Instead, it works as a very successful design core that, similar to Giger’s Necromicon, can only leave the audience feeling uneasy. But despite how successful it is, can we ever accept an apolitical representation of rape on-screen?
Cinema is famous for asking audiences to suspend their disbelief – to ignore certain impracticalities or exaggerations in the plot for the sake of enjoyment. In Alien and Prometheus we can see an equivalent phenomenon – the suspension of distaste. We are happy to see things taking place on-screen that we would not agree with if they add to our overall enjoyment of the film or its artistry. For example, we can watch films from Hollywood’s Golden Era and recognise their clear misogyny, racism and often fairly extreme political stances but put them to the back of our minds in order to enjoy the film. This suspension of distaste is probably the result of watching a film from another era. Alien is contemporary enough not to be seen this way, so how is it that one can accept the film knowing that it is manipulating society’s fear of sexual assault just for entertainment? From a horror film we want scares and shocks, so we are happy for it manipulate our fears. Furthermore, the design, editing, sound, performance and narrative work together to create a homogenous whole that some would identify as art. Our susceptibility to the suspension of distaste is increased when we recognize the quality of a film; I am certain that a B-movie version of Alien would be chastised for its use of sexual violence to entertain.
This brings us onto why Prometheus fails where Alien succeeds. The more recent film lacks several elements that aid suspension of distaste. Firstly, it is not a horror film, it is a science-fiction. Where horror audiences expect and hope to have their fears mined and thrown back at them, science-fiction audiences generally expect a more intellectually and philosophically challenging cinematic experience. Secondly, Prometheus lacks the cohesion of Alien. The narrative stumbles along, the characters are tracing-paper thin and the design does little to excite the audience resulting in any suspension of distaste being far less likely. Therefore the scenes of sexual violence seem like flippant, even offensive, attempts to insert the truly horrifying imagery of sexual assault to something undeserving. This is fairly cynical view of politics in film – art can get away with it, trash can’t – but being an audience member is defined by what you choose to care about. Alien sweeps you into outer-space full of believable characters, an engaging plot and genuine fear. Who has time to deconstruct political implications when you are hiding behind your popcorn? From the get go Prometheus fails to engage an audience, giving them 124 minutes to pick apart everything that is wrong with it. Suspension of distaste may not be something that active audience members would like to accept, but these two films can show us what it looks like when it succeeds and when it fails.