Ridley Scott’s Alien provides us with one of the most basic and primal super-objectives: the preservation life. Our protagonist, Ellen Ripley, faces impossible odds as a seemingly invincible alien predator wreaks havoc on the crew of the Nostromo, taking them out one by one until she is the last man (or in this case, woman) standing. In most every horror, or as Blake Snyder would call it, “Monster in the House” film, the super-objective is to preserve life. Some, however, are more successful than others in conveying that idea, and Alien is perhaps the most triumphant of the bunch.
The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, heavily juxtaposed the frailty of man with the invincibility of the alien. Neither bullets, nor electricity, nor fire can harm the creature, while it possesses a variety of methods of attack, from corrosive blood to razor sharp teeth. Therein lies the strength of the film’s super-objective: though the alien could easily kill them all, Ripley fights to survive. Alien is one of the few films in which the inciting incident is the very first event.
The crew of the Nostromo, on their way back to Earth with twenty million tons of mineral ore, receive a mysterious transmission from a nearby planetoid and are prematurely rousted from their slumber to investigate. Getting that transmission subsequently led to the crew landing on the planetoid, finding the eggs, unknowingly bringing a deadly predator back to their ship, and dooming them all to a grisly death. Well, all but one. The shift in story value takes place very late in the film. For most of it, the characters valued the battle.
They wanted to track down the alien and kill it by any means necessary. That is until Ripley accesses the ship’s computer and finds out that the Science Officer (and secret android) Ash had been commissioned to retrieve the alien and bring it back to his employer despite the immense risk it posed to the crew. When Ripley and the two other surviving crewmates confront Ash, he tells them that the alien will surely kill them. Faced with imminent death, Ripley experiences a shift in value from fighting the alien to preserving life, the film’s super-objective.
Ellen Ripley, played by the wonderful Sigourney Weaver, is widely regarded as the greatest female protagonist to ever grace the silver screen, and for good reason. First off, Ripley (pardon my French) doesn’t take shit from anyone. Although she is a Warrant Officer, a high and respectable rank, she is often shown contempt by the other members of her crew, most likely because she is a member of the fairer sex. Rather than surrender to their lack of reverence, Ripley gives as good as she gets, being stubborn, aggressive, and sometimes even rude to show that she is not one to be pushed around.
This attitude is mirrored in her interactions with the alien. Although faced with a most formidable foe, Ripley stands her ground. She’s not only a pushy badass, though. For an audience member, it’s not enough to just admire a character’s tenacity; we have to feel for them as well. O’Bannon achieved this with a classic Blake Snyder “save the cat” moment in which Ripley literally saves the ship’s pet cat Jonesy. From this action we see how deeply she values life, be it human or feline. Put adjacent to the alien’s bloodlust, this trait of Ripley’s really drives home the film’s super-objective.
A prominent visual metaphor for said super-objective is the motif of birth and rebirth present in the film. Our first look at the crew comes as the computer wakes them to report an unidentified planetoid. They emerge from their stases as if they were emerging from the womb. And funnily enough, the computer is named the MU-TH-ER 6000, or “Mother. ” Another example of the birth motif is when Kane, having recently recovered from his bout with the aptly named facehugger, begins to convulse at the dinner table and is subsequently killed as the infamous and very fetus-looking chestburster… well, bursts through his chest.
This image is a violent representation of male childbirth. We also have the scene in which the alien attacks one of the ship’s engineers, Brett. Upon opening its mouth, the alien reveals not only a horrid row of razor sharp teeth, but also a second mouth where its tongue should be. Again there is distinct childbirth-like imagery. If we have to contrast the human and alien elements, we can see how this motif lends credence to the film’s super-objective. The scene in which the humans are “born“ or “reborn” is incredibly serene.
From the set design to the costumes to the music, everything is crisp, clean, and refreshing. The alien scenes, on the other hand, are anything but. They are dark, gritty, suspenseful, painful, and extremely violent. It’s classic life and death. Perhaps one of the most important, and most overlooked, details in Alien is where it is set. If you think about it, the story could have taken place anywhere as long as the characters were trapped. So, why outer space? It’s not just to justify having an alien as the monster, I assure you. It’s to add a whole ‘nother layer to the onion.
After all, what is space? An infinite exploration? The final frontier? No, space is nothing. It’s a place in which nothing grows, nothing prospers, and nothing survives. It is death itself. If Ripley’s super-objective is to preserve life, then chances are she would want to steer clear of death, yet she is surrounded by it, in the forms of both the alien and the nothingness that encompasses her. She can’t stay on the Nostromo with that creature and survive, but neither can she leave. While this does complicate achieving the super-objective, it also provides a means of doing so.
In the end, Ripley flees the about-to-self-destruct Nostromo (with Jonesy in tow) via an escape pod. She believes she is safe for a time, until she finds that the alien has hitched a ride with her. Fighting didn’t work, running didn’t work, and it seems that she is out of options. But Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley doesn’t surrender. She dons a spacesuit and opens the airlock, sending the alien hurtling out of the pod and into the abyss where it finally meets its doom. By pitting death against death, a feat she could only achieve in that specific setting, Ripley accomplished her super-objective: she preserved life.