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Review of On Film
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Stephen Mulhall, On Film (Routledge, 2002)

Reviewed by Steven Jay Schneider

A new and noteworthy addition to Routledge’s high-profile “Thinking in Action” series (other volumes include Jacques Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Slavoj Zizek’s On Belief, J. Hillis Miller’s On Literature, and John Cottingham’s On the Meaning of Life), Stephen Mulhall’s On Film presents an always engaging, often provocative, and occasionally brilliant philosophical investigation of the “Alien” quartet of science-fiction/action/horror films initiated in 1979 with Ridley Scott’s eponymous classic. The strategic decision to reflect on and in various ways illuminate the cinematic medium through the lens of particular films and their makers is both welcome and effective, the familiar philosophical tendency towards abstraction and (over)generalization countered with reference to such concrete elements as dialogue, character development, narrative, and star persona. Unfortunately, Mulhall seldom goes the final step of defending his claims by pointing to more film-specific features like cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scène. When he does so, for example in his discussion of Scott’s 1982 Alien follow-up Blade Runner (33-52), the book achieves the rare distinction of having something interesting and important to say to philosophers, fans, and cinema studies scholars simultaneously.[1]

In a succinct and stimulating Introduction (1-11), Mulhall makes abundantly clear the rationale for selecting as his primary focus a film series and genre that is often sneered at by high-minded critics for nothing more damning than its mass appeal- as if popularity must be inversely proportional to philosophical substance. Right away then, the author puts decisively to rest such criticisms as that forwarded (albeit tentatively) by James O. Young in a review of an earlier Mulhall essay: “one cannot help but wonder whether this movie [Blade Runner] is a sufficiently realized work of art to sustain a project of criticism.”[2] As we first hear and then quickly learn in On Film, “these [“Alien”] movies are preoccupied, even obsessed, with a variety of interrelated anxieties about human identity – about the troubled and troubling question of individual integrity and its relation to the body, sexual difference and nature. This issue – call it the relation of human identity to embodiment – has been central to philosophical reflection in the modern period since Descartes” (1-2).

Besides the address in these films of such long-standing philosophical concerns, Mulhall offers three additional reasons for looking so closely at the “Alien” series. First, and returning to the point made above, it reveals how “the specific conventions of traditional film genres, and the more general conditions of movie-making in Hollywood, can both support and resist the achievement of artistic excellence” (4). Second, it allows for an investigation “into the condition of sequeldom,” namely the limitations and possibilities internal to the inheritance of “a particular set of characters in a particular narrative universe” (5). And finally, because “each individual member of [the series] is also an individual film in the series of a particularly gifted director’s work,” each of the four “Alien” films suggests “a point of intersection between a director’s talents and artistic vision, and the narrative and thematic potential inherent in the alien universe” (5). This last point suggests a commitment to the controversial though appealing notion of the director as auteur, someone with a significant degree of authorial control over all aspects of his or her films despite the existence of significant countervailing forces. It is to Mulhall’s credit that he presents compelling evidence in support of his position-each chapter of On Film is devoted to one entry in the “Alien” series, and is juxtaposed with discussion of another key film in the specific director’s corpus-without bothering to entangle himself in the by-now sterile debates concerning the overall legitimacy of auteur theory.

The most ambitious, and for this reason the most provocative and problematic, claims made by Mulhall in his Introduction bring to the fore key issues concerning philosophy’s bearing on film, and vice-versa. More than just illustrating the assorted ways in which ethical, ontological, and metaphysical ideas are capable of being thematized in particular cinematic narratives, he proposes that the “Alien” films, in large part because of the “sophistication and self-awareness with which [they] deploy and develop” the ideas in question, “should themselves be taken as making real contributions to these intellectual debates. Such films are not philosophy’s raw material, nor a source for its ornamentation; they are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action- film as philosophizing” (2). Mulhall then makes the pregnant assertion that “the “Alien” series’ interest in the bodily basis of human identity inexorably raises a number of interrelated questions about the conditions of cinema as such. In other words, a fundamental part of the philosophical work of these films is best understood as philosophy of film” (2-3).

Taking this second claim as a species of the first-for assuming that the “Alien” series has something substantive to say regarding philosophy-of-film, this must be counted as an example of film-as-philosophizing-clearly a great deal is at stake here. Despite the growing academic interest in “film-philosophy” (judging from the annual increase in publications and courses devoted to the philosophical examination of various directors, films, genres, and movements), it is by no means accepted wisdom that the cinematic medium is capable of actually advancing philosophical debate as opposed to reflecting or, at best, enacting it. Do popular auteur directors such as Ridley Scott, James Cameron (Aliens, 1986), David Fincher (Alien 3, 1992), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien: Resurrection, 1997) warrant consideration as philosophers as well as artists? Should their films be assigned alongside canonical books and journal articles in undergraduate philosophy classes? Mulhall, following in the venerable if idiosyncratic footsteps of Stanley Cavell-and clearly conceiving of his project in this way (“As will be evident, my main source of inspiration is the work ofCavell. More occasional sources include Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein” [137n.1])-does about as good a job as anyone besides his intellectual mentor of proving that the answer to these questions, despite the derision they might conjure in more conservative (possibly anxious) colleagues, is in fact affirmative.[3]

If it is sometimes difficult to discern from Mulhall’s discussion what he finds philosophically of interest about the “Alien” series as films rather than as texts simpliciter-fictional narratives with compelling themes, characters, and plotlines-he almost (if not quite) makes up for this lack of medium specificity by virtue of his frequently stunning insights into the meanings behind the hi-tech settings, alien creatures, and special effects feats, as well as by the elegance and lucidity of his writing. Of course, this is not to say that all of Mulhall’s arguments are prima facie compelling (nor, one suspects, would he consider this a bad thing). In his section on Blade Runner, for example, he attributes the sympathy we feel for the replicants to “what we (and they) perceive as a deprivation: their genetically-engineered four year lifespan is far shorter than that which any human being can (barring accidents) rely upon, and it entails that they know from the first moment of their existence the precise date of their death” (39). This much certainly seems true. But Mulhall then proceeds to invoke Heidegger’s notion of human existence as “Being-towards-death” in order to support his claim that any distinction between replicants and human beings “grounded on the length of their lifespans or the certainty with which they can predict an end to their lives on a given day” (39-40) is irrelevant. Since one of the replicants gets shot and killed before his allotted time is up, it is clear that “knowing the date at which one’s death is inevitable is not the same as knowing when one will die” (39).

From these considerations, Mulhall concludes that “Both [humans and replicants] are alive and both possess consciousness; hence both will die, and both are conscious of that fact. Whether either will attain a grasp of its full significance is another question, but it is one that both face- which means that replicants stand in a human relationship towards death” (40). However, it is precisely this “other question” which enables one to posit a crucial psychological (as opposed to ontological) distinction between replicants and humans. Our sympathetic feelings for the former are justified by the fact that they know for certain the maximum amount of time they have to live, whereas the latter can always hold out hope for one more breath, one more tomorrow, one more moment of consciousness.

It is worth comparing Mulhall’s claims about Blade Runner with some he makes in Chapter Two, during his discussion of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). On his view, “For Sarah [Connor, the female protagonist of the Terminator series, played by Linda Hamilton], her knowledge of what will happen collapses the future into the past, and thereby destroys the present Terminator 2 presents Sarah’s knowledge of the future as the source of the deathliness in her and in her world If she is to overcome herself, the future must become unknown” (82, 84). It would seem that Sarah Connor has more in common with Blade Runner’s replicants than with either of the cyborgs in her own diegetic universe, insofar as she (like the replicants, unlike the terminators) suffers from the epistemological burden of knowing when the end will arrive. Here, then, Mulhall gives character psychology its due. But far more important than the possibility of disagreement with certain of Mulhall’s arguments and claims is the fact that such disagreement is recognizably, perhaps even essentially, philosophical in nature. This counts strongly in favor of the author’s contention that “philosophy has something distinctive to contribute to the ongoing conversations about particular films and the medium of cinema that play such an important role in contemporary public culture” (10).

Though his auteurist approach to the “Alien” films (admittedly qualified by his stated interest in investigating the “condition of sequeldom”) means less concern with developing any overarching theses, Mulhall periodically presents his take on what the series is fundamentally all about. Acknowledging the ways in which the series’ heroine Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is depicted as the perfect match for the survive-at-all-costs alien species-in effect their human equivalent-it is ultimately one of the differences between Ripley and the aliens that he finds of greatest importance:

what-mythologically speaking-endows Ripley with her drive for survival is herresolute repression of her drive to reproduce; and in this respect, she exists in utter opposition to the alien’s incarnation of that drive. In other words, to become capable and worthy of vanquishing her opponent, she must sever the connection between femaleness, heterosexual intercourse and fertility- she must, in short, deny her body’s openness to maternity (25).
By maintaining this position throughout the book, Mulhall is able to read David Fincher’s 1992 sequel as a self-conscious rejection of Cameron’s predecessor in the “Alien” series, an attempt at “return[ing] the series to itself- to our seemingly unquenchable interest in its protagonist and her opponent” (96). It also allows him to dismiss (albeit with no accompanying disdain) Jeunet’s final entry in the “Alien” saga as “a kind of parody or caricature, in which matters that his predecessors have treated as being of profound and horrifying moment appear as ridiculous or trivial” (124).

In the end, On Film’s only glaring weakness stems from Mulhall’s decision to eschew previously published film theoretical work on the “Alien” series on the grounds that he finds it lacking “any sense that the films themselves might have anything to contribute to our understanding of them- that they might contain a particular account of themselves, of why they are as they are” (7). Considering the vast amount of literature available on Alien and its sequels, coming from such a wide variety of angles and perspectives[4], Mulhall’s observation here begs for at least a modicum of textual evidence. Lacking this, On Film at times comes across as hermetic, which is lamentable considering how directly it speaks to film scholars, cultural theorists, and philosophers alike. Fortunately, however, there is little doubt that Mulhall’s metaphysical contentions will be referenced, quoted, and engaged with by other authors in subsequent work on science fiction cinema.

[1] It should be noted that, as Mulhall acknowledges in his introduction, “the portion of chapter one devoted to Blade Runner is a much-revised version of an article that first appeared in Film and Philosophy, Volume 1, 1994” (11). This original article is entitled “Picturing the Human (Body and Soul): A Reading of Blade Runner.”

[2] James O. Young, “Review of Film and Philosophy,” ASA Newsletter. It is precisely this sort of complaint that Mulhall must have in mind when he writes in On Film that “we can and should move beyond the disabling thought (a thought that can only disable genuine thoughtfulness about cinema) that artistic excellence is necessarily unobtainable in even the most unpromising Hollywood contexts” (4).

[3] For parallel questions and debates concerning the relationship between (horror) cinema and psychoanalysis, see Steven Jay Schneider, “Introduction: Psychoanalysis in/and/of the Horror Film,” in Freud’s Worst Nightmares: Psychoanalysis and the Horror Film, ed. Steven Jay Schneider (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2003). Excerpt available online in Senses of Cinema no. 15 (July-August 2001): <>.

[4] See, e.g., Thomas Doherty, “Genre, Gender, and the Aliens Trilogy,” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 181-99; James H. Kavanagh, “Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien,” in Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Annette Kuhn (London: Verso, 1990): 73-81; Geoff Miles and Carol Moore, “Explorations, Prosthetics and Sacrifice: Phantasies of the Maternal Body in the Alien Trilogy,” CineAction! 30 (1992): 54-62; Thomas Vaughn, “Voices of Sexual Distortion: Rape, Birth, and Self Annihilation Metaphors in the Aliens Trilogy,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, no. 4 (1995): 423-35.


2002 © Steven Jay Schneider

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