It’s no secret the movie Alien changed my life. That should actually read “scared the piss outta me.” When I was 6, my brother and I convinced my father to take us to see Alien because it scared my mother. Instead, it terrified me.
While I can wax nostalgic about the graphic nature of the monster or the foreboding, ominous atmosphere of the film or even second-guess my father’s acquiescence to the whims of elementary school kids. The point of this is it changed everything.
For me, after I had an opportunity to change my underwear and had escaped the safe confines of my parents’ bed, it changed how I looked at entertainment. Alien frightened me to the core: it was the first time I’d seen anything that gory, that intense, that painful (honestly, everything about that animal hurt, right?). Until Alien, all my cinematic adventures centered around a group of meddling kids and their big ass dog solving mysteries; a cat and mouse duo devising ever-expensive, increasingly devastating ways of destroying one another; and answering the age-old question of Duck Season or Rabbit Season.
Instead of these traditional hijinks I got an organism that impregnates by attaching itself to your face, is born by bursting out of your chest, and spends the rest of its existence hunting down anything that breathes. So it can eat and make more. That’s it. No galactic domination. No reaching for the stars to see what else is out there. No raising the species to the next evolutionary level. The Alien has one imperative: to exist.
This is what makes the creature so frightening—aside from the buckets of thick saliva, the baby teeth that shoot out and crush skulls, the acid for blood—its sole adherence to the first law of nature: self-preservation. The thing exists simply to exist. And its entire structure is predicated and designed for existence in any and all circumstances. Let me put this in better terms: just about everything else we encounter on our own world, including us, has competing priorities—we want to eat, sleep, reproduce, see who’s in charge, flirt, dance, make music and build skyscrapers. Most living things have lives to live. And the things that do simply exist to eat and reproduce are small enough for us to step on. The Alien is like 7 feet tall. Bigger than Big Bird.
Check out this exchange from the 1979 film:
Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it.
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Parker: Look, I am… I’ve heard enough of this, and I’m asking you to pull the plug.
Ash: [Ripley goes to disconnect Ash, who interrupts] Last word.
Ash: I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.
“You have my sympathies.” It’s going to win. It’s going to survive.
As an author, the Alien is the quintessential villain: it simply is. When writing, it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole of complicated villains whose purpose isn’t crystalized or who rationale is murky. The Alien is clear, unambiguously clear. And, its clarity of purpose brings out the best in its hero. In fact, the Alien is the villain only because we sympathize with Ripley. Ripley and the Alien actually want the exact same thing—survival—but survival for one means death for the other.
We all understand that, life or death stakes, self-preservation. When writing I try to go back to the Alien, to ensure my villain has such clarity of purpose and that my story has such singular focus. Everything else is subplot, every other character expendable, all other priorities rescinded.
Thus ends Day One of the Celebration of Wickedness. This is Christopher Starr, sole author of the blog, Crooked Letterz, signing off. Tomorrow it’s the Hulk!