THE RETURN OF THE MONSTROUS
PART 2: ALIEN RESURRECTION, AND THE MONSTROUS GAZE
In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997), which understands and exploits the significance and power of the gaze, the link of abjection between the alien creature and the teratoma is made more explicit by providing the spectator with a speculative glimpse of a futuristic culture that reflects the fears and anxieties of the film’s own historical moment, the mid-to-late nineteen nineties. Specifically, Alien: Resurrection charts the consequence of the intervention of certain biotechnologies in the natural life cycle of the abject matter by having Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) cloned by military scientists upon the military ship Auriga two hundred years after the events of Alien³. Ripley, the protagonist of the previous three Alien films, had been carrying the embryo of an alien queen inside of her when she threw herself from a scaffold on the prison planet Fiorina 161 to eradicate both herself and the monster at the climax of Alien³. Jeunet’s resurrection of the series considers the idea of the teratoma, and its quasi-human identity, in the form of the abject ‘product’ organism (Ripley/alien queen) and infuses it with recombinant technology (cloning). This process endows the normally abject body with some interesting new characteristics, the most profound of which is the birth of new consciousness.
Despite being cloned with the embryo of a queen still within the recesses of her body, in Alien: Resurrection Ripley is not fated to an eruptive death a la Kane in Alien, as the creature is extracted from her chest at an early stage of its growth. This extraction, which mimics a caesarean section and/or the removal of an endodermic sinus tumour, is performed by the same scientists who clone Ripley; they intend to use the creature for their weapons division. This leaves the host, Ripley 8 (she is the eighth attempt at a cloned Ripley, and the only successful clone), to be sewn up and locked up, unceremoniously labelled a redundant ‘meat by-product’ by the commanding military officer General Perez. Despite this apparent redundancy, Ripley 8 discovers that she has incorporated some Alien characteristics into her human identity such as corrosive blood, increased strength and agility, etc. This is because she is the clone of the ‘product’ organism between Ripley and alien (we learn that Ripley 8 has been cloned from samples of Ripley’s blood taken from Fiorina 161 after she had been impregnated with the queen) and not Ripley per se (conversely, the alien queen also receives a ‘gift’ from the human Ripley as a result of the gene trade between the two creatures, which will be explained below). This is because Ripley 8 has, through the intervention of biotechnology, survived a process that, had it been allowed to reach its natural conclusion, would have killed her (the birthing of the embryo inside of her). From the perspective of Ripley 8 (and the extracted alien queen), cloning is not an invasive technology, but an inherent one since it is existent within the body from the point of its inception. Consequently, the technology influences certain aspects of identity on an innate level. As such, the gene trade has literally ‘given birth’ to two new consciousnesses, and provided the ‘product’ organism with a recombinant identity, which leads to the reinvention of the monster.
This is not particularly monstrous in itself, because the gene trade between has not altered any of the exterior contours of Ripley 8’s body, nor those of the queen. Ripley 8 is still fully recognisable as Ripley, while the queen’s appearance is almost identical to its first appearance in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Furthermore, the relationship between Ripley 8, the queen and the military scientists (and the cinematic spectator) at this point in the film is settled in an imbalance that is clearly modernist in its construction, as in the aforementioned King Kong. The scientists’ gaze is aggressive and one-way, and they treat the queen and Ripley 8 as mere objects (Perez insists on using the pronoun ‘it’ when referring to Ripley). They are both safely incarcerated not only by their cells, but also by the frame of the screen. This creates a scientific/cinematic spectacle in which, especially in the case of Ripley 8 as she begins to show off her newly found attributes in the basketball scene after first meeting the crew of the pirate ship Betty, she and the queen seem more marvellous than monstrous. Ripley 8 seems to be conscious of this fact, as when Call (Winona Ryder) asks her “what are you?” she knowingly replies, “I’m the latest thing.” Yet Ripley’s understanding of her identity is also the means by which her identity comes to be horrifically assaulted. Jeunet manipulates the marvellous into the monstrous by utilising the power of the gaze in three particular scenes, which provide an amplified sense of the assaulted self/not-self abject that stab at the heart of the identity of the spectator and subvert the apparent power imbalance of the spectacle.
The first of these scenes is the opening credit sequence of the film, which zooms into an amalgamated clot of misshapen flesh, tissue and sebaceous material. The distortion of the flesh is augmented by Jeunet’s use of an anamorphic lens camera taking close-up tracking shots of the surface of the warped mass. The object of the camera’s observations is clearly organic and of at least partly human origin, likening it to the bizarre teratoma. Importantly, the tracking shot of the camera reveals at least one perfectly formed – and presumably functioning – human eye, which will be fundamental to the birth of the monstrous in the scenes in the film. The first scene proper occurs just after Ripley 8 is reunited with the crew of the Betty. The Betty’s crew are a diverse collection of rogues and misfits, completely congruent with the fragmented, recombinant theme of the film. The crew of the Betty have voyaged to the Auriga to deliver human cargo; in fact, and unbeknown to the crew of the Betty, this cargo has been illegally shipped aboard to provide hosts for the facehuggers that will hatch from the eggs laid by Perez’s newly harvested alien queen. Whilst helping the crew of the Betty to escape from the Auriga following the inevitable escape of the aliens which had hatched from the chests of their human hosts, Ripley 8 chances upon a laboratory labelled ‘1-7’. Upon entering the room, she is confronted with the seven failed clones that had been produced before the success of her, the eighth clone. Clones 1-6 are grotesques, a muddled fusion of human and alien body parts. They are monstrous in the traditional sense inasmuch as they represent a tangled vision of human/alien duplication, but their monstrousness is compounded because of their intrusion upon the identity of Ripley, the self-conscious onlooker. The failed clones assume a paradoxical position of both excessive mitotic duplication and also traumatic lack in the eyes of both Ripley 8 and the cinematic spectator. This paradox is created due to the inherence of the biotechnology in their genetic structure, which has birthed the failed clones’ own self-consciousness. Clones 1-6 are clearly dead, but during their ephemeral existence among the corporeal they would have been conscious of the fact that, precisely because they were freakishly excessive they lacked the necessary form to be incorporated into the Symbolic Order; instead of being socially structured organisms capable of facilitating the expulsion of the abject, they have been incepted as the abject. When Ripley 8 looks at clones 1-6 she looks at more than just fleshy mannequins and failed clones of herself; she is confronted with herself as the not-me. This violation is exceeded by the confrontation between Ripley 8 and the seventh clone, Ripley 7, who is still alive. Ripley 7 is the most monstrous of the failures as it possesses a perfectly formed human face, despite its horrific bodily deformities (the seventh clone is in fact played by Weaver, who lay underneath an elaborate animatronic puppet). The use of Weaver as the seventh clone is the first real instance of Jeunet using the gaze as a tool of horror, as Ripley 7 is able to fully reciprocate the gaze of both Ripley 8 and the camera, demonstrated when she looks at the camera and pleads to Ripley 8: “kill me”.
It is worth noting that the phrase “kill me” is not arbitrary; it harks back to Aliens, when an impregnated colonist discovered by the Marines utters these exact words before she is slain by the creature inside of her. The reiteration of these words here is proof that the seventh clone possesses the same memories and consciousness as Ripley 8. (Incidentally, at the start of the film Ripley utters the lines “my mom told me that there are no monsters. No real ones. But there are.” This also is a quote from Aliens, originally spoken by the girl Newt. It is reiterated here to show that Ripley’s memories have survived the cloning process.) Ripley 8 complies with clone 7’s plea and incinerates it, along with clones 1-6, but the damage upon Ripley 8’s self has already been inflicted; she is distraught. In the seventh clone we are shown abject matter that is able to fully interact with its other, socialised self through their shared consciousness and memories. Crucially, it is also able to project its own comprehension of its misshapen unbelonging onto the socialised onlooker through its fully-fledged, penetrative gaze, nullifying the power imbalance between the spectator and the monster. Clone 7 is an embodiment of our fears of our own flawed identity, but carries a greater horror because it destroys our sense of individuality. The scene maximises the feeling of discomfort in those who look upon the wretched creature.
In the second scene to display the reciprocation of the gaze we are introduced to the character of the Newborn, which uses the gaze in the same manner as clones 1-7, but is able to transcend the sense of violated identity evoked by the failed clones. We first encounter the Newborn at the beginning of its life, when the alien queen gives birth to it by means of the aforementioned ‘gift’ bequeathed to the queen as a result of the gene trade with Ripley – a human reproductive system. The appearance of the Newborn is described by Sylvain Despretz, the conceptual artist for Alien: Resurrection, as “an alien…tainted by human DNA,” which results in an organism in possession of the general contours of an alien. It’s curious that Despretz uses the phrase “tainted by human DNA,” which in an unconscious sense harks back to the sentiments of the deviant synthetic Ash in Alien, who admired the creature for its “purity,” implying that the creature is diminished somehow through the introduction of human identity. It’s an astute if perhaps unintended observation.
Despite the Newborn’s alien contours, thanks to the biotechnology inherent in its ‘parents’, it is interspersed with these human characteristics: skin instead of a carapace exoskeleton; facial muscles enabling expression; and a tongue instead of the Alien’s pharyngeal jaw. Yet the most important trait that the Newborn inherits from its human progenitor are its eyes, which grant it an attribute that all the previous incarnations of the Alien have lacked – a gaze. This is an important evolutionary trait for the Newborn because it is the gaze that signifies the existence of one’s objet petit a. If we consider Lacan’s simple equation a – a’ we can deduce that the apostrophe sitting beside the second a denotes the presence of l’objet petit a and separates the subject from the empty shell a. Let us once again consider the child looking into the mirror; it is the gaze of the child that enables it to recognise the difference between itself and the empty shell staring back, which completes the equation a – a’. Since l’objet petit a cannot be truly represented, the gaze of the subject should not be mistaken for its agent, but thought of as an indicator towards its irrefutable existence (a symptom). Hence, the gaze boosts the monstrous potential of the Newborn because, as with the failed clones, it becomes aware of its own existence and recognises itself as an individual entity, a whole-object within the Symbolic Order as opposed to a partial splinter within a vast hive mind. Evidence of this occurs after its birth when it takes a moment or two to survey the world that it finds itself in, accompanied by a 360º camera tracking shot emphasising the creature’s capacity to see its environment, not merely sense it as did its Alien predecessors. This is a radical departure from the conventional cinematic depiction of the alien creature, which has always depicted an inherently instinctive creature devoid of exterior sight organs and controlled by a hive mind, incapable of displaying signs of individual intelligence. In short it is a perennially partial object with no mirror to transcend this status. This reliance upon a hive intelligence has always been why the creature has been “unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality” as Ash says in Alien once the crew of the Nostromo had discovered the Company’s Priority One – to bring back the creature for its weapons division. Catherine Constable’s reading of the Alien series notes the similarity of the conflict between the species as “humanity versus insects,” which accurately describes the insectoid nature of the aliens’ social hierarchy. Indeed, the comment made by Gediman (Brad Dourif) to the Newborn upon its birth – “you are a beautiful, beautiful butterfly” – is actually an ironic misperception of the creature as the Newborn is far less insectoid than its alien forebears.
Having realised its individuality in the symbolic order, the Newborn seems to celebrate this fact by apparently searching for its mother, but when it comes face to face with the alien queen, its expression changes from one of babyish curiosity to hostility, and it violently slaughters the queen. Soon after this, the Newborn makes its way over to the cocooned Gediman and kills the scientist. These violent acts of matricide and patricide, when considered alongside the creature’s betrayal of the hive mind of its forebears, and its bodily identity containing a significant biotechnological trace within its organic corpus, presents one valid conclusion. The Newborn is in fact Donna Haraway’s archetypal cyborg, a bastard, a deviant daughter that betrays the patriarchal hierarchy that sanctioned its inception. The Newborn’s function as cyborg is to incapacitate the patriarchal code of “command, control, communication and intelligence”, or “C3I.” Once it has displayed its capacity to inflict such damage the Newborn reveals itself as something that must be destroyed, which culminates in a climactic scene that bucks the trend set by the previous Alien films. The staple ending of the first two Alien films were orchestrations of a final battle with the creature, which would conclude with an orgasmic ejection of the creature into outer space; however, Alien: Resurrection supplants the orgasmic satisfaction of eventual triumph with an unexpected sensation of bereavement. The death of the Newborn occurs upon the cargo bay of the escaping Betty, where a tiny puncture in the ship’s hull causes the creature, which is not securely fastened to anything, to be sucked through the hole into space piece by piece, reducing it to a liquefied stream of tissue. Constable describes the spectacular ‘anti-birth’ of the creature thus: “The lack of an oppositional relation between Self and Other, human and monstrous, means that the final confrontation between Ripley and the alien child is structured around similarity and therefore permeated by a sense of appalling loss.”
Constable is right, but there is more at work here than just the dissolution of the isomorphic relationship between Ripley 8 and the Newborn; it is Jeunet’s use of the creature’s gaze that makes the expulsion of the creature more horrific than we, as spectators, might have expected. In the death of the Newborn we are witnessing the infanticide of a being that had awoken to a realisation of its own existence within the symbolic order; it feels a deep “confusion and sadness”, according to Despretz on the DVD commentary, at its rejection. Even though we do not balk at the Newborn’s killings of the alien queen, Gediman or the marine DiStephano (Raymond Cruz), the death of the Newborn itself is the apex of Jeunet’s assault upon the identity of both Ripley 8 and the spectator. This is because the death is suffered by a self-conscious creature that had triumphantly risen to the mantle of cyborg to challenge and undermine the agency of the militant aggressors who had inadvertently caused its inception. The birth of the Newborn, for all of its monstrosity, had delivered unto the spectator a champion capable of realising the unconscious desires that sprout from the traumatic severance from the Imaginary and the safety of the pre-Oedipal bond of the mother/child dyad. These fulfilled unconscious desires manifest as matricide (the killing of the queen), patricide (the killing of Gediman and, to a much lesser extent, DiStephano) and a deviant sexuality, the Oedipal complex, as Jeunet tellingly describes Ripley 8 as the Aliens’ “mother and lover” on the commentary. Haraway states that “a cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden” and so it is poised to fulfil these forbidden desires. Thus, when the Newborn is ripped from the screen and from the arms of its (grand)mother we are unconsciously reminded of our own traumatic separation from the mother/child dyad, emphasised by the ability of the Newborn to reciprocate the gaze of Ripley 8 (and the camera) who is severely traumatised by the separation. The death is also monstrous for the spectator as it places Ripley 8 and the spectator in subjective positions; the Newborn’s death is traumatic for Ripley because it constitutes a part of herself. Ripley feels for the Newborn; as the creature is gradually shredded through the hull of the Betty, Ripley looks it in the eye and says through tears, “I’m sorry.”
It might be easy from a feminist perspective to criticise Jeunet for his brutally violent destruction of the cyborg, which almost seems like a punishment inflicted upon it for being the destabilising influence upon the effects of C3I. Such a criticism would not be appropriate. Despite the ejection of the Newborn, the film ends with a collection of characters that have survived personal disputations (existential/physical differences) and exterior adversity (the threat of the Aliens) to co-exist harmoniously. This might not be considered to be a particularly unusual end for a Hollywood blockbuster, but the troop of characters that have survived show that the film has culminated in an embrace of difference rather than the uniformity of the military scientists with which the film begins; the survivors are the strongman Johner (Ron Perlman), the wheelchair-bound dwarf Vriess (Dominique Pinon), the synthetic construct Call (Winona Ryder) and the clone Ripley 8, all left to inherit whatever Earth awaits them. This climactic emphasis upon difference is supported by the ending featured on the Special Edition DVD. The alternative final take for the film shows Ripley 8 and Call, the bastard not-sisters-in-arms, sitting among the ruins of an apocalyptic Paris contemplating an unsure future that has seen the cultural erections of its forefathers laid into a wasteland. Suitably, when asked by Call what she will do now that she has arrived on earth, Ripley 8 replies, “I don’t know. I’m a stranger here myself.”
It is a perhaps strangely optimistic ending for a film that has sought to launch a series of traumatic assaults upon the individual’s sense of identity and rediscover how to invoke a new horror into the gaze of the camera. By passing through the intense trauma of the identity warping qualities of the teratoma, which was meant to be unfeeling, but was in fact given sentience, Ripley 8 emerges with a damaged sense of self. By the end of the film she belies her status as a biotechnological construct to become the archetypal subject, thrust into the nightmarish scenario of a social order in which she experiences total subservience and objectification. She is rewarded with the promise of a brave new world, but to arrive there she has had to endure the most appalling encounters and sacrifices at the hands – and the gaze – of the monstrous.
About the Author
Dan Jones works for the UK Space Agency on a space robotics development programme, and has worked in the past on technology strategy in the field of aerospace, cyber security and autonomous systems. All of which has come in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.
His debut novel, Man O’War, will be published by Snowbooks in October 2017. He has had other stories published in the anthologies Journeys, and The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel, and has recently published a second edition of Eat Yourself, Clarice!, a non-fiction psychoanalytical study of popular film, literature and low culture. He is currently working on his second novel, The Hole In The Sky, and a collection of novellas on the theme of urban mythologies.
Dan was born in Forest Gate, east London, and now lives in Essex with his wife and two daughters.
This essay has been adapted from “Eat Yourself, Clarice!” by DG Jones, which is available to buy in ebook and paperback form on Amazon.