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In Space No One Can Hear Your Microaggression: A New Look at Ridley Scott’s Original ‘Alien’

All images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The original Alien (1979) is a brilliant film. It broke nearly every traditional science fiction and horror movie convention. It had ground-breaking practical SFX, an amazing ensemble of perfectly cast actors, and is widely considered a pioneering pro-feminist film. Alien also had one of the greatest movie monsters ever created.

The success and staying power of the Alien franchise led to countless sequels, prequels, and crossovers, many of which are currently in development. While having a great monster, a female protagonist, and a claustrophobic hopeless situation may have become standards of all future Alien films, the original film dealt with something far more relatable: microaggressions.

Microaggression, a term widely recognized today, was not something in the regular lexicon back in 1979. Microaggression is defined as indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. 

It’s also all over the original Alien.

The first rule of any horror film is tension. Building tension is vital to any great horror film and it’s vital for audience investment. But the tension built up in Alien, which had people literally screaming in their seats, wasn’t all from the monster.

A lot of it started before the alien ever made its way on board.

Alien is set in the future. It begins when the crew of the mining ship Nostromo are awakened from their cryosleep to investigate an unknown signal coming from a distant planet. The beacon, which might be a distress signal, sends them to the unknown planet to investigate. From the start, the tension among the crew is palpable. Before we ever see the strange new planet, or the alien that will inevitably terrorize the ship, we see a crew that is getting on each other’s nerves.

The crew is made up of five men and two women.

As things slowly unfold, we discover their hierarchy little by little. Right away it’s established Dallas, played with calm cool by Tom Skerritt, is the captain of the ship. The rest of the characters’ caste system is revealed mostly through how they relate to one another. Following the blueprint created by Star Trek more than a decade earlier, we see a mixed gender, multiracial crew that represents how the future will hopefully treat marginalized groups. The gender and racial makeup of the Nostromo isn’t completely positive in its representation.

Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is the third flight officer, behind her two white male counterparts, and Yaphet Kotto’s Parker (the crew’s only African American member) is on the maintenance team, albeit the senior member of the two-man crew. While Alien’s future might not seem like a lot of progress, it’s worth pointing out in 1979 the US had yet to send a woman into space and the entire world had yet to send an African American of any gender.

Initially the crew’s crabby mood is easily dismissed as being rudely awaken from cryosleep, but there is clearly something more going on. Cracks in attitudes appear in the form of subtle jabs at one another. While Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has gone on to represent girl-power personified, it’s fair to point out an existing subtle tension between her and the only other woman on the ship. Lambert, played by the highly underrated Veronica Cartwright, is the ship’s communications officer. While looking to discover exactly where they are, Lambert notes “it’s not our system.”

When Ripley, doing a scan of her own chimes in with the exact same realization a moment later, Lambert replies “I know that.” But it’s how she replies. Lambert does it in a mocking sing-song way which seems to say, “Go f%ck yourself.” There is an obvious history between them based on her wonderfully snarky line reading.

There are many other subtle moments. Kotto’s Parker telling the science officer Ash played by the always solid Ian Holm, “You happen to be in my seat” making him move for no other reason than a clear power dynamic is wonderfully cringeworthy. The maintenance guy Parker doesn’t get a lot of wins, so he takes them where he can get them.

Holm’s Ash is the source of quite a few microaggressions both giving and receiving. When Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by what turns out to be an alien parasite while he, Dallas, and Lambert are off the ship, Ripley must make the hard call not to let them back on board. As cold blooded as it seems, letting them inside will break a very well-established protocol.

With Dallas and Kane off the ship, Ripley’s third officer becomes number one. Ash countermands her order and lets them on board anyway.

Later in one of the film’s quieter moments Ripley calmly confronts Ash about his actions. Ash claims to have forgotten she was in charge but happily violated the quarantine rule for the sake of science. The tension-filled scene at no point devolves into a screaming match but does have one of the best microaggressions in the whole film.

When Ripley looks into Ash’s microscope to view the now dead alien parasite he says quickly, “Please don’t do that, thank you.”

Most people at first glance would see this as a throwaway moment, or even think it’s Holm ad-libbing, but by adding both “please” and “thank you” it comes off as a laser-focused insult. Make no mistake this scene is a major pissing contest as much as it’s a battle of wits.

Although Ripley and Lambert represent a new world where gender is not looked upon the same way, that doesn’t keep them completely free from sexism. It’s actually Dallas of all people who gives Ripley a subtle sexist jab.

When Dallas takes Ash’s side over Ripley in a debate on what to do with the dead alien parasite, he uses the phrase “my dear.” It’s the only time Ripley’s gender is ever pointed out. While there is no doubt Dallas is her friend, even her champion, the phrase deftly illustrates even in the future sexism is still very much systemic.

It is hard not to pin any bad behavior from the crew after the alien gets on board on anything other than fear.  However, the relative calm before the alien “bursts” onto the scene does provide some interesting moments.

Parker and his single maintenance team member Brett, played by the always perfect Harry Dean Stanton, provide a sort of Laurel and Hardy act in space. Parker, the far more vocal member of the duo, makes what can only be seen as a relentless attempt to secure a full share of the profits for him and Brett.

Parker also provides a lame yet important sexist joke about “wishing he was eating something else” while giving Lambert a big smile over dinner.  Lambert plays along but is rightly disgusted by the joke. This moment is perfect by Ridley Scott in that it deftly gets the audience focused on something else the moment before the alien’s big debut.

Alien is truly unique. It is masterful storytelling that changed the genre forever and paved the way for countless followers. It also helped to break the convention of the white male hero. I also think the microaggressions between crewmembers makes this movie every bit as brilliant as the alien itself.

To quote Ash, “I admire its purity.”

 

 

 

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