Giger’s Alien: as close as a monster can get to perfection

The sublime monster. EPA/Rubra

The world has plenty of monsters – more than enough, really. Several thousand years of art and literature and nightmares have provided us all the terrifying beings we could ever need. Maybe this is why so many modern works of horror and sci-fi feel passé before they have even been released to theatres, screens, galleries, or bookshops.

But the monstrous visions of HR Giger stand (loom, creep, tear) apart. They embody in their bizarre forms and behaviours so many of the elements by which the monstrous is recognised, but they also evoke in us the emotions that tell us that we are in the presence of a monster.

Giger has recently become a corpse, like so many of the figures in his art. Out of respect for him and his unflinching work, I will not turn away from such a direct statement. Instead, I’ll use this occasion to think about the first Giger monster I encountered, the one most of us know, the eponymous Alien that haunts Ridley Scott’s franchise from its beginning in 1979. This being, this thing, the “Xenomorph” (from the Greek for “alien-shape”), is as close as a monster can get to being perfect.

Yes, it looks something like a giant insect, which is creepy. Yes, it hatches from a leathery, reptilian egg, and then sheds its skin as it grows, like a snake. It isn’t, though, these supposedly “universal archetype” references that are at the core of the Xenomorph’s monstrosity. A snake may be unsettling, but it is no monster. Giger’s alien is, because it refuses to fit any identifiable categories, because its body incorporates impossible contradictions that raises it to the sublime.

HR Giger’s design. EPA/Rubra

Look at the thing. Is it nature or technology? Like so many of Giger’s fantasies, it seems biotechnological, a fluid merger of bones and sinew, tubes and hoses, bloody flesh and chromed teeth, as does its weird ship.

It walks on four legs, or, if it wants, on two. It seems insectine, with its exoskeleton, but its vertebrae are clearly exposed. It won’t even follow the most basic rules about what should be inside and what should be outside. Those tail bones should be covered by skin, by hide, by something, but instead, they jut out like something from the Natural History Museum, violently animated, and thereby make the thing seem at once a living creature and its own decomposed remains.

And finally, the Xenomorph threatens our own bodily integrity: in perhaps the most disturbing scene in any of the films, a larval Xenomorph bursts from the chest of a crewmember. We are to them food, incubators, and adversaries. This is all more than scary; it is deeply unsettling, destabilising. The Xenomorph does not make sense, no matter how long we look at it, how many times we rewind the DVD, how closely we study Giger’s concept art.

Giger at home in Zurich, 1995. EPA/Martin Ruetschi

And of course, on top of all of this fear and violence and death, Giger adds in sex. There should be nothing, nothing erotic about these grotesque things, and yet they integrate horrid parodies of sex, from the face-hugger’s oral-rape impregnation method to the toothed penis it engenders, to the adult Xenomorph’s glistening, oozing, phallic bodies, with their thrusting second mouths lurking within their razor-toothed maws. All of this is not merely gross, but profoundly grotesque.

We’re never quite sure if the Xenomorphs are primitive, atavistic creatures, or members of an advanced, space-traveling civilization, animals or non-human people. At times, they seem to be hunting by instinct, but at others they fight with strategy. They might be a hive of insects, until they cut the power. In James Cameron’s addition to the series in 1986, Hudson asks a question that remains unanswerable: “Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bughunt?” We don’t know, since it is never really clear how sentient the aliens are.

Where, please tell me, where are its eyes? As the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick says of the malevolent leviathan: “Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will … [H]ow comprehend his face, when face he has none?”

If it cannot see, how does it hunt us? Without a look into its eyes, we can’t begin to imagine how it thinks, what it feels, what it wants, if anything, beyond food and reproduction. So how estranged, how monstrous, how alien, Giger’s creature must always remain.

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