Why Are Academics Obsessed With Dissecting 'Alien?'
Like a slacker Stage 2 Xenomorph refusing to leave the chest, the 1979 sci-fi horror Alien has remained nestled in the public discourse for far longer than anyone expected. Of course, Alien is a great movie, a cryostasis sleeper hit that enthralled generations of late-night TV watchers with its Geigarian nightmares and sci-fi pantie shots. But part of why it's still one of the most talked-about movies isn't just its entertainment value, but because your college professors wouldn't shut up about it.
The most written about film in academia isn't some black and white Hollywood epic or subtitled French film where everyone wears sunglasses and talks about ennui; it's a low-budget movie about a space mom just trying her damn best to do right by her kids. For over forty years, scholarly journals and university lectures alike have been stuffed to the brim with analyses of Alien. The movie has spawned a cottage industry in academia, with thousands of academics churning out dozens of books, thousands of essays, and countless lectures about every single foggy frame of the film.
So why have there been millions of pretentious pages written about Alien? This wasn't the intention of the people who made it. Ridley Scott specifically set out to create an "unpretentious riveting thriller" with "absolutely no message," while 20th Century Fox only wanted a sci-fi B-movie to cash in on the Star Wars craze. But through sheer talent or luck, the finished product offered something every soft science could sink their teeth into. Ethnic studies have marveled at the fact that, opposite to every other horror movie of the time, it's the white dudes that drop like flies first. Meanwhile, sociologists can have a field day with the Amazon-esque Weyland-Yutani in essays like "Alien and neoliberalism, post-industrialism and the rise of multinational corporations." And philosophers will wax philosophically on topics from the Marxist value of boring androids to Nietzschean ideas on the Uber-alien.
But it's psychoanalytic and women's studies that have ascended Alien academia to a new level. Freudians will cream their pants over H.R. Geiger's mother-phallic Xenomorph, exploring the Freudian fears of rape, sexual mother figures, and birth trauma. And Sigourney Weaver's Ripley has basically become the patron saint of feminist film studies, with scholars dissecting everything from her power as a female hero (despite, or because of, the fact that she was written to be a man) down to the minutest details, like the feminine power of her having body hair while the lady Xenomorph seems to have a daily waxing appointment. For them, Alien became so important to the discourse that the '80s almost saw an academic civil war between second-wave feminist scholars accusing Ripley showing her panties of being sexist and third-wave feminist scholars accusing the accusation of Ripley showing her panties as sexist of being sexist.
As a result of the eggheaded obsession over the eggheaded alien, the entire Alien franchise has been lecture love-bombed -- some of them more deserving than others. Movies like Prometheus and Alien vs. Predator have a disproportionate amount of analysis poured over them even today, while queer studies have given more attention to two short-haired ladies breathing on each other in Alien 3 than to the entirety of Milk. But at least as long as the academic Alien gold rush continues, Ridley Scott will never be out of a job. Good or bad, movie theaters will always be filled by thousands of grad students hoping to build an entire career on being the first to notice the post-structuralist subtext of the Weyland-Yutani font in the next Alien movie.
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Top Image: 20th Century Studios