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Horror of Sea and Space: Alien at Forty Years.

Monstrous extraterrestrial visitors to Earth occupy a strange place in our imagination. Origination from outer space immediately places them on the outside, the wholly other, external to earth’s animal taxonomy or social hierarchies. Yet, their earthly visits, or plunders, are not entirely foreign as they move through a known world of forests, isolated farms, or sprawling cities. They interact, frighten or harm peoples and places familiar to us, valued by us. When humanity reaches into the inky firmament, however, the tables are turned, and we are at the pity of merciless space and its inhabitants. I contend creatures from outer space- encountered in outer space- share accentuated narrative and horrific attributes with the ancient sea-monsters than alien aggressors stalking the earth. The best, and most analytically malleable, alien film to frighten audiences over the last 40 years — Alien — is a terrifying call-back to ancient tales of lost mariners and demons of the sea. Ridley Scott’s film establishes a maritime vernacular which draws the viewer into a relationship with the movie, exploiting not just scares, but the subconscious expression of centuries of superstitions, myths, and practical fears of humankind’s relationship with the monstrous sea.

Preternaturally dangerous and seemingly supernatural in character, the sea has never been taken at face value, and when it has, it renews its malignant reputation. Carl Thompson’s introduction to Shipwreck in Art and Literature, captures the sea, “as the most profoundly alien and hostile element.” The monstrous quality of the sea infused later superstitions and myth, washing over generations of fearful portraits and beliefs that the great waters embodied the bounty and terribleness of Creation. This “alien and hostile” since antiquity has been the seas, but in Scott’s Alien, space becomes a stage for replication of seafaring tales.

Nostromo arrives “off course” to a planet plagued by raging primordial storms; a planet is unfit for habitation, yet there is something buried in the tomb-like derelict ship they find wedged among the rocks. Classic storytelling elements aside, Alien pushes into maritime imagery quickly and deftly. Evoking deep-sea divers with steam exhalation instead streams of bubbles, Scott slyly suggests a Captain Nemo-esque journey into an inhospitable world. The alien planet, however, is shrouded in silica blasted gaseous tempests rather than the cloudy and roiled waters of an earth-bound storm at sea. Sea life hatcheries in warm tidal pools become leathery amphorae beneath a shallow ripple of smoky energy. The ancient space wreck sits among towering rocks that might be a North Atlantic undersea massif. With a shipwreck as a catalyst, the story veers into the cosmic ocean as the fleeing Nostromo’s crew is beset by a creature that emerged from the abyss. The nature of sea narratives is amplified by Nostromo’s interiors, which rival Thompson’s, “cramped, clearly bounded spaces in which passengers and crew…are of course trapped as the vessel lurches towards disaster.” The claustrophobic compartments of the Nostromo remain spaces of sparse light, gloom and pure mechanical function. The film continually links outer space with the sea: endless cold abysses which hide wonders and horrors. On the sea, or in space, you are mostly helpless and probably doomed, facets we see throughout Alien.

From Akkadian fish-gods and the sea-god Yamm to sea-serpents playing off the coasts of England or the FeeJee Mermaid in its glass case at Harvard University, the sea teems with monsters and releases its myths begrudgingly. Within the framework of unseen dangers or terrors, the alien or otherworldly nature of the sea was expressed by the creatures which swam within and struck fear in sailors for centuries. Sea-monsters pepper the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, from Genesis and Job to Revelations, with no greater terror than Leviathan. Best described as a sea-monster that gods fear, Leviathan was as Timothy Beal notes in Religion and Its Monsters, is a beast of chaos and creation outside of creation, a description I later apply to Scott’s “xenomorph.” Sea-monsters like Leviathan and tanninim defined monstrosity found in the sea. The giant sea creatures of antiquity, real or imagined, were as described by Vickie Ellen Szabo as, “not just part of nature, they transcended it.” These ideas of sea monsters as outside or transcendent of the natural order is a compelling point that leads to Alien, a film which guides the viewer off the map into a world of ancient monsters rejuvenated.

The ability of sea-monsters, particularly Leviathan, to transcend nature and as creatures outside creation, syncs perfectly with the monster created by Dan O’Bannon and visualized by H.R. Giger. In a 1984 interview Scott said of the Alien’s power and presence, “In relation to humans, the alien does seem to be indestructible. It does not fear anything. In fact, it is a supreme being.” Scott’s Alien is a supreme being and sea-monster in the cosmic sense, a Leviathan-like creation outside creation, transcendent and possibly indestructible. Richard Kearney, in 2003’s Strangers, Gods and Monsters, contends the eponymous Aliens of the series are “postmodern replicas of the old religious demons: figures of chaos and disorientation within order and orientation.” Furthering Kearney’s argument, I argue the Alien as an exemplar of the classic sea-monster with thematic and symbolic roots in ancient religious sea-demons.

The sleek Alien rises from the first descriptions of Leviathan in Job 41- from the monster’s limbs, strong and graceful, to its tightly protected back and joints, and a mouth ringed by “fearsome” teeth. Scott’s own declaration of the Alien as a fearless “supreme being” echo Job 41:33 description of Leviathan as, “nothing on earth is its equal, a creature without fear.”  Job 41:9 concludes the Leviathan is remorseless, will never beg, nor parley and,” Any hope of subduing it is false, the mere sight of it is overpowering” Apply the description of the Bible’s ancient sea-monster to the beast that stalks the corridors and ducts of the Nostromo, and the weight of centuries of legends and myths of sea-going demons plaguing ships and sailors alike press down on ALIEN. These are not superficial or aesthetic qualities which Alien shares with Leviathan; rather they affirm its monstrous ontology.

It was the great religious historian Mircea Eliade who dramatically captured the cosmic dragon as a “paradigmatic figure of the marine monster, of the primordial snake, symbol of the cosmic waters, of darkness, night and death.” Eliade’s cosmic dragon is the Alien- symbol of the cosmic waters from where it was mysteriously born. Its body and spirit are darkness, and it resides in darkness, it brings death at its birth and dispenses death until its demise. Described by viewers and reviewers as a dragon since first appearing in 1979, the Alien possessed something alluring, frightening and ancient within its biomechanical husk. Like Eliade’s divine marine monster, “amorphous and virtual… not yet acquired a ‘form,’” Scott, O’Bannon’s, and Giger’s first Alien was incomplete, always evolving, and thirsting for new contributions to its genetic armory. The Alien is an unstoppable force of nature but is outside of nature and creation, as transcendent as sea-monsters of antiquity and a potent inheritor to the legend of Leviathan.

About Kevin Cooney

An expert in the field of human ecology and graduate of Harvard University, Kevin Cooney is a freelance writer with a devotion to the aesthetic of Katsuhiro Otomo, Simon Stålenhag , and Nigel Kneale. While known for academic non-fiction he has a collection of short fiction straining at the stable door. An independent scholar of the concept of place in science fiction and the field of Folk Horror, he can be found sketching monsters and spaceships, watching British television, old-school anime and 70s films, or reading books that put most people to sleep. He can also be found on Twitter @bostonwookiee.

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