One of the best characteristics of Alien is its license in long establishing shots and the right to be boring. I think the best science fiction has an element of boredom in it, which implies an element of anxiety. I had this revelation while watching the opening of the movie and basking in how slow moving it was.
If you’ve never had anxiety or an anxiety attack, it’s a fundamental fear of the future and unease with the past: the sufferer dwells on uncertainties in his own life and things he fears will come and this becomes anxiety. Anxiety is the worst emotion because it almost doesn’t exist. Unlike fear, which exists because our body wants to motivate us out of the way of the oncoming car (for example), anxiety exists only because we think it exists. It isn’t actually the fear of being unable to pay your rent or the uncertainty of what will happen when you leave the house, but the fear of having those fears because the truth is that fearing the possibility of a situation and facing the actual situation imbues the body with two totally different sense experiences. You may experience anxiety at being unable to pay student loans next month, but the reality of being unable to pay them is worry and hopelessness, and you may experience anxiety that the alien lurks around the corner, but the reality of meeting that alien is fear, adrenaline and, ultimately, death.
Anxiety is a slow bake culminating in being anxious about anxiety. This is like a novel of meta-fiction being about a novel of meta-fiction: where do we find the reality of fiction in that knot? An anxiety disorder’s conclusion is the fear of being afraid of having a fear. You might start having a specific fear of doctors or dentists or traffic, but untended, and you’re afraid of being afraid of things that aren’t actually happening. It becomes reflexive and recursive: you get stuck in places where you monitor every cell of your body (seemingly) paying attention to the slightest movement of nuclei and protozoa for sign of the inevitable disease, heart attack, or unknown illness that will be your undoing. You become hyper attuned to the slightest fluctuation of the always-quivering surface of your thought life anticipating the tiniest shiver, hint of an indication, that anxiety is coming. Then the perception (correct or otherwise) that you might have sensed impending existential or physical doom rockets you into the depth of anxiety. Even now I tell myself that my heart only beats because it remembers the sensation of neck-deep anxiety; I currently don’t experience it. In short: anxiety creates a situation where you are perhaps the least trustworthy experiencer of your experiences second only, perhaps, to every single person you know. And any reassurance from the outside that it’s not so bad or it’s in your mind only serves to highlight the terrifying fact that you and you alone, as the sufferer of anxiety, know: there is something terribly wrong, but only you’re aware of its happening.
And that’s what it’s like watching Alien. Alien lets you know that at any precious second, shit can turn sour. It does this by giving you a chance to think about what’s happening, think about yourself, think about yourself in relation to what’s happening. Things never seem to move quick enough or have an accurate explanation – it took forever to get to that alien ship, and what’s that thing with the hole in its chest? The whole time you’re wrapped in your own anxiety-ridden paranoia, you desperately search for some backbone, some unmoving standard to which you can hang your experience, no matter how inexplicable or unsettling (like a facehugger to the face. Facehugger, interestingly enough, being a word in Google Doc’s dictionary), no matter how much those around you insist they know what they’re doing and everything will turn out alright.
Like anxiety and the fear of your own thoughts, like Ripley you suspect the motivations of others, and sometimes you’re proven right (as is the case with Ash, and as is the case with Mother and the corporation). While in the movie, her friends and coworkers die one at a time. In real life anxiety might be experienced as the proclivity of friends, people you thought you were close to, slowly leaving you to yourself exasperated with your inability to fix the situation. The further you go into anxiety, the lonelier you are until finally there’s only you (and maybe the cat if you’re lucky). At this point, it can’t possibly get worse. You have to get better, but that’s the moment when the smallest unmonitored square fleck of unnoticed inclination in that vast ocean of thought you’ve been carefully monitoring becomes fitfully active forcing you to again confront this anxiety. Alone on a ship with a cat and your greatest meta-fear, you finally face it down, ejecting it into space. But like the movie, you don’t sincerely believe it’s forever behind you. Like in the movie, sleep can save you, at least temporarily, but it’s not a final measure. Those that experience anxiety often run to sleep for even temporary relief, even if that sleep is to some extent artificially generated by way of substance or medication. But that unknowable terror still floats in the black of the mind you try to not examine too closely lest it be an invitation back into the fore.
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