Alien can count itself as the frontrunner amongst Ridley Scott’s numerous films, trumping the likes of Gladiator and even Blade Runner, to seal its place as one of the greatest horror films in history. In case you didn’t already know, I love horror films, and every year when I revisit this amazing film, I thank my lucky stars that we are victims to this fearsome space odyssey. Eight years after my first viewing of it, the brilliance behind this still baffles me to this day. Its incorporation of two of my favourite things, claustrophobia and science fiction, render Alien more than just a scary-alien-gets-onboard-ship-to-kill-everyone type of horror. I may have abruptly summarized it in those eight words, yet the futuristic confinement with an escaped zoo animal makes the same eight words a lot more complicated than it should be.
My old man has this saying that film is a video essay. In our high-school years, we’ve all learned how to write essays, starting with the introduction, arguments, and finally it ends on a conclusion. Filmmakers are handed a script, and need to make a compelling argument. Out of the hundreds of directors in the film industry, Ridley Scott is one of the finest to have sat on a director’s chair. Alien is an essay refuting human exceptionalism, to show the vulnerability of meat and flesh despite tomorrow’s innovations, all in the face of one, single, monster. Neil Armstrong once said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” which sounds nice and all, until Scott comes along and turns space into a new venture for limitless human paranoia.
The Nostromo, a commercial mining ship dating far into the future, is on its voyage back to Earth after concluding its galactic mineral hunt. Midway, the ship’s computer wakes the crew from their hibernation/stasis in light of an extraterrestrial signal. Unenthusiastically, the crew locate the source coming from an unidentified ship lying in a heap of debris. In what I would define as a dumb move, the crusaders enter the ship, and one of them is unlucky enough to discover a cache of organic pods. Let’s return to high-school again and think about biology, specifically human reproduction. In simple terms, the sperm fertilizes the egg to form the baby. Kane, the unlucky guy, gets attacked by a face-hugger, the equivalent of the sperm, but just more parasitic. Essentially, Kane acts as the carrier of the baby alien after he is impregnated by that pesky face-hugger.
Like most horror films, we as the audience always find a way to diss the characters for their foolish actions, believing that we can do better in the same situation. Alien is no exception, given that I found some of their actions to be extremely questionable at times. Our dearest Captain Dallas is dimwitted enough to break quarantine to allow Kane back onto the ship despite knowing about that face-hugger. Thankfully, the face-hugger just withers away and loosens its grip on Kane’s face, leaving no lasting harm to Kane. That is when the infamous chest burst scene happens.
Horror strikes in different ways. If you’re a fan of jump scares, a great film in recent memory is It. If you like gore, Evil Dead and the Saw franchise would do just fine. The chest-buster scene is iconic because of the unpredictability of it. One minute they’re eating at the dinner table, and suddenly, Kane is dying. Unpredictable not in the sense of a jump-scare, but the revolting sight of a baby xenomorph being where it should not be is definitely what the audience of 1979 was expecting to see. Naturally, Kane is in convulsing pain, while we should be worried about the cracked chest, we are also quite intrigued by the hideous (and kinda cute, just my opinion) son of a bitch that scurries away into the darkness. That is the point where the film kicks into gear. Imagine this, you’re stuck on a spacecraft with a zoophagous animal roaming the hallways, growing bigger and bigger by the minute. The inevitable question probes you, how long can you survive? This horror imagination has now become a reality for Ripley and her crew members.
The trick to horror films is pacing, keyword being ratio. Too much scares and your audience go into anaphylactic shock and your film gets dubbed as being “too forced”. Not enough scares and the same audience wants their money back. Scott’s masterpiece is well-controlled, scaring only when necessary and when it does scare you, he makes sure it’s taken a big bite out of you. The xenomorph is like a rare Pokemon, popping up in elusive moments, and the gore hits the sweet spot between conservative and sloppy. The colour palette is commendable, never overwhelming the paranoid tempo so black and blue are the bread and butter of the film. The film has also been expertly edited to inhibit our view of the alien itself, so that we never get a chance to see the alien clearly. It is only until the end, during the climax, that we discover how enormous this once-tiny dinosaur grows into an eight-feet machine of destruction. Absolutely frightening. (Its scientific name is Linguafoeda acheronsis if you are interested.) By doing this, you are controlling your audience’s perception of what to be afraid of. In horror, we are conditioned to “expect the unexpected”, something that Alien excels at.
Credit where it is due as well, Sigourney Weaver, our heroine of the story and series, fits the badass Ripley criteria perfectly. Starting off all girly and underestimated at first, her Rambo-esque personality takes over once the alien is at large. Maybe the guys were right to point out that capturing the alien alive could prove to be a military asset, since I know humans would be horrified to see a vicious NFL jock charging at them. Ripley is capable of fending off the threat in a ship full of men, going as far as leading the defence. Her character certainly adds meaning to the “We Can Do It” poster feminists like to use in their narrative. Her palpable contempt for Linguafoeda acheronsis species is not focused on the romance of taming it, but rather to kill them, so much so that she takes part in the next three sequels to eviscerate them. Like Ellen Pompeo in the TV series Grey’s Anatomy or Neil Patrick Harris starring as How I Met Your Mother, Sigourney Weaver has embedded herself deep into my impression of the Alien series.
The script is a testament to longevity, surpassing all of its future ripoffs because it builds the world like no other. I mean sure it helps to have a whole series to back you up, though Alien just feels correct with the Nostromo and crew. The only film that comes close to Alien in terms of effective claustrophobia and the aforementioned nimble world-building would be The Descent back in 2005, which captured the essence of Ridley Scott’s work. Unlike say… Life, The Descent adequately portrays the character development due to the dangers present. If you dig further back in time, John Carpenter’s The Thing resembles Alien as well. You got an isolated group who stumbles upon a dormant alien in the bitter cold Antarctica. Even though it was released three years post-Alien, The Thing has its own original concepts to prove that it is not a total ripoff.
These are all good reasons to love Alien but it really doesn’t get at why Alien has survived and remains such a riveting watch. The truth is that the movie works so well because it’s open and clear about the helplessness of such a situation. Our heroes do not have a particularly good move outside of sacrificing their own lives, and that idea only dawns on them when there are three or four of them left. The isolation and horror of the crew’s predicament is matched only by the unmistakable feeling of discovery, of being genuinely amazed by the very thing that could be your end. For a director that has often harped on the dual nature of discovery and ambition, Alien comes off like a sort of manifesto.