Space Sorrow & Sex

Boxed in, no day, eternal night …

During the Industrial Revolution skilled labourers such as agricultural workers or skilled artisans found themselves being made increasingly obsolete by the introduction of factory machines. In turn, they became mere factory hands, turning dials and cranking the levers of machinery that was prone to chew up their limbs. This once-valued strata of people became a mere commodity, easily trained and as a result easily replaced and utterly expendable. In Alien’s future once-vaunted engineers, trained navigators, and astronauts find themselves marginalised by a new technological revolution – the rise of the automated machine, spaceship-driving computers, FTL travel, the android, and the commoditisation and trivialisation of space. 

“I guess if you spend a lot of time together in space the camaraderie will  gradually disappear,” said Ridley Scott on the topic of the Nostromo crew, “and each person will become isolated with their own thoughts and their memories of where they’ve been and where they’re going to. And therefore, all of the characters are designed as not really being comrades. There’s a kind of cold relationship amongst all of them.”

“I think the crew members of the Nostromo seem spirited only because of their argumentative nature,” Scott said in 1984, “which is due to the fact that they probably can no longer stand the sight of each other. It wouldn’t matter how it was all worked out in the pre-voyage stage, where a computer probably determined the compatability of the unit; like all crews in confined spaces, they’d get on one another’s nerves and would be cutting each other’s throats in six months’ time. I tried to glean as much as I could from present-day astronauts who go through preparing for prolonged periods in space. I then factored in ten years in space and tried to envision how a character would react to going off for that kind of period. Obviously it would raise all sorts of psychological problems above and beyond claustrophobia and melancholia.”

“Well, one of the things that I want to straighten out, because I don’t know if Ridley ever did. I liked Sigourney Weaver from the moment I met her. Ridley told me, ‘No, no, don’t start cosying up with Sigourney.’ He wanted me to annoy the crap out of her, which I did. He told me to get on Sigourney’s nerves; stop speaking to her on the lunch breaks, dressing rooms, etc. All for the end of the movie at that moment when she blows up at Parker and takes over leadership. I did exactly as Ridley told me. To this day, I don’t know if he ever told her. I will never let a director do that to me again! I asked him when I saw him in Canada at their film festival and the release of the Director’s Cut and I don’t think he had.”
Yaphet Kotto, KultFilmFreak.com

Upon release, Alien was criticised for lacking character development. However the characters are very well defined, and their relationships and attitudes shift and change both overtly and in the undercurrent. “This film was so brief in terms of each piece of characterisation,” Ridley told Cinefantastique Online in 2008. “That’s the sign of a really good script: there’s no fat; it’s all lean. The actors are able to squeeze in as much as they have to for this kind of film … Every one of them had his own bit of individual, built-in subtext and implicit story that he didn’t have to voice. It was all just part of the character.” Ridley also maintained that: “I loved the minimal dialogue, the minimalist characterisation – what do you need to know? Once this thing is loose, I don’t want to have scenes talking about mum and dad back on the planet.”

Throughout the course of the movie the crew bicker and out-right fight. They trade barbs and blows. After the snatching of Dallas both Ripley and Parker jostle for command. The crew loosen at the seams when Ripley refuses to allow Dallas, Kane and Lambert back on board after exploring the derelict silo, and they unite after Kane’s apparent recovery and subsequent funeral. Parker, the irreverent, tough and apparently selfish member of the group, dies tackling the Alien to save Lambert. In a deleted segment, Brett’s last word is Parker’s name. In other deleted scenes, Lambert slaps Ripley for attempting to quarantine them outside the ship. Lambert and Ripley discuss any sexual relations with Ash. Dallas and Ripley sleep together. When Ripley incinerates Dallas within the Alien’s nest, the two actors played the scene as departing lovers.

Sex between the Nostromo crew members was also to be a prevalent element in Alien, with some frank discussion between Ripley and Lambert and even a sex scene between Ripley and Captain Dallas. All of these elements were either filmed then cut, or never made it to principal photography. In the case of Ripley and Dallas, this scene did make it in front of the cameras – but only for Sigourney Weaver’s screen test. The role of Captain Dallas was filled by actor Ray Hasset (who would go on to play a minor Rebel Officer in The Empire Strikes Back.)

“It’s a pity that the one scene we did have in the screenplay that had sex in it had to be cut. It showed that you can’t afford to have love affairs in deep space. If you do, you immediately have two groups aboard. The pair who are in love and the rest of the crew. That’s the beginning of problems unless you are a space pioneer and settle down with your family.”
~ Ridley Scott, Fantastic Films, 1979.

The Ripley/Dallas sex scene can be traced back to Dan O’Bannon’s script, where it takes the form of a discussion between Captain Standard (later Dallas) and Melkonis (a character who resembles Lambert more than any other early O’Bannon character). As such, there is no sex involved, nor any prelude to sex, as in Walter Hill and David Giler’s drafts. Instead, the scene riffs on O’Bannon’s earlier movie, Dark Star, which features an ennui-ish discussion between crew members Talby and Doolittle inside one of the ship’s observation domes.

Ron Cobb’s design for the observation dome in Alien.

Talby inside the observation dome in Dark Star, featuring a ship also designed by Ron Cobb.

“It is dark and eerie here,” reads O’Bannon’s Alien, “under the stars of interstellar space. A few glowing panels provide the only illumination.” The discussions in Dark Star and O’Bannon’s Alien follow the same lines, with both Melkonis and Talby feeling quietly despondent. “We are completely, utterly alone,” says Melkonis. “Can anybody really visualise such a scale of distances? Halfway across Creation…”

Fantastic Films: “One of the lovely touches in Dark Star was the guy sitting in the dome on top of the ship, just staring off into space. He’s gone stir-crazy.”
Ridley Scott: “They say actually if you have a porthole you spend most of your time staring at space. Maybe it is a sort of space sickness. That you could become so entranced with the idea of what you’re in.”
FF: “I see Ash’s bubble as a direct outgrowth of Dark Star.”
RS: “There was a bubble in O’Bannon’s original screenplay. That’s where the love scene took place … I guess the Ash ‘blister’ was all that was left of that [aesthetic] intention.”

The most direct correlation between Dark Star’s observation scene and Alien’s planned observation scene, aside from the design of the dome and the elegiac nature of the discussion, is the topic of time and space. “Time and space have no meaning out here,” mutters Melkonis. “We’re living in an Einsteinian equation.” In Dark Star, Doolittle says, “Figure it this way: twenty years in space and we’ve only aged three, so there’ll be plenty of time to stare around…” Both of O’Bannon’s scripts stress not only the monotony of space living, but the slow crawl of time and the sobering and maddening effects of living without a circadian rhythm.

When Walter Hill and David Giler rewrote O’Bannon’s script, they seized upon his “the crew are interchangeable for men and women” tag and cemented their genders, installing two females amongst the crew. This allowed for the rise of sex politics, and O’Bannon’s observation dome scene became a prelude to an emotionless sexual encounter that served to mechanise the crew, who embrace one another not for love and comfort, but mere “relief”.

Here is Dan O’Bannon’s scene:

STANDARD: I thought I’d find you here.

MELKONIS: I was thinking of a line from an old poem: ‘Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.’ All that space out there, and we’re trapped in this ship.

STANDARD: That’s the one about the albatross, right?

MELKONIS: We can’t even radio for help; the carrier wave wouldn’t reach its destination till long after we’d died and turned to dust. We are utterly, absolutely alone. Can anybody really visualize such a scale of distances? Halfway across Creation…

STANDARD: We came out here, we’ll go back. A long time by the clock, but a short time to us.

MELKONIS: Time and space have no meaning out here. We’re living in an Einsteinian equation.

STANDARD: I can see you’re putting your spare time to good use. Let me tell you something: you keep staring at hyperspace for long enough, they’ll be peeling you off a wall. I’ve seen it happen.

MELKONIS: (smiles at him) We’re the new pioneers, Chaz. We even have our own special diseases.

STANDARD: Come on — let’s go above and see how they’re coming with the gear.

And Walter Hill and David Giler’s. Unlike O’Bannon’s version, this scene takes place within the Narcissus shuttle, rather than under the dome:

RIPLEY: I thought I’d find you here.

Dallas continues to stare.

DALLAS: Are the nets finished?

Pause.

RIPLEY: We’ve got an hour … Look I need some relief.

DALLAS: Why did you wait until now?

Ripley leans forward.

RIPLEY: Let me tell you something. You keep staring out there long enough, they’ll be peeling you off the wall.

Ripley begins taking off her boots.

DALLAS: We’re the new pioneers, Ripley. We even get to have our own special disease.

RIPLEY: I’m tired of talking.

She rises and removes her upper garments.

DALLAS: You waited too long.

RIPLEY: Give it a try anyway.

Though the scene never made it into the final movie, a trace of O’Bannon’s ennui-riddled space traveller theme made it into the scenes of Dallas sitting alone in the Narcissus, listening to music and possibly contemplating his situation. “The whole mood and feel of the thing has survived essentially unmodified,” said O’Bannon of the change from his script to Giler and Hill’s revisions. “I mean I remember what I was thinking and feeling when I was writing the thing, and I can see what’s on the screen.”

Dallas and Ripley’s sex scene was cut from the movie, according to Scott, because it “just seemed out of place.” He told Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies in 1984: “[The chestburster] scene proved much more powerful, and successful, than I expected, and for the sex to follow would have seemed totally gratuitous. The ‘relief’ scene was to be our token attempt to answer the question of sex in space. If you think about it logically, the only way that mixed [gender] crews could work out on long missions is by neutralising everyone and forbidding sex entirely, or by having free ‘open sex’ for whoever wants it. Close relationships in tightly closed ships with small crews would certainly have to be discouraged. The problems that would result from some men and women pairing off and leaving other crew-members on their own is obvious.”

Ridley did, briefly, consider the idea of same-sex relations between the Nostromo crew members, saying in 2003: “There was a line through the movie which had a … more by innuendo than anything else, that there was something going on between Dallas and she [Ripley]. And then later, I thought what was really curious was -could be interesting- there was something going on between her and Veronica, which I thought was far more probable. I mean a hundred years from now, you know, that’s certainly not gonna be remarkable in space. In fact, in space relationships are probably gonna be discouraged, and if you have the need for sex, it can be with either gender. Really doesn’t matter, right?”

“Should we have an inference of a lesbian or gay relationship or not? It would have been kind of interesting. Today I’d probably do that just to thicken up the layers in the characters.”
~ Ridley Scott, Alien commentary.

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