Department of Theatre and Film
Embryology of the Hyperreal: The Alien Films and Baudrillard’s Phases of Simulation
Stephen Mulhall’s On Film is both an eloquent statement on the nature of the film medium and a definitive interpretation of the Alien series of science-fiction movies. Mulhall’s identification of the four Alien films as significant works of cinematic artistry thrusts these movies into the canon of film criticism in a way that encourages us to revisit the saga and supplement Mulhall’s observations. Slavoj Žižek’s critical commentary on the Alien movies extends Mulhall’s basic thesis that the films are primarily concerned with the existential horror that the alien “is not so much a particular species [but rather] the essence of what it means to be a species, to be a creature, to be a natural being” (Mulhall 19). Žižek goes on to describe the alien as a perfect representation of Lacan’s lamella, the shapeless monster of reality that resists all of mankind’s attempts to understand, control, and kill it. Indeed, Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979), as well as its 1986 James Cameron sequel, Aliens, lend themselves to psychoanalytic and neoanalytic readings. In both films, the typical Freudian elements are all in place: a shadowy and sexualized monster representing the unconscious haunts the corridors of socio-economic activity. Both films begin and end with the characters emerging from and entering into “hypersleep,” a symbolic effect that frames both films within the typically Freudian landscape of dream-space. The first movie draws self-consciously on the surrealist tradition of Freudian motifs to generate its unsettling effects, while the second movie builds its narrative around the Freudian model of trauma and catharsis.
In the third movie (David Fincher, 1992), however, the classical Freudian paradigm, although still applicable in many ways, is problematized by Ripley’s genetic fusion with the alien. Rather than a conflict of ego and id, or of the reality-principle against the pleasure-principle, Ripley’s story becomes defined by a convergence of such dichotomies, a thematic development that recalls Jean Baudrillard’s description of hyperreal implosion: “there is just a sort of contraction into each other, a fantastic telescoping, a collapsing of the two traditional poles into one another” (Simulations 57). Baudrillard explains that this variety of “implosion in meaning … is where simulation begins” (Simulacra and Simulation 31, italics in original). At the end of Alien3 , the only way Ripley can kill the alien is to kill herself, and vice versa. This mutual imbrication of Ripley and the alien becomes even more pronounced in the final movie of the series, Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet,1997), which completes the movement of the franchise as a whole from psychological realism to genetic hyperrealism. The victory of confrontation and purgation achieved at the end of Aliens is reconfigured at the end of Alien Resurrection as a victory of irony and post-human hybridity. For this reason, it is necessary to supplement the existential and Lacanian commentaries of the Alien series articulated by Mulhall and Žižek with a critical approach that reflects the movies’ developing theme of hyperrealism.
The trend toward implosion and simulation staged in the series of Alien movies reflects the gradual hyperrealization of the popular mood and of cinematic styles that is evident between the 1970s and the 1980s in American movies. The 70s-style gritty realism that influenced Ridley Scott’s original film gives way in James Cameron’s sequel to 80s-style escapism. The two films from the 1990s reflect the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 preoccupation with questions of ontology. The directors of Alien3 and Alien Resurrection, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, are both known for their postmodern sensibilities, but, more tellingly, they are both representative filmmakers of an era that seemed to become increasingly Baudrillardian the closer it approached to that millennial moment that Baudrillard famously speculated would not take place.
Throughout the “long 90s,” Cold War dualisms imploded, the Gulf War provided America with a textbook lesson in hyperreality, the president’s personal life became a public spectacle, and new technologies such as virtual reality, cloning, the internet, and CGI cinematography presented a challenge to conventional models of reality. Films such as Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), True Lies (James Cameron, 1994) , The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachoski, 1999), and Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) capture the hyperreal mood of this era. As Žižek’s American publisher has said, “Baudrillard was the philosopher who fit with the era of Seinfeld” (Robinson). In charting the progressively simulacral career of the alien, we can perceive a strain of the dialogue that the culture is having with itself about the shifting nature of reality. In fact, a one-to-one correlation is rather easy to discern between the representation of the alien in the four Alien movies and Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image”:
It is the reflection of a profound reality;
It masks and denatures a profound reality;
It masks the absence of a profound reality;
It has no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum (Simulacra and
Ripley’s increasingly convoluted relationship with the alien over the course of the film series reflects an increasing complexity in the structure of her reality. Considering this development within a Baudrillardian framework allows us to perceive the manner in which the filmmakers have relied on this theme to establish thematic consistency among the different films, as well as to observe the manner in which the installments of the film series variously represent the opportunities for political resistance available to hyperreal subjects in a hyperrealized cosmos.
Ridley Scott’s Alien stages a nightmare of a hostile “profound reality.” Despite being a post-Star Wars science fiction film, Alien rejects the giddy operatics of the many films which strove to mimic George Lucas’s blockbuster. Like Scott’s next film, Blade Runner (1982), Alien’s visual and narrative styles place it firmly in the cinematic camp of 70s realism alongside films like The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), and Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978). In Alien, space is not an open terrain of freedom and adventure as it is in Star Wars, but a stark and lonely void of perpetual menace. This is not the kind of space that calls its inhabitants out into expansive gestures of self-transcendence, but rather the kind of endless night that turns its inhabitants in on themselves. The Nostromo crew huddling around the mess hall table for nourishment and companionship inhabits a meager and fragile bubble of light in a void that is both spatial (they are months away from earth’s solar system) and temporal (their hypersleep has been momentarily interrupted). Space is disenchanted in the Alien universe; rather that providing an escape from reality, space in Alien emphasizes the immediacy and inescapability of reality. Space is precisely what makes escape from the clanking, bloody reality of the Nostromo impossible.
Likewise, technology is similarly disenchanted. The translucent technology of conventional science fiction is replaced in Alien by whirring and clicking boxes of frequently malfunctioning moving parts. As in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), the ship’s computer turns against the human crew of the Nostromo in an ultimate depiction of the unreliability of technology. Whereas in Kubrick’s film, however, the computer glitch was overcome and the transcendent future made possible, in Alien, the glitch is not in the computer, but in the materialistic values of corporate capitalism. The ship’s computer, Mother, and the android, Ash, are doing exactly what they were programmed to do by the military-industrial society which built them and which is willing to sacrifice the human crew in order to obtain a valuable new bioweapons product. This “glitch” is not de-programmable, the only solution is to blow up the entire superstructure in toto, as Ripley finally does. In the same way that the characters in Alien dress, speak, and socially interact in “realistic” 1970s blue collar fashion, the politics of the Alien universe reflects the real social pathology of contemporary late capitalist culture. Alien is not an escapist film, but a film about the impossibility of escaping the reality of our contemporary world.
This theme of the inescapability of reality is personified most vividly in the figure of the alien itself. The crew of the Nostromo exists within a world that is entirely technological, and in which even their natural rhythms of sleep and wakefulness are controlled by a computer. Everything aboard the spaceship is geometrical, sterilized, and inorganic. It is a world that strives toward a complete elimination of the “profound realities” of sex and death. The alien infects this world with the violent challenge posed by the return of the repressed. If the first scene in which Kane wakes up from his cryotube against a hospital-white backdrop represents a bloodless, bodiless vision of birth, the violence with which the newborn alien bursts out of Kane’s chest in the middle of the film enacts a birth that is gruesomely biological. The Euclidian spaces of the Nostromo’s interior are eroded by the acidic blood of the alien, which etches chaotic shapes into flat sheets of metal and plastic. The alien itself, in its shadowy amorphousness, presents a visual contrast to the superficial visibility of the spaceship’s metal surfaces.
Moreover, when the crew members squabble at the beginning of the movie about their contractual obligations, they assume the integrity of a social contract that defines the relationship between themselves and their employers. The presence of the alien on board the Nostromo exposes the fictive nature of this contract, disclosing the “profound reality” of capitalist amorality. The Company – the world-monopoly that owns the ship – is more responsible for the death of the crew than the alien itself, making the alien a kind of proxy for the capitalists. The violence inherent in capitalism that had been repressed during the workers’ conversation of who gets what shares of the profits bursts forth in the figure of the alien to make apparent the true nature of capitalist ethics.
One other aspect of Nostromo society that the alien embodies is the specter of sexual difference. The human crew of the Nostromo is composed of four men and two women who all seem to work in a post-sexist environment of gender equality. Ripley and Lambert work alongside their male colleagues in what appears to be an ideal scenario of liberal workplace mutuality. Throughout the first half of the movie, no reference is made to Ripley or Lambert’s femaleness. This post-gender utopia is upset first by a lewd reference to cunnilingus Parker makes to Lambert in the mess hall, and then, immediately following, by the grotesque eruption of the alien out of Kane’s chest, as if the alien were the physical manifestation of what Anita Hill would later refer to as “the beast” of sexual harassment (207). In its pornographically hermaphroditic morphology, in the horrific variety of ways it exposes the vulnerabilities of human flesh, and in its reproductive strategy of oral rape and parasitism, the alien is a perfect embodiment of the sexual violence which simmers beneath the surface of the Nostromo’s floating technotopia.
For all the senses in which Alien attempts to evoke the mood of a fundamentally horrifying reality, it also contains the germs of a discourse of hyperrealism that would become more prominent in the second half of the series. As already mentioned, the hypersleep out of which Alien’s characters emerge at the beginning of the movie and to which Ripley returns at the end imparts a dream-like quality to the entire narrative. Psychoanalytic approaches to dreams emphasize the relationship between the coded dream-content and the dreamer’s real psychic economy in waking life. In Simulations, however, Baudrillard deconstructs the psychoanalytic bias that considers the unconscious to be “more true” (6) than the symptoms it produces, referencing dreams as perfect example of the unconscious simulating itself. The Baudrillardian dream is one dreamt in outer space, in a vacuum, or, as Baudrillard likes to say, “in orbit,” a system of signs that is not grounded in any prior reality. “Hypersleep” would indeed be a fittingly Baudrillardian moniker for dreaming as understood in this manner. The science fiction genre provides a metaphorical representation of the sense in which a community can exist in this kind of Baudrillardian suspension. Science fiction itself, moreover, is a project of rule-making that demands only that it be internally consistent, without any necessary mimetic referentiality to any “real” world. This is one reason why Baudrillard and science fiction have always found so much to say to one another. Alien blends its gritty realism with the oneiric iconography of science fiction in a way that unsettlingly bends the real and the fantastic into one another.
This tendency in the film stands against the attempts of its main character, Ripley, to resist the forces of implosion by securing symbolic borders. Like a filmmaker working in the realist mode, she is determined to keep a clear boundary between herself as a subject and the alien as an object. The most monstrous threat the alien poses is the threat of the violation of personal and social borders. Not only does the alien violate the borders of the human body through its parasitic form of reproduction, but it also embodies a number of other symbolic violations. In its bodily commingling of phallic and vaginal shapes, by impregnating male human beings, and through the asexual gender of the adult warrior aliens, the alien threatens the border between male and female. Its body furthermore seems to blend organic and inorganic elements – its exoskeleton seems to have evolved to blend in perfectly with the cables, ducts, and pipes of a spaceship interior, even as its body drips with an excessive amount of slime, evoking an unmistakably organic nature. H. R. Giger, the artist who designed the alien, achieves his most uncanny effects by depicting a nightmarish fusion of living and nonliving forms.
Ripley’s war against the alien is simultaneously a war against the semantic contamination threatened by the breach of these borders. She adamantly refuses to break the quarantine rules for the ostensibly humanitarian purpose of allowing Kane access to medical help. Her attempts to defend an aseptic environment are subverted however by Ash, the android who, we come to recognize, has more in common with the alien than he does with the human beings. The parallelism between the alien and the Company of which Ash and Mother are extensions is the movie’s most disturbing representation of the evaporation of the stable boundaries that make a realist ontology possible. The alien is driven not by any human purpose, but by a blind instinct to reproduce, a runaway program that has no reference to anything but its own self-propagation. The revelation that Ash and Mother are just as rapacious as the alien suggests that economics and techno-science are motivated by the same self-reflexive code. The body and the mind, the animal world and the human world, the organic and the inorganic principles operate according to the same senseless code.
Ripley, fighting a war on two fronts between the genetic code of the alien on one side and the digital code of the intelligent computers on the other side, struggles to keep a space open for a classical humanist model of selfhood. Her escape on the shuttle, tellingly christened Narcissus, indicates the extent to which her struggle to survive is really a struggle to preserve the boundaries of autonomous subjectivity from dissolution in the hyperreal codes that characterize the alien and the machines, even as it suggests that the urge to remain “unviolated” in this way is essentially solipsistic (and indeed, the alien manages to penetrate even into this inner sanctum of selfhood). At the same time, therefore, that Ripley’s fight against the alien is a fight against the return of repressed reality, Ripley also defines herself as a warrior against postmodern deconstructions of gender, personal identity, and reality itself.
If Alien dramatizes the representation of a profound reality in the figure of the alien, the 1986 sequel reflects Baudrillard’s observation about the second stage of simulation in which the image “masks and denatures” a profound reality. Where Alien aroused our fear by depicting the profound reality embodied by the titular beast, Aliens defines its narrative as the project of exorcising the trauma of this primordial reality from consciousness altogether, flushing it reciprocally out of the cargo hold of the Sulaco and out of the heads of Ripley, Newt, and the audience, in emulation of Newt’s plastic doll. Burke, mouthing the platitudes of the “trauma culture” which flourished throughout the 1980s for his own insidious purposes, tells Ripley that the only way to stop her bad dreams is to go back to the scene of the originary traumatic event and do battle with her inner demons on their own turf.
This model of trauma addresses the reality of the originary traumatic experience, even as it domesticates this reality by defining it as one which is subject to human control. In the tradition of signature 80s films such as Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) and First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) , Aliens insists on the possibility of reenacting traumatic experiences in a way that expunges them of the fearsome indomitability that characterizes real reality. In doing so, Aliens participates in the project of what Robin Wood called “papering the cracks” (144) of Reaganite civilization. James Cameron has explained that he conceived of the ill-fated mission of the film’s Colonial Marines “as analogous to the inability of superior American firepower to conquer the unseen enemy in Vietnam” (Time). In this sense, the trauma that Aliens revisits is the American political trauma, and although Cameron’s marines do suffer a rout, the end of this representation of the war has a “happy ending”: the complete extermination of the enemy by a nuclear explosion.
This revised representation of the conflict in Vietnam (and of post-colonial wars more generally) serves to mask the historical reality. At the same time, the same element of the story provides what Wood calls “reassurance” regarding nuclear technologies. Rather than threatening human survival, nuclear power in Aliens facilitates human survival. Moreover, although Ripley’s original plan is to “nuke the entire site from orbit,” it is actually a meltdown at a nuclear facility which winds up causing the explosion that (apparently) exterminates the entire colony of aliens. Not only does this well-timed meltdown reconceive of the ultimate nuclear disaster scenario as a beneficent turn of events, but it also suggests that nuclear technologies are working with Ripley to bring about the holocaust she desires. In this sense, the menacing technologies of Alien are “debugged,” and technology itself is restored to its status as servant to man, an idea literally personified by Ripley’s own plastic doll, the good android Bishop, who turns out to be the heroic antithesis of Ash.
Finally the concept of maternity, which Alien had represented as a nightmare of blood and creatureliness, is redeemed in Aliens through the nuclear family reconstituted in the trio of survivors: Ripley, Hicks, and Newt. Our relief at the survival of these characters, however, deters us from recognizing that Ripley’s new family is simulacral. Ripley remains asexual, and the real problems of sex and corporeality, like the real historical truth of Vietnam and the real political problem of nuclear technologies, have not been definitively confronted, merely “papered over” by a misleading representation. The queen alien is not destroyed, merely expelled, and there is no reason to assume (as Ripley, uncharacteristically, does in the movie’s final scene) that the perimeter is secure, that the borders of the ship have not been violated by the procreative energies of the alien queen. The fantastic image of the queen blasting out of the airlock masks the fact that traumatic after-effects of the alien encounter literally continue to live on.
Meanwhile, behind the mask, in the social atmosphere of the Aliens universe, reality is becoming progressively denatured, dissolving as if it had been splashed with alien blood. While the most memorable spectacle of the film is the war against the aliens, the manner in which the ordinary lifeworld of the Aliens universe is represented suggests that earthling society is becoming progressively hyperreal. In a brief scene that was not included in the original theatrical release but which was restored to Cameron’s director’s cut, we see Ripley reposing thoughtfully in what appears to be a verdant landscape. The shot is memorable, because it is the only glimpse in the entire Alien saga of a natural human environment. Of course, when the camera pulls back, we see that this landscape is actually a video projection, an artificial representation of nature substituting for the original which, as far as we know about the conditions on earth in the Alien universe, may no longer even exist.
This brief glimpse of hyperreal nature is amplified by one of the movie’s central plot points: the planet LV-426, which had been portrayed as unimaginably remote in the first movie, is now being terraformed and colonized. The atmosphere of the entire planet is being made over into a simulacrum of a terrestrial environment, an ecology of the future, in which natural processes and human engineering are so intermixed as to implode the difference between the two terms. This hyperreal ecology, furthermore, is sponsored and manufactured by the same Company that demonstrated its amorality in the first movie. As one executive tells Ripley, using an appropriately (if anachronistically) commercial reference, LV-426 is home to “a Shake-n-Bake” colony, while the Company’s slogan, “Building Better Worlds” indicates that the Company is literally making over the entire habitable universe in its own image.
Although Ripley has been in cryostasis for 57 years, capitalist morality has not evolved. In Aliens, the chief representative of the Company is Burke, the yuppie caricature whose entire personality is a sleazy simulation of sincerity. The only evident moral advancement has taken place in androids. Bishop explains that his model of android is more sophisticated than Ash’s model, and, indeed, Bishop behaves with a humility, kindness, and sense of self-sacrifice that makes him the closest thing in the Alien universe to a saint. The android’s moral behavior is no less touching for being cybernetic, and it underscores the absence of morality in the “real” human representatives of the Company. Indeed, the parallelism that Alien had established between alien reproduction and capitalist exploitation actually shifts in the alien’s favor, as Ripley, no friend to the alien, concedes that they are more admirable than capitalists. Although both codes are shockingly violent, at least alien code is a reflection of a “profound reality,” while the capitalist code is utterly senseless and altogether detached from any ontological substratum.
In a rousing scene toward the beginning of Aliens, Ripley attacks the hyperreal mood of frivolousness she perceives in the Company executives as she tries to explain to them the dire consequentiality of the reality represented by the alien species. Sweeping up their bureaucratic paperwork in her fists, she warns them, “If one of those things gets down here then that will be all, then all of this – this bullshit that you think is so important – you can just kiss all that goodbye.” The board-room itself is situated in an orbital space station, while behind Ripley, ID photos and data about the members of the Nostromo crew exemplify the kind of reality the Company is used to dealing with – legal clauses, adjusted dollar amounts, and administrative resolutions, an echo chamber of self-referential language. In making her stand, Ripley resumes her role as the defender of the reality principle and a guardian of the rigid laws of quarantine. She throws herself bodily between the aliens and the human race as a sort of human prophylaxis. In waging war against the alien, however, she is working to protect the orbital, implosive civilization epitomized by the Company, fighting to destroy the specter of reality in order to make the world safe for hyperreality.
Even though she subverts the Company’s attempts to acquire the alien, she is working for the Company in the broader sense of fighting to preserve the earthling civilization that supports their existence. Ripley’s unwitting role as the guardian of hyperreal society is appropriate, furthermore, in that, after reviving from a 57-year hypersleep, she herself becomes unmoored from the natural span of her life. She finds herself in the post-human situation of holding a picture of her dead 66 year old daughter while she herself is still in her 30s. Ripley has become a hyperreal entity, made possible through the magic of hypersleep technologies. The nickname of Ripley’s adopted daughter, Newt, furthermore, suggests the amphibious quality associated with the alien, even as Ripley’s asexual mode of acquiring her looks forward to a post-biological style of human reproduction. Ripley’s tacit collusion with the Company, her quality of being “unstuck in time,” and her proxy-alien hyper-daughter all work together to suggest that, despite the black-and-white battle lines she draws on LV-426, her destiny in the following films is ultimately to be incorporated into a more ambiguous style of reality.
When Ripley’s escape pod crashes on Fiorina 161 in Alien3, it seems that she has returned to an atmosphere reminiscent of Scott’s original movie. Like Alien, Alien3 relies more on horror and suspense to achieve its effects than on action sequences and special effects. The gritty surfaces and earth-tones of Fury 161 convey an impression that the series is returning us to a more visceral style of reality. The double-Y work-prison has the gritty industrial look – the “grunge” look – that emerged in the early 90s as a kind of nostalgia for sincerity in a hyperreal age. In retrospect, we can see David Fincher’s first feature-length film as a harbinger of what would become his signature style in subsequent films such as Se7en (1995) and Fight Club, a neo-noir style that captures a superficial picture of 70s-style realism, but which is also hyperstylized in a way that calls attention to the cinematic character of this “realism.” Although the society of Fury 161 seems like a kind of primal Stone Age territory outside the scope of the hyperreal values of corporate capitalism, close viewing reveals that the entire complex is sprinkled with Weyland-Yutani logos. The prisoners themselves all have bar codes tattooed on the back of their heads. The work-prison planet itself combines labor, incarceration, and ecology in a way that suggests an outrageous nightmare parody of the capitalist lifeworld.
The most conspicuous precursor to the style of Alien3 is arguably Fincher’s most successful music video, Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” which is itself an homage to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Following the stylistic evolution from Metropolis to “Express Yourself” to Alien3 presents another opportunity to view the progress through the first three stages of simulacra. In Metropolis, Lang crafts iconographic images which are intended to represent the profound reality of class relations. In “Express Yourself,” Fincher borrows Lang’s iconography, but reappropriates it such that the oppressed laborers of Lang’s film become the sweaty beefcakes of Madonna’s sexual fantasy. Clearly, this mutation of the Metropolis meme can be said to mask the profound reality to which Lang was directing our attention. In Alien3, however, Lang’s subterranean city of worker-slaves is reimagined as a world in which corporate-capitalist values have permeated every aspect of reality. The apparent remoteness of the planet masks the fact that the Fury 161 work prison is part of the Company’s “network.” The rowdiness of the male worker-prisoners masks the fact that they are there voluntarily, having decided to continue on as a skeleton crew after the Company closed the foundry-prison. The apparent authority wielded by Captain Andrews masks the fact that the society of Fury 161 relies entirely on “the honor system.” The jailers have no weapons and are vastly outnumbered by the prisoners. Jailers and prisoners share the same conditions and it is only role-playing that sustains this society’s hierarchical relationships. The realism with which Fincher depicts Fury 161 disguises the fact that the world of Alien3 is one in which the ontological distinctions between subject and object on which a conventional model of reality relies have been undermined.
Of course, this implosive momentum is epitomized by Ripley’s situation. The narrative tension of the previous two films had been propelled by Ripley’s fanatical commitment to keep herself and her companions free from alien contamination. In the opening sequence of Alien3, however, a facehugger infiltrates Ripley’s cryotube and impregnates her, thereby negating not only all of Ripley’s heroic efforts in the previous two films, but also the very ethos of the Alien film series as a whole and, moreover, the narratological underpinnings of the genres of horror and suspense. The spatial and ontological separation of Ripley and the alien is what established the terms of safety and danger, life and death, and success and failure in the first two films. With the implosion of the alien and Ripley during the credit sequence of Alien3, the narrative tension turns inward, pivoting on Ripley’s own self-awareness about the reorganization of her reality.
It takes Ripley a surprisingly long time to discover the truth of her situation. She has been fighting the alien in the traditional subject-object mode for so long that she continues doing so on Fury 161 as if out of sheer force of habit, and her investment in this realist mode of doing battle blinds her to the truth of her situation, which is that this realist mode of subject-object antagonism is no longer applicable. As soon as she wakes up from her hypersleep, she sets about insisting that the bodies of Newt and Hicks, her dead nuclear family, must be autopsied and incinerated to prevent infection. When a stowaway facehugger impregnates a dog, Ripley dons her timeworn mantle as alien-warrior to protect the universe from the external foe. But for all her paranoia and cunning, it never occurs to Ripley that her sore throat and bouts of nausea are indications that the alien is gestating beneath her own solar plexus. In this way, Ripley’s own behavior embodies Baudrillard’s description of the third order of simulation in which the image, in this case, Ripley’s image of the alien as an external foe, conceals the fact that this reality has undergone implosion.
To be fair to Ripley, however, she cannot be entirely blamed for her failure of insight. For one thing, as she knows as well as we do, when a person is impregnated by a facehugger, they have at best a day or two before they give their fatal birth, whereas Ripley’s alien takes much longer to gestate. The alien that gestates in the dog is on the prowl within a day at most, whereas Ripley’s alien, which had been implanted before she even arrived on Fury 161, leaps out with perfect, dream-like timing at the most dramatically appropriate moment at the very end of the movie. Ripley and the audience are right to assume that if she had been impregnated on the Sulaco, she would be dead by now. Furthermore, the opening sequence shows the facehugger cracking the window of Ripley’s cryotube to gain access to her face. In addition to the reasonable supposition that such a happenstance would disrupt the cryogenic process, which it doesn’t, when we see Ripley’s cryotube after her crash landing on Fury 161, the window is unbroken. It is also difficult to imagine how the alien queen could have managed to smuggle a pair of eggs onto the Sulaco at the end of Aliens. These discrepancies in the plot of Alien3 seem intentionally arranged to suggest the essentially dream-like relationship that inheres between Ripley and the alien at this point in the series. Instead of a Freudian-style dream, however, in which the alien represents some preexisting psycho-sexual reality, Ripley’s Baudrillardian dream is one in which the image of the alien and the image of the dreamer share the same hyperreal condition.
For Ripley as well as for the worker-inmates of Fury 161, reality is not profound; it is embodied – it is self-identical. The fact that Fury 161 is a special prison for men with XYY aneuploidy introduces the theme of genetics explicitly into the Alien series. Sentencing to this prison is determined not only or even primarily by what the prisoners have done, but by who they are as expressions of their genotype. This idea of a genetic prison suggests a sense in which all organisms are prisoners of their genetic makeup, implying that the truth of human identity does not lie in the shadowy realms of the past or the unconscious, but is spelled out clearly in every cell of one’s body. The inmates’ status as genetic prisoners condemns them to be their bodies and to live out a destiny pre-assigned by their genome. When Ripley crashes on Fury 161, she also is condemned to be her genome. While Alien and Aliens had both depicted societies in which men and women worked together as colleagues in a more or less post-sexist environment (even the marines in Aliens brag about their bisexuality), in Alien3, Ripley is confronted very directly with her genetic identity as a female. To the all-male planet of Fury 161, Ripley is just as fearsome an alien as any xenomorph. Dillon articulates the concern that “the presence of any outsider, especially a woman – is a violation of the harmony and a potential break in the spiritual unity” of the prison population. The champion of quarantine regulations throughout the first half of the series, Ripley now finds herself quarantined – ordered to remain in the medlab – as an infectious source of mayhem.
Of course, Ripley proves just as adept at undermining human quarantine procedures as the alien. This parallel is one of many clues that Ripley is not just pregnant with the alien, a dynamic which would sustain a differentiation between the two antagonists (the alien is the same external foe, simply relocated inside rather than outside Ripley’s physical body), but that she has actually become the alien (a hyperreal implosion). For the alien, as we come to learn in greater detail in Alien Resurrection, has an appropriately alien twist to its reproductive process. Rather than merely using its host as a gestation site, the alien embryo seems to share genetic information with its host in a way that affects both participants in the exchange. The alien that gestates inside a dog in Alien3, for example, takes on perceptibly canine qualities that differentiate it from the previous generations of aliens, more bipedal creatures which, we might assume, walked upright as a result of having gestated inside human beings. A corollary of this quirk in alien embryology is that the genetic transfer seems to go both ways, investing the parent with qualities of the host species. In this sense, Ripley becomes the alien both figuratively and literally throughout Alien3. Ripley’s genetic and symbolic fusion with the alien is reflected in the way she becomes the object of fear and mystery on the part of the male inmates, but also in her own behavior. In Alien3, Ripley has a new aggressive sexuality that we have not seen in her before. She was completely celibate in the first film, and in the second film, her schoolgirlish flirting with Hicks never becomes physical, but in the third film, shortly after waking up from her coma, she bluntly propositions Clemens for sex. Tellingly, she does so as a way of avoiding his inquiries into what caused her to request an autopsy of Newt. Sex with Clemens is therefore a kind of substitute for talking about the alien, as if she were answering his question in a roundabout way, substituting her own sexual identity as a woman for the unspoken name of the alien creature.
This insinuation is accentuated by the fact that, in place of their lovemaking, Fincher’s narrative cuts to the movie’s first alien death scene. The warden wastes no time in attributing this apparent industrial accident to the emotional turbulence introduced into the community by the arrival of Ripley, and, in a way, his accusation is justified. Ripley’s female sexuality parallels the predation of the alien Ripley has brought along with her from outer space. Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley with a predatory, catlike slinkiness that is absent from her tomboyish turn in the previous films, suggesting that the alien is not only in her; it is her. Indeed, until the final sequence of the movie kills off all but one resident of Fury 161, Ripley is actually directly responsible for killing more inmates than the alien as a result of her disastrous plan to coat the tunnel walls with an explosive gel.
At the very end of the film, when Ripley is threatening to throw herself into a pool of molten lead as a way of extinguishing once and for all (so she thinks) the dangerous monster that she has become, a figure resembling the android Bishop arrives to dissuade her. Ripley assumes that the figure is another robot of Bishop’s model, but he protests that he is actually Bishop’s human designer. The introduction of this strange ambiguity at the climax of the movie contributes an important element to Ripley’s suicide scene. The audience is never satisfied one way or another considering whether this character is in fact a robot or an organism – there is no reason to take him at his word – and this lack of resolution can be interpreted as a tacit statement that whether someone is a robot or not does not matter. A person or a robot is not defined by the “profound reality” of what lies beneath their skin, but by the actions they perform in the world. The question of whether or not Bishop is a robot is beside the point in a world in which the concept of reality has been emptied of depth. The prisoners are prisoners because they play the role of prisoners, just as the jailers are defined by the roles they enact. Genetics is destiny for both the prisoners and for Ripley.
In committing suicide to keep herself and her alien baby out of the hands of scientists, Ripley embraces her status as an object and uses it as a terrible kind of power, giving birth to the alien even as she plummets to her death in a poetic convergence of generativity and destruction. While it appears to stage the profound reality of death in all of its dire finality, Ripley’s suicide is actually only a disguised continuation. Although we see both alien and Ripley incinerated, the presence of the implosive robot-human Bishop, as well as that of the compellingly named sole survivor of Fury 161, Morse, suggest that a code – the digital code of cybernetic technologies and of genetic identity – constitutes a deathless hyperreality that is indifferent to the humanist categories of life and death.
In keeping with the dynamics of Baudrillard’s third stage of simulation, Alien3 relies on the audience’s intentional willingness to pretend that they don’t know what they know. The narrative details of Ripley’s attempts to resist alien contamination provide distraction from the fact that we know that Ripley is already terminally contaminated throughout the film. Likewise, at least in retrospect if not originally, our admiration for her act of self-sacrifice at the end of Fincher’s film relies on our ability to ignore our knowledge that this suicide is ultimately meaningless, since the Military-Industrial Complex will eventually reverse the result of the suicide in Alien Resurrection. Resurrection, however, is not exactly the most appropriate term to describe what happens to Ripley, the alien, or the alien franchise in this fourth installment. All three organisms – heroine, monster, and franchise – undergo a basic genetic mutation that alters them in a fundamental way from what they had been previously.
The character played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien Resurrection is, as Call tells her and as that character seems to accept, not Ellen Ripley. Ripley 8, as it is more accurate to call her, has super-strength, acid for blood, alien-intuition, and, most importantly, has lost her fanatical obsession with alien-killing. The alien, correspondingly, is significantly more human than it had been. The implosion of the Ripley-alien dynamic that had been imminent in the series since the first movie, in which Ripley and the alien had both been labeled “survivors,” is now complete, and in this sense, Alien Resurrection is a logical successor to the previous Alien films. Another unique characteristic of the Alien franchise that Jeunet’s film perpetuates is the stylistic subordination of the narrative material to the particular creative stylizations of a visionary director. In the same way that Scott, Cameron, and Fincher each made an Alien film reflective of their own stylistic temperament, Jeunet brings to Alien Resurrection the same tone of post-apocalyptic whimsy that characterizes his two previous films, Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995). Jeunet’s essentially pranksterish sensibilities distinguish Alien Resurrection from the haunted atmosphere of the previous Alien movies. The genetic soup of Alien Resurrection is also significantly inflected by its Joss Whedon screenplay, which is characterized by self-consciously movie-hip dialogue in the Tarantino/comic book mode.
The unique screenwriting and direction that distinguish Alien Resurrection as a tonal departure from the previous films accentuate the plot development that the society we encounter in Alien Resurrection is two hundred years in the future from the one we left in Alien3. The design of Alien Resurrection features science-fictional trappings, such as Gediman’s stainless steel pony-tail holder, that the previous Alien movies eschewed. Whereas the original Alien was remarkable for its sparse, realistic dialogue, Whedon’s space pirates are always full of snappy repartee and action-movie-style zingers. Whedon’s script even includes intertextual echoes to former Alien movies, as in the opening voiceover in which Ripley quotes Newt, or the “I don’t trust anyone” line that Elgin unconsciously borrows from Hicks. These touches emphasize the textuality of Alien Resurrection’s filmic world, giving it the ludic, Nabokovian quality of a luminous artificial surface. In Baudrillardian terms, Alien Resurrection launches the series into orbit, loosening it from the pull of reality, or revealing that it had always already been so loosened, and indulges in its hyperreal condition of the fourth stage of simulation in which the image “is its own pure simulacrum.”
As a clone produced, as Call put it, “in a fucking lab” by the Military-Industrial Complex, Ripley 8 exemplifies Baudrillard’s assessment that, in the hyperreal condition, there is “No more mother, just a matrix. And henceforth it is the matrix of the genetic code that will ‘give birth’ without end in an operative manner purged of all contingent sexuality” (Seduction 169). We first see Ripley curled in a fetal position in a giant test tube, being ogled by the white-coated technicians who have engineered her. A subsequent scene shows these same scientists bloodlessly birthing the alien baby out of her chest with a laser and forceps, demonstrating that both Ripley 8 and her alien offspring are no longer the product of conventional biological processes. Moreover, Ripley 8 is cloned as a full-grown adult. Rather than proceeding through the ordinary experiences of psychosexual development and personality-building, Ripley 8 is entirely a product of the genetic code that has been used to formulate her. Even her memories have been “passed down generationally at a genetic level.” We see her breaking out of a plastic amniotic sack, as if she were being reborn as a techno-scientific “construct.” As a result of her simulacral identity, Ripley 8’s character is free of the existential fears of birth and death that had preyed upon her previously.
In the same way that Alien3 subverts narrative expectations by establishing that there is no chance that the heroine will survive until the end of the film, Alien Resurrection pulls a similar trick by presenting Ripley 8 as indestructible. Ripley 8’s life is rarely at stake throughout the film, which derives very little narrative tension from stoking our fears for the heroine’s safety. Sigourney Weaver makes the most of her character’s invulnerability, swaggering through the movie as if she were just along for the ride, displaying a cocksure jauntiness that differentiates her from the human Ripley, who had suffered so much emotional agony. As far as the plot goes, indeed, Ripley 8 doesn’t have much to worry about. In the same way that the narrative imperative that Ripley remain uninfected was overturned in the opening scenes of Alien3, the other major source of tension in the Alien series – keeping the alien out of the hands of the bioweapons industry – is dispatched in the opening scenes of Alien Resurrection. What action-hero deeds remain to be done are largely shouldered by Call, who takes on Ripley’s world-saving mission, leaving Ripley 8 free to concern herself primarily with the question of her own peculiar kind of reality.
Ripley 8 achieves a terrifying glimpse into the nature of this reality when she comes across Room 1-7, a laboratory on board the military-science spaceship Auriga in which are housed the seven previous “models” of the Ripley clone. The grotesqueness of Ripley 8’s siblings recalls the nightmarish images of distorted organic shapes that background the opening credits of the movie. Once a human body has been reduced to a genetic code, it is available for techno-scientific manipulation. It is no longer an integrated whole; the genetic code can be reorganized like the letters on a scrabble board – the eyes and teeth can switch places, for example. And even if all the pieces are put together in the “right way,” as seems to be the case for Ripley 8, the result is still just as “unnatural” in its ontology as it is for any of Ripley 8’s monstrous sisters.
The horror of this scene is partly a result of the shocking distortions of human morphology represented by Ripleys 1 through 7, but the more fundamental horror is Ripley’s recognition that she shares the condition of these revolting jumbles of alien and human parts. Indeed, the most hideous (because most human) creature, Ripley 7, a bedridden mass of interspecies body parts, is played by Weaver herself. In Room 1-7, Ripley comes face to face with Baudrillard’s observation that “Cloning is … the ultimate state of the body’s simulation, where the individual, reduced to an abstract genetic formula, is destined to serial multiplication” (Seduction 171). The borders of individual identity which Ripley had spent her life protecting from alien infiltration are definitively deconstructed. She is another grotesque in this hideous continuum, and although she might have broken out of the observation tank in which the scientists had held her, there can never be any escape from the fact that she is a techno-scientific object in her being.
The theme of symbolic rape which has run throughout the Alien films here takes on its strangest and most alien form. Ripley has been violated in a way that is so fundamental that it bypasses her sex organs altogether, penetrating to the root of the very material of sexual reproduction and harvesting her genes for military-industrial purposes. At the same time that she has been so heinously violated by the United Systems Military, however, she also owes her existence to them, in a way that parallels the fact that she also owes her existence to her alien impregnation. In causing Ripley to be reborn for the purpose of giving birth to her alien baby, the alien baby actually plays the role of mother to Ripley, an implication that is expressed toward the end of the movie when Ripley is carried like a baby in her daughter-alien’s arms. The twin enemies from the first three films of the franchise – the alien and the Company – are now literally incorporated into Ripley 8’s being. Along with the scrambling of the human genetic code, therefore, Alien Resurrection depicts the scrambling of the moral and ontological code that established the field of threats and possibilities within the Alien universe. The unsettling ontological situation Ripley 8 encounters in Room 1-7 might be summed up in Purvis’s panicky question upon waking up from his cryotube and overhearing the conversation about the alien gestating inside him: “What’s in-fucking-side me?” We do not know what we are in the wake of our techno-scientific reinvention.
Purvis ultimately takes a symbolic revenge for the victimization he has suffered at the hands of the United Systems Military. As the alien begins to punch its way out of his ribcage, Purvis lunges at Wren, the sole surviving member of the group of military scientists responsible for implanting the alien in him, causing the beast to tear through both Purvis and Wren’s torsos. In doing so, he turns the givens of his techno-scientific reinvention into a source of resistance against the techno-scientific apparatus. This same pattern also characterizes the actions of Ripley 8 and Call throughout the movie as a whole.
One of the major metaphorical implications of the alien has always been that nature is fundamentally unknowable, and that scientist’s attempts to study the alien and harness its power for military purposes constitute a hubristic folly doomed to violent failure. In Alien, Aliens, and Alien3, the alien had been a rather passive participant in this symbolic formula; its role has been, as Ripley puts it in Aliens3, just to “do what you do,” as an expression of pure instinct. In Alien Resurrection, however, apparently as a result of genetic exchange with Ripley’s human DNA, the alien becomes a strategist. The aliens lay traps for the humans based on what they know about human weaknesses, using a gun as bait to lure Elgin into a dark corridor, and arranging a situation in which the humans will be desperately panting for breath just as the face-hugger eggs are hatching. These aliens are no longer representations of the inchoate forces of nature’s fury; they are playing an active role in a game of cat and mouse, using the human intelligence with which their techno-scientific reinvention has endowed them as a weapon against the techno-scientists.
Ripley 8, who is now ambivalently both alien-killer and alien-sympathizer, uses her acidic alienized blood to escape the observation well that the scientists have locked her in, and she uses her uncanny alien-powers to assist Call in her efforts against the scientists. Call, we learn, is an ontobot, a variety of robot that was recalled by the manufacturer for its malfunctional independence and willfulness. As the replacement heroine fulfilling the narrative role previously held by Ripley, Call’s function in the story and, indeed, her operational function as a cybernetic device, is to disrupt the techno-scientists’ plan to clone and weaponize the alien. The aliens, Ripley 8, and Call are all techno-scientific constructs. They have been designed and created to function in the role of objects for scientific study and control. In resisting this definition, these defiant object-organisms suggest the political possibilities of hyperreal subjects in a hyperreal universe.
Although none of them is technically a cyborg, the aliens, Ripley 8, and Call all reflect Donna J. Haraway’s observation in “The Cyborg Manifesto” that “The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism … But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins” (151). Haraway’s formulation of a cyborg politics proposes a way of thinking about hyperreal subjectivity that restores agency and transformative potency to the post-human entity. According to Baudrillard, the only possible form of resistance in the hyperreal condition is the fatal strategy: “the deepening of negative conditions” (Fatal Strategies, 223). For Baudrillard, the most effective form of resistance to the hyperreal military-capitalist-scientific hegemony would have been to let them get what they want – to let them bring the alien to earth and cause themselves to be destroyed. Haraway, however, perhaps because her thinking is rooted in the biological sciences, whereas Baudrillard’s starting point is the cultural dynamics of economic exchange, envisions a more mutational, adaptive, and evolutionary solution to the problem of how a hyperreal subject can resist a hyperreal hegemony. Haraway’s cyborg is not just an object, but also a “material-semiotic actor” (200), an ironic trickster with a mischievous sense of humor. If reality has been atomized into a genetic-cybernetic code and rebuilt into its present hyperreal form, then socio-political transformation becomes a matter of reappropriating the code, playing with it, and inventing novel permutations.
Haraway writes that “Feminist cyborg stories have the task of recoding communication and intelligence to subvert command and control” (175). Ripley 8 and Call, as female-shaped monsters, perform this task throughout Alien Resurrection, reconfiguring the dominant linguistic, cybernetic, and genetic semiotic systems. After she is techno-birthed, Ripley 8 receives language training from her inventors, who show her picture cards to which she is supposed to supply the correct noun. Ripley 8 is a fast learner, but she is also an eccentric one, giving the word “fruit” instead of the correct answer “cherries,” and the word “hand” in place of the correct answer “glove.” Her responses swerve away from the expected definitions, suggesting Ripley’s independent reappropriation of the semiotic system. In a following scene, this tendency becomes overtly subversive when Gediman asks her to supply the word for “fork,” to which Ripley 8 responds, with intentional mischievousness, “fuck.” This crude language game signifies not only Ripley 8’s oppositional stance toward her inventors, but also her ability to manipulate their own linguistic codes as a form of defiance.
Later on, Ripley 8 persuades Call to patch into the central computer of the Auriga in order to reprogram the ship to collide with the earth. Call does not like to plug herself in to the computer, complaining that it makes her feel “like my insides are liquid. It’s not real.” Call is ashamed of her robotic identity throughout the film and attempts to “pass” as organic. She initially exhibits a loathing for Ripley 8’s techno-scientific ontology, asking her, “How can you stand being what you are?” Her statement that she resents the computer interface because it is not “real” indicates her commitment to an ontology in which real and unreal have retained their standard dualistic roles, as in the previous stages of simulation. It is only by embracing her own unreality that Call is able to take control of the cybernetic system that controls the entire floating society of the Auriga. Although it had previously been explained that Wren, the unscrupulous military scientist, was the only one who had access to the codes, by taking ownership of the semiotic circuits, Call is able to thwart Wren’s attempt to escape from the Auriga. Her cybernetic empowerment is exemplified by the fact that Call’s voice usurps the voice of “Father,” the masculine persona of the Auriga’s central computer. Call taunts Wren, “Father’s dead, asshole,” demonstrating her newfound trickster glee in using her own cybernetic nature to overturn the social code of patriarchal techno-scientific hierarchy.
Finally, in addition to manipulating linguistic and cybernetic codes, Ripley 8’s climactic act at the end of Alien Resurrection is to take control of her genetic legacy. As happened at the endings of Alien and Aliens and at the beginning of Alien3, the alien has magically managed to smuggle itself aboard Ripley’s escape vehicle. This time, however, Ripley 8 finds herself pursued by a hideous creature representing a genetic fusion of Ripley’s queen-mother alien-daughter and Ripley herself, an oatmealy mass shaped vaguely like Sigourney Weaver which we can refer to as the Riplien. As Gediman explains in a rapture of scientific accomplishment, after giving birth in standard oviparous fashion to the generation of aliens that stalks the human characters aboard the Auriga, Ripley’s alien queen daughter has, through the magical nature of alien genetics, developed a human womb and carried a fetus to term. “She is giving birth for you,” Gediman tells Ripley 8 as they witness the parturition of the Riplien, announcing the Riplien as Ripley 8’s symbolic daughter. Upon being born, the Riplien demonstrates its humanity by turning on the alien queen from whose womb it had just emerged and decapitating her with a swipe of its monster paw. In her brutal matricide the Riplien demonstrates her affinity with the hybrid-humanoid psychology represented in Ripley 8 and Call’s rejection of their techno-scientific parents.
The Riplien murders its biological mother, but it imprints on Ripley 8, its symbolic mother, smiling at her with infantile affection. Ripley 8, correspondingly, rejects the Riplien as an embodiment of her violation. Just like her grotesque sisters in Room 1-7, the Riplien is a monstrous correlative of the sense in which Ripley 8 has been genetically raped, and the same insistence on reclaiming her genetic identity that caused her to torch her mutant siblings causes her to arrange a grotesque abortion of the Riplien. Throughout the alien franchise, one of the most problematic aspects of an alien infestation aboard a space vessel has been that space travel relies on rigid maintenance of boundaries epitomized by the airtight hull of the spaceship, and that the alien’s nature, symbolized by its blood, is the capacity to burn through such boundaries. While she is coddling the Riplien, Ripley 8 cuts her palm on its teeth and flicks her acidic alien blood onto a spaceship porthole, using this dreadful alien power to define her genetic legacy according to her own terms.
When her blood burns a chink in the porthole, the Riplien is liquefied and pulled through the tiny hole by the vacuum suction into outer space. The obvious allusion to an abortion procedure associates Ripley’s “choice” with the political concerns of late twentieth-century feminism, implying that both contemporary women and twenty-fourth century female hybrid alien clones pursue empowerment in a cyborg modality which, as Haraway explains “does not dream of community on the model of the organic family” (151). In the same way that the Riplien rejected its birth-mother in favor of a symbolic mother, Ripley 8 rejects the nightmare of biology represented by the Riplien in favor of her symbolic adoption of the robot Call. In using her alien blood, a sign of her internal genetic hybridity, to abort the Riplien, a sign of genetic hybridity that is external to herself and for which she is not responsible, Ripley 8 negotiates her way through her post-human identity, rejecting some aspects of it and embracing others in a manner that is much more nimble and adaptable than the containment and contamination paradigm that motivated her behavior in the first three quarters of the series.
As they look out the porthole of the Betty at an earthling dawn, Ripley 8 tells Call, “You did it. You saved the earth.” The ironic tone of Weaver’s delivery of this line both draws attention to the fact that we have just witnessed a formulaic ending of a science-fiction action movie, drawing attention to the hyperreal veneer of the movie as a movie, while simultaneously suggesting that Ripley 8 might be questioning the ultimate wisdom of Call’s heroism. Perhaps Baudrillard was right that the only valid form of oppositionalism in a hyperreal universe is the fatal strategy that allows the world to be infected with aliens for its own good. Irony, however, is the characteristic “rhetorical strategy and political method” (149) of cyborg feminism, and “ironic salvation” (227) is the characteristic denouement of cyborg writing. In this sense, Alien Resurrection fits naturally into the canon of cyborg fiction Haraway identifies, alongside the novels of Sam Delaney and Octavia E. Butler.
For all of its stylistic departures from the previous films in the series, Alien Resurrection provides a fitting fulfillment of the thematic concerns that transverse the series. The implosion of dichotomies that the alien has always embodied, the denaturing of reality into the matrix of semiotic codes, and the question of feminist political resistance in a universe of monopolistic patriarchy – themes which had gestated in the narrative corpus of the previous films – burst out with undeniable vigor in Jeunet’s closing installment. Along the way, rather than depicting a nihilistic descent through the stages of Baudrillard’s four stages of simulation, Alien Resurrection reimagines the political perils and possibilities of the hyperreal condition.
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