The year is 1979, Los Angeles just passed its first gay and lesbian Civil Rights Bill, Michael Jackson just released his first breakthrough album, Off The Wall, and McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal. Among the many groundbreaking ‘firsts’ in 1979, there was one, in particular, that would change the cinematic landscape forever.
Alien (1979) Directed by Ridley Scott
The film is centered around a commercial space shuttle and its crew, as they suddenly awake from their cryogenically induced sleep due to a nearby distress call. The crew investigates the source of the call, an abandoned ship, and once it becomes clear something horrific happened on the vessel, the horror only just begins. A crew member, Kane (John Hurt) notices a strange primordial egg that ejects a creature that smothers and forces a foreign body inside him…
Sigourney Weaver was cast in the lead role, Ellen Ripley, which was pioneering during that time period. The role was originally written for a man, but Ridley Scott wanted to shock audiences with not only blood and gore but with the first female action heroine. Since the role had originally been written for a man, Scott left much of the script unchanged in hopes Weaver’s acting would take care of the rest, which it certainly did, and then some. Ripley’s character provided the foundation for future female actors in cinema and television.
Not only is Alien a female-centered story, but it also addresses issues and notions which are typically unheard of to men, by making them the victims of sexual assault. It is unarguable that women are subjected to more sexual violence than men, that is a fact. But in Alien, Scott flipped the script by forcing male viewers to grapple with the trauma of assault. All of the small details, bloody or not, of the alien’s behavior, give the implication of an unwanted impregnation and penetration.
Later in the film after waking from his coma, John Hurt collapses on the dining table, flails his body like a fish on a dry dock, eventually leading to a creature exploding from his chest and killing him. It can be interpreted that the alien’s forceful and horrifying birthing method conveys the violence of a rape or assault.
And while all the men fall victim to alien attacks/assaults, Ripley isn’t attacked or even really targeted throughout the film. Scott wanted to flip all of the traditional tropes and role assignments, by making this cosmic nightmare scarier for male viewers.
Arrival (2016) Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor tasked with leading a team to investigate 12 alien-spacecraft, which land in different locations around the globe. As tensions escalate regarding the arrival of these ‘heptapods’ (due to their seven legs), Dr. Banks and her team work expeditiously in hopes to communicate with these creatures and learn the true purpose of their visit to prevent global warfare.
Dr. Banks attempts to teach the ‘heptapods’ the meaning and basis of the English language, in return, the aliens try to communicate with a natural aerosol-like ink they emit. The nature of how heptapods think, act, and communicate is not limited by the constraints of time. The ink they emit can convey several emotions or meanings at once, unlike me writing word to word to describe and articulate. Or even by using past, present, and future tenses, without the structure of time there are no tenses.
As Dr. Banks immerses herself in this new language, she begins to dream in the language, which is scientifically accurate according to sleep doctors, known as somnologists. Dr. Banks begins to dream without the barriers of time, allowing her to see fragments and pieces of the ‘future.’ Once she is able to understand that time is not linear, rather a giant circle, just like the ink the heptapods emit, she realizes the purpose of their visit. They are telling her they will need humanity’s help at some point in the future, and by gifting them their language, humanity also became clairvoyant.
Annihilation (2019) Directed by Alex Garland
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a foremost biologist who is contracted with a covert military operation, to inspect, investigate and analyze a strange meteor that crashed on the American coast. The meteor contains an alien life that slowly envelops its surroundings by mutating everything in its proximity and creating a protective force shield around it known as “the shimmer.”
Lena, accompanied by three other scientists, journeys into the shimmer in hopes to neutralize the metastasizing nature of this invasive alien. Upon entering, time awareness and all communications are lost, leaving them confused and disoriented. The scientists begin to notice the creatures inside the shimmer resemble qualities not inherit in their own genus or species; an albino alligator with splintered shark-teeth, a bear with an elongated saber-tooth jaw that mimics the sound of whatever it last killed.
As the scientists push further into the meteor crash site, these strange creatures and the environment itself slowly pick off the team, one-by-one only leaving Lena alone. She arrives at the lighthouse where the meteor struck, to discover no single ‘alien,’ but something that transcends humanity and the biological rules of science.
Alex Garland is a critically acclaimed director known for his outlandish, but intoxicating films that draw you in with gripping sound design, sharp cinematography, and above all else, incredibly compelling stories. Garland adapted the screenplay from the novel Annihilation written by Jeff VanderMeer, which reimagines the source material while maintaining its disorienting and surreal nature. The film’s ambiguity is essential to the mystery and allure of his obscurity, leaving the audience wondering and questioning what just transpired.