Nihilism is overused today – overused as misused terminology and overused as a mistakenly new concept in film. However, there are some films that explore such philosophical themes so well that they beg to be discussed. Alien is one of these films. While people often talk about the dire tone and menacing style of Ridley Scott’s direction (helped by H.R. Giger’s brilliant designs), many fail to mention the complex themes found in Dan O’Bannon’s script. Alien is dripping in a nihilistic view of humanity, nature, and science – a view that adds many layers of interest to the discussion of the human being’s role in the universe as technology continues to transform our world.
A great deal can be discerned simply by knowing the original title of O’Bannon’s screenplay: Star Beast. The word “beast” implies a certain degree of ferocity and animalism – a concept that becomes important when analyzing the role of the alien itself. In some ways, Alien may appear as a dualistic piece: Man vs. Animal, Man. vs. Science, Man vs. The Unknown, etc. All these views place the human being in direct opposition to another force: the Other. In O’Bannon’s story, however, these dualisms ultimately don’t matter. The division between animal and man is completely shattered. The facehugger uses the human as a host, ultimately birthing a creature that is part human and part alien. One may even say that the beast is just as much an alien as it is a human being. This is why the word beast works better in this example than alien. While the creature is indeed alien to the crew, it is more accurately just a ferocious animal. In fact, it’s the only animal that equals the human being’s ferocity, cunning, and physical ability.
In O’Bannon’s script, the alien is simply following its nature – and its nature happens to involve the process of destroying the body of another species and using it to reproduce. Can the alien be blamed for acting according to its nature? It was the humans after all that decided to explore space, a world in which they do not belong. The unintended consequences of such exploration could be deserved. The discovery that human beings may not, in fact, be the only contender at the top of the food chain subverts many traditional concepts of the human’s world.
In summation, nihilism is all about deconstructing mores and ripping the meaning out of physical forms. In Alien, the human body has no sanctity – it’s merely a capsule, a tool, to breed more destruction. In Dan O’Bannon’s original script and in an alternate cut of the film, the alien actually rapes Lambert, one of the female crew members. In the theatrical cut, only a scream is heard. O’Bannon’s initial inclusion of the rape furthers the nihilistic attitude toward the body. Not only can the alien forcefully impregnate the body, it can also satisfy bestial desires with no moral tethers. The alien can do everything a human being can do (think, kill, feel, rape, procreate) and for the most part, it can do it better.
In the end, Alien presents an austere theme: the more humans embrace technology to uncover the universe, the more they learn how unimportant they are. In the face of cold technology, they are useless warm-blooded beings. In the face of alien creatures, they are pathetic victims. It is these themes found in Dan O’Bannon’s story that make Alien so timelessly terrifying.