Science fiction is a genre concerned with the imaginative aspects of futuristic worlds and settings. It is within these modern dimensions that an evident captivation with space, time, technology, and parallel universes is expressed.
We see these themes present in multiple sci-fi films, including Alien (1979) by Ridley Scott and Planet of the Apes (1968) by Franklin J. Schaffner. These two films in particular display an interest in an unknown spectacle with a gaze that often appears dominant to these unknowns. It can thus be labelled as the colonial gaze, which “distributes knowledge and power to the subject who looks, while denying or minimizing access to power for its object, the one looked at.” The terms of the colonial gaze, within the boundaries of science fiction, ensure that specific subjects – generally humans – have more power and superiority over others, non-humans. There is a deep-seated fear of the unknown; thus, the gaze is enthralled by the spectacle as well as alarmed, and it therefore seeks to reduce the supremacy of the other. The gaze within science fiction films, specifically Alien and Planet of the Apes, is often concerned with the colonial gaze when viewing an unfamiliar spectacle.
In Alien, numerous gazes are presented, almost as if the entire film is made up of a series of gazes. The events of the film are observed through the camera, the humans, and the non-humans – the latter being technology rather than aliens. The camera’s gaze is curious; it explores the dimensions of the world and can go further and faster than the human gaze. The camera is at times objective in that it seeks to traverse the settings of the film purely for the visual spectacle. At other times, it is affected by the events within the film, becoming fearful of the alien itself and growing unstable the way the characters are around it.
The human characters’ gaze, on the other hand, is entirely affected by the events of the film as a deliberate participant in it. It is curious like the camera, but it is more interested in understanding and studying the spectacle, rather than just viewing it. When the astronauts of the Nostromo come upon the peculiar alien from the planetoid, they scrutinize and probe it, attempting to gather information on this unfamiliar being. In doing so, the humans employ the colonial gaze by physically and mentally looking down on the alien form. Consequently, the alien becomes the object of knowledge for the humans. Even when the humans become fearful of the extraterrestrial creature, they still hold intellectual dominance, and appear superior because of this.
The gaze of technology is seen through computer screens that observe surroundings topographically, logistically, and through video footage. The technological gaze is thus entirely objective and analytical. The humans greatly rely on the computer system known as “MOTHER” to examine the unknown spectacles, determine whether certain environments are safe, and to problem-solve when one alien attaches itself to a crew member’s face. When the machinery is unable to compute, however, the characters are helpless. Yet, the humans still hold the colonial gaze, as they have control over this technology, and as a result, hold a certain amount of intelligence over the machines they created.
Throughout the film, nothing is presented through the alien’s gaze, perhaps due to the fact that one cannot understand what it is like to see from the perspective of these strange beings. The technology in the film is at least fabricated by human hands, and hence, unlike the otherworldly creatures, there is an understanding of its perspective. By eliminating the gaze of the alien, it appears completely inferior in that it is always the object of the human gaze, giving the humans some power over the alien. In Alien, the prevalent, colonial gaze of the humans perhaps eradicates the fear of unknown beings. It is a consolation to the audience that the humans prevail in intelligence and capability, thus remaining superior to all others.
In Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, the gazes are conducted similarly, as the primary perspectives presented are of the camera, the humans, and the non-humans, which in this case are the apes. As in Alien, the camera is capable of endless movement. It offers “ a privileged tour… which exists solely to present this space both bewildering and familiar.” The camera apparatus travels through all things – sky, water, interior, exterior.
The gaze of the humans, on the other hand, can once again be labelled as the colonial gaze because it is given the most dominance throughout the film. Upon arriving on unfamiliar territory, Taylor immediately states, “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months, we’ll be running this planet.” The astronauts arrive with an immediate colonial mindset, an inherent superiority and knowledge that appears to be beyond that of the inhabitants. The human gaze constantly stares down at the apes, who in turn, look up to the humans. Even while Taylor is under the control of the apes, he still has greater knowledge of the planet he has come upon. Much like human and alien in Alien, there is an instantaneous designation of the humans as superior, even if they are fearful of the extraterrestrial other.
As the film progresses, however, there is a realization that the apes have an intricate social system similar to that of the humans. There is a hierarchy, an attentiveness to religion and knowledge, and over time, the apes take up the position of the dominant scientific observer that physically looks down on the humans. By the end of the film, Taylor even learns that humans were once wiped out by the greater ape race that he has come to know. The film “estranges the colonial gaze by reversing the direction of the gaze’s anachronism… setting the hierarchical difference between observer and observed.” The colonial gaze of the humans eventually becomes superficial. What begins as an assurance of supremacy is reduced to the understanding that this foreign species is, in fact, superior to the humans.
Both Alien and Planet of the Apes are concerned with a dominant gaze because it places humanity in relation to all others. Science fiction expresses the same themes of colonialism experienced on earth itself, but pushes it further, posing the possibility of an entirely unknown race more powerful than humans. In both films, these thoughts are approached differently. Where Alien answers this by suggesting that the colonial gaze will always belong to humans, Planet of the Apes states that humans can very well become the object of the gaze. It seems, however, that in the end, the spectator watching the film holds the primary colonial gaze, as it constantly knows something that the beings within the film do not. The spectator’s gaze is more powerful than any other’s, with everything in the film becoming an object of it.