Alien: A Kleinian (Psycho)Analysis
Melanie Klein was a psychoanalyst who took Freud’s thinking and moved it into new and exciting (and some might say rather bizarre) directions. She is most famously associated with her ideas about the relationship between the baby and the mother’s breast; a relationship that she theorised was full of aggressive and persecutory “phantasies.” She described how in the earliest months of life, the baby is in a paranoid/schizoid state. When the nourishing “good breast” is present all is good and ideal, however when absent it becomes the “bad breast” which provokes fantasies of annihilation, destruction and persecution.
Nostromo: womb of destruction?
Alien opens with an image of the mothership Nostromo (a nod to Joseph Conrad’s eponymous novel) quietly sailing through space. We are told it is a commercial mining ship and though industrial to a “T” in its design, there are undeniably breast like protrusions that hang from its bottom like teats of a cow. This is not an interpretive stretch. This is indeed a commercial mining ship: hence these “breasts” are presumably filled with all the necessary ore to meet the needs of the “consumers” back on earth. The small crew of Nostromo are tasked with bringing back this “milk” – I kid you not, the ship’s computer is indeed called “mother.”
Maternal allusions abound, not only in the cavernous womblike interior of the ship, but also by the fact that at the start of the film the crew are slowly awaking from their cryogenic slumber – they are being born into Nostromo’s womb – a womb that will ultimately destroy them: the ultimate maternal betrayal.
Unbeknownst to the crew, who believe that the ship has stopped automatically to respond to a distress call, the real aim of the journey was to pick up dangerous alien life on a distant planet and return it to earth. This plan is carried out by an android posing as the science officer Ash. It is explicit that this plan is a priority, and that crew members are “expendable.” Later, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in her seminal role) speculates that the company that owns Nostromo had its commercial interests at heart in the development of its “weapons unit.”
Capitalism, Greed, and Destruction
The earliest conversations we hear from the crew are of commercial/economic interest. The lowly engineers threaten striking for larger shares in their payment upon return to earth (another glass of milk please). The underlying capitalist idea of the film is really about greed – about the original mining operation, and bringing back the priceless cargo of the alien at any risk, for commercial gain. It is the mind of the greedy infant that wants more at any price.
Klein believed that greed was central to an infant’s originary experiences. The infant covets the mother who can provide the “good breast” with its sustaining warm milk. However, it also envies her luscious bounty and wishes to scoop it all out and have it all to itself. Threats to this sustaining milk are met with phantaises of fury, or ripping to pieces and destroying from within. For Klein, though these are experienced by young infants, the intensity of the phantasies accompany us throughout our lives and are provoked by our desire and greed. On the large scale, this can be seen in the film’s critique of capitalism.
Daddy’s Penis? Shit? Dead Babies? Really?
If Freud beggared the belief of the general public by suggesting that with the Oedipus Complex, the baby boy wishes to bed his mother and murder his father, Klein really pushed the boat out when she brought the Oedipus back from about the age of four or five to the earliest years of a baby’s life – claiming that for the infant, the threat to the breast came from daddy: symbolised by his penis. In the infant’s furious phantasy, the precious milk inside mum is threatened by the father’s penis and the fear of contamination by excrement and, wait for it, dead babies.
(It’s no wonder her ideas were rather controversial)
Tying it all together
So if you’ve stuck with me this far, you can see why Klein has a rather cult following and hasn’t really broken the mainstream. Still check out the resonances with Alien.
Alien is full of womblike images from the opening scene that I already described, to the discovery of the “eggs” in the giant womblike chamber under the crashed alien ship. The ambivalent relationship to the maternal is continued with John Hurt’s “pregnancy” by the malignant beast that bursts out of his stomach during a celebratory dinner. From this point on we are treated to space age spelunking through the internal caverns of Nostromo which are nothing but inhospitable, rather like an anti-womb.
From the Kleinian perspective this is the horrific phantasy of the interior of the mother produced by the feelings of emptiness in the infant when the milk has run dry. The commercial excess of the mining company has turned to greed, and the carcass of its maternal image is not only sucked dry, but also full of its own persecutory horrors. Lurking in the cavernous passages is the alien, with its elongated phallic head, sharp teeth, and penetrating blows.
In classical horror movie fashion the crew is separated and picked off one by one, survived only by Ripley who escapes the mother ship (set to self destruct) only to find herself trapped on the shuttle with the horrible beast. In yet another womblike image, the alien is found hibernating amongst the walls the uterine interior – it seems to be, in a way, gestating. Ripley happens upon the slumbering beast and it is here that we really see its monstrosity; if you think the “phallic head” was a psychoanalytic leap, at this point in the film, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Using mind over might, Ripley dons a space suit and quietly goes about making arrangements to expel the beast, which she does with flourish. In a spectacular ending, we have reverse birth, a sort of expulsion in which the alien is thrust into space with the help of the vacuum of space and a rather phallic harpooning to boot. In a sense, here, Ripley re-claims the womb as a “safe place” rid of the threatening phallic interference that came to rule the roost. Our concluding image is of Ripley soundly sleeping in her cryogenic pod having reinstated the natural order: womb as protector.
In Conclusion (or, “you can’t be serious”)
You may rightly be asking, “What is the point of a psychoanalytic film analysis, whether it’s Freud or Klein?” My point here certainly isn’t to “prove” the veracity of Klein’s claims, but I would like to make a case for understanding cultural productions like films using ideas about the unconscious from Psychoanalysis.
Alien is an expression of something human, and something cultural, and also something of its time (having been made at a time following the 1973 oil crisis and concurrent to the energy crisis of 1979). It is an expression of unconscious human fear: it is like a socio-cultural dream. The images are undoubtedly reminiscent of interiority and there can be no doubt that there is a working through of foundational images within the human psyche.
Klein tried to put into words what is beyond the verbal – the visceral experience that we all had before our pre-frontal cortices were fully developed. These experiences are at the base of our experience, our first formative experiences that continue to operate on us in unconscious ways. Cultural artefacts like film can help us to process the unprocessible.
Klein and Freud took a lot of shtick for trying to write about what we can hardly express and understand. It is a great error to take their words literally and then scoff at the unbelievable improbability of it all. All we can do with this material that is deeply lodged in our collective unconscious is to reach for it, and process and re-process it again and again. Maybe Klein gives us a toe-hold in which to go off in our own interpretive directions. Tweet