Depicting Otherness: Ridley Scott’s Alien and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as responsive and allegorical films of their time


Keen to learn more and expand into the universe, humankind has always been fascinated with unknown creatures. During the last century, aliens in particular have become a pop-cultural phenomenon. However, the depiction of extraterrestrial life, or the otherness, in films as well as other media has changed over the years. One aim of this paper is to show in how far the depiction of otherness has changed, exemplified by Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). By comparing both films, I attempt to provide evidence for the thesis that possible differences in the depiction occur due to socio-political contexts and how this has changed throughout the last decades. Hence, the plot of both films will be analyzed regarding the “alien” itself as well as the character’s reaction towards its appearance. Moreover, the cinematic presentation and visual appearance will be discussed in order to find further evidence regarding metaphorical meanings. Prior to the analysis, the genre “Science Fiction” will be defined in order to determine conventions that have influenced both films.

The idea of film reacting to its context entails further questions. Scholars have argued that the medium offers novel experiences, proposes alternate perspectives, enables viewers to explore differing worlds, all due to a shared cultural awareness (see Cavell 9). By virtue of media specific features like visual storytelling, which is “the ability of optics to alter our perception of the physical world” (Brown 6), film can explore almost exclusive methods “to add layers of meaning and subtext to the “content” of the film” (Brown 2). André Bazin called these techniques film language, which he defined as the range of methods with which film expresses and articulates meaning: “Through the contents of the image and the resources of montage, the cinema has at its disposal a whole arsenal of means whereby to impose its interpretation of an event on the spectator” (Bazin 26). He emphasizes the potential of film to use the plot as well as audiovisual means to convey meaning. Therefore, this paper aims to show that film creates two distinguished, but interacting layers of meaning with which the medium reacts to its audience and contemporary contexts while at the same time offering social commentary, evoking emotions, conveying (subverting) messages and showing new perspectives. Alien and Interstellar demonstrate this concept as film being a medium of communication rather than consumption. As they were released in different decades, their plot and cinematographic elements probably differ, which will be either confirmed or denied henceforward. Nonetheless, I argue that both films respond to contemporary issues, which can be seen in their plot, structure, images and sound. To achieve this, they “contextualize hybrid figures […] as indicators of broader cultural anxieties and concerns” (Westermann 141). Accordingly, this paper focuses on the depiction of otherness in order to illustrate that the depiction and reception of such is a representation of contemporary situations and a critique, emphasizing the importance of the medium.

What May or May Not Happen: Defining Science Fiction

There are several attempts to pinpoint science fiction: While some claim that there are no specific images used, others state that the genre can only be defined by its semantic and recurring elements. One possible approach to science fiction is its reliance on special effects. Science fiction films want to show things that do not exist, hence special effects are required in order to depict aliens and other fantastic creatures (see Sobchack 91).

The visual connection between all SF films lies in the consistent and repetitious use not of specific images, but of types of images which function in the same way from film to film to create an imaginatively realized world which is always removed from the world we know or know of. The visual surface of all SF film presents us with a confrontation between and mixture of those images to which we respond as “alien” and those we know to be familiar. (Sobchack 87)

To “pictorialize the unfamiliar, the nonexistent, the strange and the totally alien” (Sobchack 88) is the genre’s main goal. It offers insights in fictional worlds and thus portrays alternate possibilities and characters. While there are also multiple sub-genres and the boundaries between genres are blurred regularly, certain characteristics can be identified.

Science fiction film might be defined partly in terms of a semantic feature such as a setting in the future or in another galaxy or dimension. Other semantic elements include objects such as spaceships and the products of new technologies. Particular types of characters are also found, including scientists, cyborgs and aliens. (King & Krzywinska 9)

King and Krzywinska later elaborate on the themes of science fiction and the wide range of elements typically found in science fiction literature, film and other media, which problematizes the distinction between genres, even the distinction between sub-genres within science fiction. As this paper highlights the otherness in science fiction films, it is necessary to pay attention to conventions regarding aliens of all kinds. The outer appearance and cinematographic depiction play an important role when it comes to alienation or familiarization of foreign species, but also alien intentions can serve as the plot. Characters like robots or aliens are not uncommon, neither is the question whether they are good or bad. “The robot – or later the computer, android, cyborg or artificial intelligence – is rendered good if it serves human goals. […] This scheme also applies to aliens” (King & Krzywinska 30). There are multiple examples supporting this claim. In Alien (1979), the xenomorph (which is the antagonist’s name within the franchise) wants to populate the ship and reproduce in order to survive, which is not tolerated by the crew members. In Terminator (1984), machines attempt to kill Sarah Connor in order to be victorious in a battle in the future and exterminate humankind. Life (2017) depicts an alien species, which kills humans in order to grow and eventually escape the ship, arriving on earth. All those films feature alien antagonists that act contrary to the human protagonists – an element often found in science fiction films. Interstellar (2014), on the other side, makes the audience believe that there is a favourable species that ensures humankind’s survival. While this otherness is thought to be good, it is later revealed that there is no alien species, but humankind has found advanced methods of communication and space travel. A following chapter will provide summaries for both, Alien and Interstellar.

According to these definitions, Alien and Interstellar can be regarded as science fiction films. They show alien lifeforms (or allude to the presence of such) and are set in space. They show voyages to unknown planets and use special effects to make the unfamiliar seem real. To conclude, both films employ genre conventions, but as following chapters will show, they also take novel approaches. Regarding specific themes and images that are constructed and discussed, the context in which they were produced offers further evidence and displays differences.

America in 1979 and 2014

Besides specific settings, characters and the use of special effects, the science fiction genre employs themes that correlate with the depiction of the unfamiliar. In the 20th century, these themes were linked to context and anxieties like

fear of communism, totalitarian regimes, and fear of nuclear war. These elements fed into American political culture finding a steady reflection in contemporary film production. Such fears were represented through the cultural metaphor of the ‘aliens’, an all too familiar vehicle through which ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ are deployed (Mair 34).

Mair is referring to American cinema of the 1960s, a time when the Cold War escalated and the Vietnam War was ongoing. Although this decade is not suitable for this paper, his argument is valid for science fiction films produced later. Despite changes of the medium and context in mid-twentieth century, “[science fiction film] remained socioculturally embedded, offering reflections both on and of its contexts” (Wright 90). Wright argues that the political and racial tensions of the 1960s influenced science fiction film and resulted in less critical films that focused on “special effects-driven cinema of attractions” (Wright 92), supporting Sobchak’s point that science fiction films often rely on special effects. He explains that, in the 1970s, themes shifted from nuclear threat and anti-Communist attitudes to more optimistic tropes. Yet there was criticism of capitalism, which William Burling approves: “Critique of capitalist status quo in Left-sf found new impetus in the wake of the Vietnam War and the increasing effects of global capitalism in the late 1960s and into the 1970s” (Burling 242). The idea for the plot of Alien was developed years before the production of the actual film began, hence many elements were influenced by politics and cultural issues of the 1970s. The character of Ash, an android in disguise, who takes orders from a mysterious corporation that controls the ship, is an example for this criticism that was directed against the power of enterprises. Besides political and economical issues, science fiction in the 1970s depicted superficially progressive characters that nevertheless reassured conservative ideas (see Wright 93).

Women on screen were rarely seen occupying a powerful position, although the field of Women’s Studies and the acknowledgement of female authors and scientists gained popularity (see Donawerth 218). Feminism, however, is not the only issue being addressed in science fiction films in the 1970s.

Although it might seem that a genre concerned with otherness and alienation should frequently be drawn to explore themes of racism, for most of its history sf has considered itself a “colorblind” genre, either blithely portraying a future free from racial struggle […] or else projecting racial anxieties onto the body of the alien without seeming to notice that the humanity united against this external threat is suspiciously monochrome (Lavender 185).

Lavender points out that science fiction films claim to disregard racism, but fail to portray black protagonists or employ questionable colour-coding. Alien, for instance, portrays a black engineer that works on the Nostromo, but who eventually dies, like the majority of the crew does. Their enemy is black and associated with dark colours to distinguish it from humans, whose environment is white, clean and bright, making unfortunate references to ethnic rivalries.

Interstellar is a more recent science fiction film. Nonetheless, the cultural context and the political climate at that time might have influenced its plot. Since the early 2000s scientific progress has been foregrounded. New discoveries are made on a daily basis and technologies have granted more possibilities than ever. Yet, scientific progress also proposes questions of moral and ethics and it is debated how to deal with all the new inventions. After all, Marie Curie probably never thought of nuclear fission or even atomic bombs when she discovered radioactivity in 1898. So, possible implications and consequences are stressed in order to prevent abuse of destructive forces like nuclear bombs. Interstellar endorses scientific approaches and presents them as the only salvation for humankind as life on earth becomes increasingly dangerous. In the film, which is set in the second half of the 21st century, the biosphere has been gravely damaged so that oxygen is rare and life on earth threatened. Although environmental protection becomes more and more important nowadays, nuclear energy and coal mining are still widespread, plastic is used even in food and cosmetics, polluting oceans and deforestation of rainforests is still in process despite numerous findings declaring the dangers of such activities. The film thus alludes to the damages done to the environment that can cause such lack of oxygen in the future.

In 2014, when Interstellar was released,  missions in Afghanistan ended, the Ukraine Crisis started and the Islamic State gained power in Iraq and Syria, resulting in the refugee crisis, which in turn triggered discussions about overpopulation. Stephen Hawking predicted an unpleasant ending for humankind that same year. According to the British physician,  artificial intelligences “could spell the end for the human race” (Cellan-Jones 2014). He said that “humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded” (Cellan-Jones 2014). Subsequently, the early 2000s focused on scientific progress in favour of making every individual’s life better. Scientists from around the world argued for an advanced approach on exploration of space, putting more effort and money into research and encouraging young boys and girls alike to become interested in natural science.

To conclude, both times were and are occupied with discrimination of minorities and equal depiction of gender and ethnicities. Media in the early 2000s, however, also deal with the idea of regarding humankind as a species that needs to attend to science and progress. The following chapters illustrate how Alien and Interstellar reflect these viewpoints.

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