Though I’m tempted to wax poetic about how badass Sigourney Weaver was in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien (the first female protagonist in an American sf film—very exciting!), I found the design of the alien more interesting. Here I analyze it from both a biological and artistic point of view.
The design of the alien, and really the entire set of Alien, originated in a lithograph by H.R. Giger called Necronomicon IV, pictured below. It has the build of a human in that it has arms and hands, and is bipedal. In all other ways, however, it is distinctly nonhuman.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the biology of the alien is its pharyngeal jaw. When it opens its mouth, the alien reveals a secondary jaw that can extend to puncture, grab, and pull in its prey, as shown below.
This type of jaw has an analog in Earth’s moray eel. Unlike most fish, which quickly expand their throat to create negative pressure to suck in their prey, the moray eel possesses a secondary jaw in its pharynx which can move forward toward the oral jaw, grab prey, and draw it down into its throat where it can be swallowed. It is thought that the moray eel evolved this jaw from its first set of ribs to accommodate its preferred home: burrows in rocky sea floors. With a pharyngeal jaw, moray eels do not have to leave their narrow tunnels in order to expand their throats and suck in their prey. Rather, they can stay in their holes and stealthily strike from the shadows.
Does the pharyngeal jaw reveal something about the preferred habitat of its ancestors? Its constant coating of watery slime, streamlined head, and long tail all suggest that it is descended from aquatic organisms. Throughout the film, the alien also exhibits the burrowing behavior typical to a moray eel, whether it be in the crevices of the Nostromo, a tunnel on an alien planet, or in the gut of a human host. The larval stage (aka chestburster stage) of the alien certainly resembles something that should live at the bottom of the ocean.
The reproductive cycle of the alien is also noteworthy in that it is confusing. Most interpretations place the facegrabber as the initial phase of the alien lifecycle as a placenta with agency, its purpose being to locate a host and implant the alien embryo before dying. I would argue, however, that the facegrabber is an entirely separate generation of alien capable of parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization, or animal self-cloning). This cyclic parthenogenesis, or heterogamy, is found on Earth in species like water fleas. A modified version of this is found in all land plants, but it is known as alternation of generations. Animal species with cyclic parthenogenesis tend to reproduce quickly (as does the alien) and rely on parthenogenesis when their population is low and there are plenty of nutrients available. It is useful for outcompeting other species with numbers alone. I can see how this might be useful for the alien, which seems adapted to invading planets, decimating the population, and laying many spore-like eggs that can exist without nutrients for an unknown lengths of time.
Based solely on the information provided in the first Alien (as the gender system of the species is explained in later films), one might conclude that the facegrabber is the female alien and its child is the male. In this case, the facegrabber must have been inseminated prior to its birth, as are many species of wasp on Earth (the fig wasps being the example that come most readily to mind). This wasp imagery is consistent with the endoparasitic nature of the larval stage, but I think it is unlikely as most of the examples of preadolescent insemination on Earth are associated with the coevolution of wasps and a plant host. In contrast, the aliens are a highly independent species that can use seemingly any warm-blooded organism as a chestburster host and do not require a host in which to oviposit their spore-like eggs.
On a side-note, why are wasps the model organism for alien design in science fiction film and literature? Are segmented bodies, compound eyes, and parasitic larva really that scary? Do science fiction writers know that wasps, like all insects, respire with a system of air tubes that open directly to the outside of their bodies and rely either on passive diffusion or are regulated by the movement of their limbs? Do they know that this system of respiration is not efficient enough to sustain insects the size of a man in an atmosphere with Earth levels of oxygen? Who do they think they’re fooling?
Of course, all disbelief must be suspended in regard to the adaptability of the alien. With tissue enhanced with polarized silicone (whatever that is), hemolymph strong enough to burn though concrete and steel, and the ability to synthesize biomass from what we can only assume is the air (because, honestly, how did the chestburster turn into an adult without eating anything?), the only limiting factor to alien reproductive fitness seems to be the availability of hosts.
The invincibility of the alien is reflected in its artistic design. H.R. Giger’s style is characterized by the blending of human anatomy with metallic technology (often with overt sexual themes). In contrast to the soft organic look of the humans, the alien blends into the grimy, metal interior of the ship, reflecting its superior adaptations to its environment. Even the parts of its body that are not covered in a shiny carapace are more similar to blackened machine cables than skin. Even the one android on board the Nostromo is fragile compared to the alien, requiring only a few whacks to the neck to be “killed.”
The design of the alien also reflects its insanely strong sexual drive. The one goal of the species is reproduction, as seen in the actions of the facegrabber and in the Xenomorphs in later films. The head of the alien resembles a penis, especially in the original lithograph by Giger shown above. The pharyngeal jaw of the alien, which it uses to puncture the skull of its victims, and the mechanisms the facegrabber uses to implant the embryo and feed the host oxygen are also rife with phallic symbolism. This added reproductive imagery makes the design of the alien an interesting blend of sharp technology and organic softness. Whether this was intentional or an extension of Giger’s hypersexual style (a more subtle example of which is pictured below) is unknown.
What can we take from the design of the alien? The subversion of reproductive roles and sexual imagery echoes the handling of gender roles in the movie. It’s also interesting that the antagonist of Alien was simply a creature trying to complete its reproductive cycle—the subject of many a human romantic comedy. Perhaps we are supposed to read the unchecked reproduction of the alien as a caution to think about what affect our own reproduction has on society?
The appropriation of the alien by the corporation that owned the Nostromo probably says something about the ethical implications of studying biology for commercial reasons and the introduction of invasive species. I don’t know how I feel about evil scientist characterization of the science officer and the scientists of the corporation, though. What type of society do Ellen Ripley and the crew live in where there aren’t ethical laws for research? Hopefully Scott only wanted us to keep ethics in mind when we proceed to study new organisms rather than condemn scientific research as a whole.