Debate: Aliens, Fear of Fire?

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“One tough little son of a bitch.”
~ Ash

With the Alien running loose on their ship, the crew of the Nostromo convene to talk tactics. “Most animals retreat from fire,” muses Ash. Later, in Alien 3, Ripley sighs that the creature is afraid of “fire, not much else.” Arguably, there is no indication within the films that this is true.

James Cameron noted in Starlog magazine that “we never see [flamethrowers] actually used against the creature” in the original film. Ash, always keen to throw off his crewmates and preserve the creature, may have simply been throwing them a red herring. When Dallas is in the vents, the Alien is not shy about snatching him, even though he is armed with fire.

At the end of Aliens, Ripley turns her flamethrower on the Alien Queen’s nest, who in return shows no fear, but only concern for her brood and contempt for Ripley’s daring. The burning hive does not deter any lingering Aliens from attacking Ripley, who cuts them down with her pulse rifle. When the Queen lunges for Ripley and Newt within the elevator, Ripley lets loose with a spray from her flamethrower. The Queen (again, arguably) does not recoil in fear, but screeches in anger. When the prisoners attempt to trap the Alien in the third movie, they set fire to the underground network of corridors. Their plan is to use the flames to beat the Alien into a vault. When the creature emerges it leers at Ripley and the prisoners, and is only locked away when prisoner Junior uses himself as living bait. Again, no real indication that the fire fazes the Alien.

The Alien drops Lambert.
Parker lands a blow with the flamethrower.
No effect.
The Alien strikes him once.
Killing him instantly.
~ Alien script, final/revised, June 1978.

A point of contention may be one scene Alien 3, where Ripley, having trapped the Alien in a nook, waves a flare at the creature and attempts to grab its tail.  The Alien, not willing to outright harm her (she is carrying its Queen, after all), screeches and claws at the flame. But is the Alien afraid of the fire, or angry at being closed in upon? Ripley’s aim is to bait the creature into the open, so why force it further away with fire? The Alien only moves out of its corner when Dillon takes hold of Ripley and drags her away.

The hear of the furnace does not deter the Alien. In the previous movies we are reminded that the Alien hive is a humid environment.

The hear of the furnace does not deter the Alien. In the previous movies we are reminded that the Alien hive is a humid environment.

Could fire even harm the Alien? Here is how Ash describes the physical make-up of the facehugger to Ripley: “He has an outer layer of protein polysaccharides. He has a funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarised silicon, which gives him a prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions. It’s an interesting combination of elements, making him a … tough little son of a bitch.”

The polysaccharide comment may be a nod to bacteria, which secretes protective layers of slime, usually composed of polysaccharides and protein, to help the bacteria protect itself from antibiotics and even chemical sterilisation. Such layers also serve as an aid in attaching bacteria to other cells, and also as food, or rather, energy stores. The facehugger could well be using such a protective coating, which not only serves to protect the organism, but to keep it energised (they do face a potentially long hibernation) and to help any regenerative healing properties … Either that, or the scriptwriters thought it sounded like an intelligent thing for Ash to say.

Either way, the facehugger is set up to be, as Ash says, a tough little son of a bitch. The adult Alien, by no stretch of the imagination, is even more resilient. The facehugger’s cells are also said to be made up of silicon. HG Wells, in an article written for the Saturday Review in 1894, turned his imagination to silicon-based lifeforms, and he gives a clear idea of how resistant such a being would be: “visions of silicon-aluminium organisms … wandering through an atmosphere of gaseous sulphur … by the shores of a sea of liquid iron, some thousand degrees or so above the temperature of a blast furnace.” As we seen at the climax of Alien 3, the Alien leaps from the molten steel – intact and furious. But afraid?

Pain and Fear: In Alien Resurrection, the Aliens are imprisoned and subjected to barrages of pressurised liquid nitrogen(?) by Dr. Gediman. They feign obedience and later escape, and though the punishment inflicted on them is clearly physically distressing (they shriek in pain and display anger) they seem to fake fear and obedience to trick Gediman into thinking they can be domesticated.

Of course, there are or seem to be inconsistencies in the Alien’s resilience. The original Alien is harmed by a speartip, and the monster in the third film bounces back after being crushed and submerged under molten lead. A jarring inconsistency? Harry Houdini was allegedly killed with a gut-punch, but Phineas Gage survived the trauma of an iron rod impaling his head. “The iron entered on the side of his face … passing back of the left eye, and out at the top of the head.” Almost immediately after his accident, “a teacupful of the brain” poured out when Gage vomited. He lived for another twelve years.

Of course, the point here is not that the Alien is invulnerable (it isn’t), but if it fears bodily harm. Looking at the first three movies, there seems to be no real (or at least, overpowering) evidence within the films that the Aliens are afraid of fire, other than from the characters’ unconvincing testimony.

Extract from one of Walter Hill and David Giler’s drafts. The Alien rushes through the flamethrower jets unimpeded to snatch Dallas.

The last word here goes to Ridley Scott, from an 1984 interview in Omni’s Screen Flights: “In relation to humans, the Alien does seem indestructible. It does not fear anything,” (emphasis in original.)

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Debate: Aliens, Fear of Fire?

  1. Rob

    I thought the Alien 3 contention of fire fear was based on the queens reaction to the power loader’s welding torch? She certainly seems a little put out by it!

    • You’re right, Rob. I’ll clarify my point though: I don’t doubt at all that the Aliens can be injured, and that the Queen wants to avoid injury. I don’t quite see the basis for fear, though – the Queen is not repelled by the flame. Had Ripley stabbed the Queen, and the beast reacted negatively to her waving around a blade, I wouldn’t necessarily think that the Alien is afraid of sharp objects – she just wants to avoid injury: the requisite for winning any battle!
      Of course, the entire point is debatable, and is the whole point of these ‘debate’ articles. I want everyone to chip in with opposing ideas, thoughts, arguments, etc 😀

    • Xenomorphine

      I’ve often said that it could just as easily be sensory over-load. If they’re particularly sensitive to things like thermal signatures, it could be the equivalent of blinding them.

      The same logic could also explain why Newt’s tracker was taken off her – and potentially mean the Marines’ use of motion-trackers could have actually served to wake them out of hibernation. After all, one knew Dallas’ precise location – in 3D – in the labyrinthine vents and the second film had them know the Marines’ location from way, way, way over in the atmosphere processor. Whatever they use, it’s capable of precise locating of prey at extreme range.

  2. I don’t think so – Its an opinion offered by Ash in the first film “Well most animals are afraid of fire” which leads to Dallas taking the flame thrower into the air ducts (with disastrous results). After that when Ripley uses the flame thrower when trying to escape from the Nostromo we never get to see the Alien react to that.

    In fact, the burning engines of the Narcissus seems to do very little to the creature either.

    In Aliens the same is true, when Ripley goes looking for Newt, she fires off the thrower several times but we never see anything react. She fires at the queen through the lift grill and also fires the thrower at the eggs but in both cases the Queen doesn’t seem afraid, simply reacting in anger to everything.

    By the time you get to Alien 3 they don’t have throwers but the Alien gets a burning flair thrown at it and doesn’t seem to be all that fussed at all. Fire really doesn’t seem to bother the creature at all. Which, if Ash is right about it constantly shedding its skin and replacing it with polarised silicon means its armoured…. That said *with my science geek hat on* Polarised Silicon or “Organosilicon” as its referred to, is rather flammable.

  3. James

    Probably not 100% relevant, but the flamethrower is likely the best defense against the alien in Isolation. Though, it obviously doesn’t react to the sight of the flamethrower, but instead being blasted by it. Just a thought.

  4. Let me offer exhibit A in the argument that fire DOES affect them:

    The chestburster in ALIENS.

    When Apone and Co. fry the remains of the woman and the chestburster, it screams and flails a bit before seemingly dying. Now, we don’t actually see the creature on fire — but that may have been a practical matter of not wanting to set the puppet aflame (especially if there was an FX guy’s hand in it). Even if we assume the creature’s skin couldn’t burn, something killed it. Possibly the heat?

    I would argue that we’ve never seen a creature (other than that chestburster) take a full-on hit from a flamethrower, so we don’t know how impervious they might be to fire. Neither Dallas nor Ripley got off a clean shot, and for all the firing in ALIENS we don’t really see the results; it’s possible that Drake was smoking those bugs left and right just off camera. But you asked “are they AFRAID” and to that I would say NO. I think the creatures will make decisions based on how many of them are around and act accordingly. 100 of them will rush the sentry guns, hoping that at least one would get through. 1 creature would have hid and bid it’s time, like in parts 1 and 3; it would know it didn’t have strength in numbers so it would avoid bodily harm. I think what we see of their behavior in the films bears this out: multiple creatures will attack in waves, heedless of harm from fire and gunfire, to defend a nest and subdue any attackers. A single creature will use stealth and guerrilla attacks against isolated targets, but not necessarily engage when they can be killed out in the open.

    Except for the Queen. That bitch was PISSED.

    • Xenomorphine

      Chestbursters are clearly a lot more delicate and fleshy, in the same way as the flammable eggs. I don’t think a chestburster would survive in the incredibly hot lead, for example, whereas the adult clearly did.

      • I agree. Perhaps as the chestburster sheds its skin it matures and hardens. The first thing the chestburster did in Alien was escape and hide, probably a defensive strategy due to its vulnerability in that state.

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