There are certain films that have been burned into my brain from the very first time that I saw them: Ridley Scott’s incomparable Alien (1979) is one of those movies. I don’t remember how old I was at the time but I do remember that Alien scared the ever-loving shit out of me. This wasn’t one of those “keep the lights on for the night”-frights…this was fundamental, soul-shattering terror precipitated by the idea that Star Trek had lied right to my face: the far-reaches of space weren’t filled with colorful, planet-hopping, humanoid aliens that were more than willing to exchange the cure for cancer for a few Clark bars…deep space was actually filled with terrifying, insectile, organ-devouring monstrosities that owed more to Lovecraft’s Old Gods than the golden age of Hollywood makeup. Like I said: I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Alien but I do remember that it fundamentally changed me, modified my DNA just a tad, as it were. Suffice to say, I’ve been hooked on the movie (and auteur Ridley Scott) ever since.
Over the years since that first screening, I’ve become a bit of an Alien fanatic: I’ve seen edited versions, the “classic” version, the more recent “director’s version” and every sequel currently on the market. I’ve studied production notes, drooled over set pictures and H.R. Giger’s amazing creature design and made up my own mythos for the “space jockey.” In other words, I felt like I knew Alien inside and out: when you can not only quote a film’s most memorable dialogue but also random shots, you might be a little obsessed.
When it came time to put together this year’s October screenings, however, I was left with a similar situation as with my screenings of Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): how does one go about discussing a film that’s not only vitally important to them, but also so familiar? By this point in time, I’ve been talking about Scott’s sci-fi/horror game-changer for a few decades: what more could I possibly have to say about it? In that spirit, I decided to take several steps back (or try to, at least) and see if I could figure out why, exactly, Alien is such an amazing, terrifying film. Why is Alien so powerful when similar films either come off as cheesy, old-fashioned or ineffective nowadays? What is it about this film that not only struck a chord with me but managed to have enough cultural resonance to implant itself with the collective unconsciousness? In a nutshell: what makes Alien…well…Alien?
Right off the bat, I think that one thing that really sets Alien aside is its inherent simplicity: despite its setting and some pretty cutting-edge visuals, there’s nothing particularly flashy about the film. Throughout, Scott’s emphasis remains pretty singular: he wants to establish and maintain an atmosphere of sustained doom and every aspect of the film, essentially, exists to drive this emphasis home. Hell, the proof is right there in the title: Alien. Nothing flashy, evocative, leading, intriguing…just Alien. It’s as if Scott makes his mission statement clear before the first reel even begins: nothing in this film will come between you and your deep, unshakable feeling of dread, including the title of the film. There is no escape or hiding for the audience, just as there’s no escape for the characters.
The story, as with everything else in the film, is pure simplicity, more a modernization of a timeless fairy tale than any kind of futuristic thought piece. In the future, a commercial towing ship named Nostromo receives a mysterious distress call from a largely unexplored section of the galaxy. The ship’s computer mainframe, Mother (sort of a kinder, gentler HAL), reroutes the ship, which was returning to earth after a seven-year mission and sends the crew to check out the signal. None of the seven member crew are especially happy about this, particularly the spaceship’s two engineers, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), but failure to participate will lead to them forfeiting their salaries for the trip, resulting in seven years of free labor.
Once at the source of the signal, a small crew is dispatched to check out the strange planet: Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), chief navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and officer Kane (John Hurt) scour the surface of the planet, while Brett, Parker, security chief Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and science officer Ash (Ian Holm) hold down the fort back on the Nostromo. The exploration team tracks the signal to a wholly impressive derelict space craft, an intensely alien creation that appears to have crashed head-on into the planet’s surface. Upon entering the ship, the team finds evidence of some sort of intelligent but unknown alien life, including what appears to be some sort of alien remains. As they continue to explore, Kane discovers a room full of leathery “eggs,” the contents of which will kickstart the film’s transition from sci-fi spectacle to full-bore horror film. Despite the fact that I find it impossible to believe that anyone is unfamiliar with the specifics of Alien, in this day and age, I’ll refrain from spoiling any of the film’s surprises. Suffice to say that the crew ends up bringing something back with them to the Nostromo, something which appears to have the capability to not only destroy the whole crew but the entirety of humanity, as well. As the body count rises, Lt. Ripley must face her own fears and go head-to-head against a monster that appears to rival the shark for sheer purity of purpose: eat, breed, repeat.
As I said, I firmly believe that one of Alien’s greatest assets is the streamlined simplicity of its storyline and action: the film is just under two hours in length yet moves so quickly that it feels, in reality, like a much shorter film than that. The film is also deadly serious throughout, which aids immeasurably with the suffocating atmosphere: once the film kicks into high gear, there are precious few respites or “down-time.” Despite this sense of continuous action, the film is not frantically paced: Scott is just as liable to allow a scare to gradually unfold, such as the numerous appearances of the Xenomorph, which always seems to be unfolding and uncoiling itself from some confined space, as he is to rush through something. The editing is never overly frantic, either, allowing the film’s truly astounding visuals plenty of opportunity to breathe and resonate.
The “simplicity” I note also extends to the “info dumps” that are usually symptomatic of sci-fi films: the backstory behind the Xenomorphs is kept purposefully vague, with only hints, assumptions and suppositions that are more common to horror films than “hard science” films. We’re shown the amazing sight of the gargantuan, dead “space jockey” but given no details past that. The exploration team passes through what appear to be massive skeletons as they explore the planet but we’re told nothing about them. The Nostromo’s crew can’t tell us anything about the Xenomorphs because they don’t know anything: this isn’t like Van Helsing telling us the best way to stake a vampire…this is like a bunch of kids flipping over a rock and staring in open-mouthed amazement at the squishy, black, scorpion-spider-centipede thingy that slithers out. Thinking back on it, I’m sure that this sense of the unknown is what fueled not only my fear over the film but also my obsession with it: the very notion that there might be something like this, on some distant planet, just waiting for idiotic humans to stumble on, is pretty terrifying, especially in an age when we’ve begun to discuss making longer interstellar voyages. We haven’t found anything like this yet…but we might, if we look hard enough.
When I watched Alien this time around, I also focused on the craft behind the film, trying to put myself into the mind of someone seeing the film for the first time. In the past, I’ve taken much of the film for granted since I’ve been so familiar with it. This time around, I forced myself to pay attention to every shot, every musical cue, every cut: I know how much I love the film but does that really make it a great film? In this case, it absolutely does. From the iconic opening credits that gradually reveals the film’s title, a piece at a time, to the amazing final shot that transitions from Ripley’s peacefully sleeping face to the vast emptiness of space, the film is an absolute marvel. Not only does it consistently look great (take a good look at the visuals and tell me that Scott’s film doesn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a little movie called 2001 (1968), especially concerning the Nostromo’s interior) but Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a real thing of beauty, too.
Reading like a veritable who’s-who of exceptional character actors (Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton as best buddies? John Hurt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt as crew mates? Sigourney Weaver kicking ass and taking names? All of the above, please!), every member of the cast pulls his/her own weight, making this easily one of the best-performed sci-fi films ever: ribcages may explode but the actors never chew the scenery, which gives everything a much more realistic quality, a realism which, ironically, helps to play up the film’s more nightmarish qualities.
And nightmarish qualities it has, in abundance. The chestburster…the facehugger…the attempted asphyxiation by rolled-up porno mag…the dripping, hissing monstrosity that is the Xenomorph, years before it would become a theme-park attraction…unlike James Cameron’s exceptional, if vastly different, sequel, Aliens (1986), Scott’s film is a horror movie through and through: transpose the action to earth and you would still have a story about a bunch of people getting chased by a hungry monster. In other words, the perfect horror film.
Is Alien a perfect film? Not at all. In fact, this most recent viewing of the film brought up the same issue I have every time I watch it, namely that there’s absolutely no reason for Ripley to strip down to her underwear at the end of the film. Scott resists the urge to sexualize Weaver throughout the rest of the film so it’s always disappointed me that she begins her final fight wearing only a skimpy pair of panties (all the better for some buttcrack shots) and a tiny, see-thru undershirt. I also found Cartwright’s depiction of Lambert to be rather annoying by the later half of the film, since she seems to exist solely to complain, scream, whine and race about like an idiot: basically, all of the things that much dumber films than Alien traffic in.
Despite these minor quibbles, however, Alien is an absolute masterpiece, a towering achievement that still stands as my all-time favorite sci-fi flick (I might lose my cinephile card over this but Alien has always hit me harder than 2001…sorry, folks). Even though I assumed there was nothing else I could learn from re-watching one of my favorite films, I actually found myself with a new revelation by the conclusion: there was absolutely no need for any of the other films in the series, including Aliens, which has always been another of my favorite films. As good a film as Aliens is, it only serves to water down the original film’s mythology and attempt to give answers where non are required. The less we know about the incidents from Alien, the scarier they are. By the time we know everything about the Xenomorphs, they’ve become just another predator (or Predator, really), which significantly reduces the fear factor. By the time the Xenomorphs are facing off against the Predators, in Alien vs Predator (2004), any and all mystery is officially gone.
Regardless of anything that followed, however, Alien is without peer. There may be films that make better use of modern CGI and effects, have bigger stars or larger budgets but there will never be anything that has the raw, feral power that this film possesses. While I’ve gone on to enjoy many of Scott’s films, I’ve never held any of them in the esteem that I’ve reserved for Alien. The film has given me an untold amount of joy over the years but it’s also provided me something much more fundamental: I may always be fascinated by the immensity of space but I’ll also always view it with no small amount of inherent fear. After all: the galaxy may very well be filled with all manner of polite, helpful ETs but I’ll always be convinced that, somewhere out there, something very mean and hungry is also biding its time, waiting for that day when humans throw off their earthly bonds and take our place in the galactic food chain.