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[Body fluids] affront a subject's aspiration towards autonomy and self-identity. They attest to a certain irreducable 'dirt' or disgust, a horror of the unknown or the unspecifiable that permeates, lurks, lingers, and at times leaks out of the body, a testament to the fraudulence and impossibility of the 'clean' and 'proper.' They are engulfing, difficult to be rid of...(Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies)
From the opening sequence of Jean Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (Alien 4), depicting a human face in extreme closeup undulating and rippling, an expansive mass of amorphous matter, it is clear the form (or lack of form) that horror will take in this film. Before going to see Alien Resurrection I was told by friends who had already seen the film that a dominant characteristic of the movie was its' 'wetness,' and indeed the aliens in this instalment are significantly less solid than those of past productions. Their slick exoskeletons drip and ooze viscid fluid, and they excrete boundless quantities of transparent mucus from unknown orifices and glands.
Like the first three instalments of the Alien series, much of the tension in Alien Resurrection arises from a confrontation with this gooey, undifferentiated, seeping matter. The film's lingering shots of alien excreta point to the biological functions of the alien body as a primary site of horror in the film, it's leakages and expulsions a source of both fascination and dread. Like The Blob, The Fly, and Scanners, Alien Resurrection is a sci-fi horror film with 'abject body movie' written all over it.

In Kristeva's terms the abject is that which threatens to cross the boundaries which society uses to define itself as civilised, such as the boundaries between inside and outside, order and disorder, male and female, living and dead, clean and unclean, good and evil. The abject is that which has been expelled or has dropped away from the subject - has been ab-jected - and yet continues to exert a certain control over the subject's self identity. Not surprisingly encounters with abjection are usually characterised by feelings of loathing and disgust.

In Alien Resurrection this fear of the abject body (familiar to horror movie goers as the fragmented, dismembered, unclean, or alien body) is paired with a less obvious fear of the feminine and maternal. This is no big surprise really. As theorists like Mike Davis have observed, the abject body is "a body that is vulnerable and predisposed to change, a body that is not singular or unified, that is not phallic - in short, the maternal body."

This observation is significant when you consider the Alien movies' investment in narratives concerning biological reproduction and the psychic bond between mother and child, themes which have underpinned the development of the series since Ridley Scott's original film in 1979. Alien 4 is no exception. For all intents and purposes the film is a prolonged exploration of the reproductive capabilities of the central character Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her nemesis, the alien queen.

The film opens with a scene showing Ripley (or more specifically a version of Ripley cloned from DNA recovered by the military) giving caesarean 'birth' to an alien queen that had begun to grow inside her body at the end of Alien 3. We later discover that the queen has inherited certain human characteristics from Ripley, namely the ability to give birth to it's young directly rather than seeking host bodies in which to incubate the offspring. In turn Ripley has gained the alien's increased strength and agility, as well as having developed an almost telepathic empathy with her 'baby.'
Things get nasty later in the film when the alien queen gives birth to her first alien/human hybrid child. In a surprising turn of events the newborn baby turns on and kills its' mother, instinctively recognising Ripley (it's 'grandmother') as its' 'true' parent. Within the symbolic narrative of the film this act of alien matricide positions Ripley as the new alien queen.

Of course a reading such as this is at odds with the narrative drive of the film. After all, judged on surface appearances Alien Resurrection seems like a positive feminist text, a film about a kick-butt female role model who doesn't take shit from anybody. Approaching the Alien series from this perspective several writers have discussed ways in which the films might be thought of as progressive in their depictions of gender, and representative of a new gender-neutral cinema.

In his essay the The Implications of Generic Hybridisation in the Alien Films Robert Wood has argued that the combat genre, to which Alien Resurrection is closely aligned, presents no inherent obstacle to the an equality of the sexes, where the "natural oppositions are not between men and women, but between allies and enemies."
In this reading the Alien films give form to a futuristic scenario in which differences between the sexes have been significantly eroded, a tendency clearly embodied by the androgenous character of Ripley, who in each instalment displaces the authority of male crew and colleagues in order to overcome the alien threat. This female appropriation of power is explained in the films by Ripley's progressive masculinization, where an array of absurdly oversized machine guns and flame throwers stand in as blatant substitutes for the absent male phallus.

In Wood's analysis this display of "female courage in the male style" is seamlessly integrated into the homogenous sexual politics of the narrative - as soon as she starts gunning down aliens Ripley becomes one of the guys. However, I would suggest that Alien Resurrection's investment in images of the abject (and alien) body points towards the possibility of a significantly different interpretation. In their pre-occupation with the horrific nature of abjection the Alien films might in fact be seen to contradict the superficially homogeneic relationship between their characters, suggesting instead a social relation grounded in sexual difference.

In particular the films' pointed obsession with the figure of the dominating mother (Ripley, the alien queen) suggest a fear of female power, a paranoia trip which finds its' explicit realisation in Alien Resurrection. In one significant scene the terrified crew member of a hijacked space cruiser awakes from cryogenic deep-sleep to learn that he has been impregnated with the embryonic baby of one the alien queen, and will give 'birth' in a few hours. In a pointed role reversal Ripley takes sardonic pleasure in informing this unwilling host that she is the mother of his alien 'child,' - the symbolic masculine invader of his body.

If we are to treat the Alien films as a symbolic narrative about unconscious fear of the maternal body, then we also have to consider how audiences are able to reconcile the image of our testosterone enhanced heroine (Uber-Ripley) with an otherwise patriarchal ideological text. Mike Davis suggests that the answer can be found at the end of the films, in the final confrontation between Ripley and the alien queen. By killing the queen, her symbolic other half, Davis believes that Ripley is vanquishing the figure of the archaic matriach, the 'bad mother,' thereby relenting her masculine power and assuring a return to the established patriarchal order.

This is particularly clearly illustrated in the closing sequence of Aliens 2 depicting Ripley and her adopted daughter Newt asleep in their cryogenic chamber, a striking image of Ripley's re inscription within a masculine order as the reassuring face of femininity - as Davis observes, "recumbent, passive, castrated."

In Alien Resurrection Ripley kills her mutant and abject alien/human `grandchild' in order to save the cyborg Annalee Call (Winona Rider), easily the most human and feminine of the film's characters, and therefore a suitable surrogate child to replace the lost alien. In essence this effects the film's closure by repositioning Ripley within a traditional patriarchal ideological framework as the 'good' mother, but, it must be noted, much less convincingly that in the earlier Alien films. Throughout the movie Ripley's nurturing and empathetic emotions are clearly directed toward her two alien `children,' the alien queen and its' own offspring, the alien/human hybrid.

For me the introduction of the cyborg character Call is the one thing that really sets Alien 4 apart from the earlier films, perhaps even ultimately subverting a straightforward reading of Resurrection as a one-sided anti-feminist text. The first female cyborg to appear in the series, Call embodies the potential for a sophisticated interaction between humans and machines which points the way toward new possibilities for the representation of gender within Alien 4.. When Call plugs into the computer network of the collision bound spaceship on which Resurrection is set, what at first appears to be yet another image of violated physical boundaries (she literally mainlines the electronic information, sticking a jack directly into her arm) is transformed into a potent image of the dissoluion of identity at the hands of the information network. Injecting herself into the system (and vise versa), Call gives a new twist to Alien's obsession with liquidity and formlessness. Echoing Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto in this scene information technology is a fluid attack on the solidity of identity, an onslaught on human agency. This is the viscous return of nature as circuitry, a self-regulating system of which man is merely a function.

From the moment the alien/human baby kills its' birth mother and recognises Ripley as its' 'real' parent, the possibility of a clean resolution to the film and a return to established order is negated. When the survivors return to (mother!) earth in the final sequence of the film, a planet they variously describe as 'beautiful' and 'a shit hole,' the impossibility of this closure is confirmed.
"[Cyberfeminism's] flows breach the boundaries between man and machine, introducing systems of control whose complexity overwhelms the human masters of history. Secreted in culture, it's future begins to come up on the screen, downloaded virally into a present still striving , with increasing desperation, to live in the past." (Sadie Plant, Beyond the Screens)

Jonathan Nicol
6 March 1998

This piece of writing draws heavily on Mike Davis's essay What's the Story Mother?: Abjection and Anti-Feminism in Alien and Aliens Also available online and worth checking out are Cross Talk: The Implications of Generic Hybridisation in the Alien Films by Robert E. Wood and Baby Bitches from Hell: Monstrous Little Women in Film by Barbara Creed I also recommend Beyond the Screens: Film, Cyberpunk and Cyberfeminism by Sadie Plant, Varient No. 14, Summer 1993, and Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism by Elizabeth Grosz