Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien, is the very definition of a nerve-shredding experience. It’s one of a very short list of horror movies that genuinely chills to the core and haunts the memory not days after but for months. Three years out from its 40th birthday, the passage of time has not blunted its scares; instead, it’s only made them the stuff of cinematic legend. Undoubtedly one of the most influential movies of the last fifty years, Alien stands as a testament to the power of cinema. You experience every second of terror alongside the doomed crew of the Nostromo, as they’re stalked by a predator perfectly formed for hunting.
From the beautifully-composed opening, it’s clear that Alien is a confident film. Most horror movies open with a brutal death to draw the audience in; here, we instead have a slow pan of outer space as the title is slowly etched onto the screen with Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score humming in the background. This introduction is indicative of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s more subtle approach to storytelling: slowly building tension and a clear focus on character development are the name of the game here; Alien has no interest in blowing its load too early. Make no mistake about it, Alien can at times be a very slow affair, but it never once drags thanks to a constant sense of dread that permeates the whole movie.
Most horror movies revolve around fluctuating tension; normally after a spike, there will be a moment of claim for the audience to catch their breath. Alien forgoes this typical structure. Once the tension is raised, it only goes further up from there. The basic set-up of a mining ship crew being awoken from their hyper sleep to a strange SOS signal is an intriguing one—a premise that is only made more curious when one of the crew returns to the Nostromo with a foreign parasite attached to his face after exploring the source of the distress signal. The core narrative of a deadly monster being loose on a spaceship hunting the crew would have been enough to keep audience members satisfied, but, as in all its other aspects, Alien is never content with being merely acceptable. Mysteries – some that still haven’t been fully explained three sequels and a semi-prequel later – are employed to great effect, building up a rich lore that gives the movie an extra dimension many of its contemporaries sorely lack.
The establishment of a protagonist in a horror movie gives the audience a central figure who they know will be sticking around till the end (Laurie was clearly safe until the finale of Halloween etc.) Here that’s not the case; each character gets a share of the screen time for the first half. This creates a wonderful unpredictability to the proceedings, where everyone is fair game as there essentially is no lead character. Though the film’s place within the cinematic Hall of Fame has somewhat blunted this aspect, as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has become a pop culture icon and her survival is well known. So while there is eventually a ‘final girl’ in the form of Ripley, the film never gives this away prematurely; it could have just as easily been the ship’s captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) that stands face to face with the terrifying Xenomorph at the film’s climax.
Despite a lack of lead time, Ripley is perhaps the strongest female characters ever portrayed on the silver screen. Even when faced with overwhelming odds and almost certain death, she refuses to stop fighting. Ripley also subverts the cliché ‘good girl’ protagonist that dominates horror; in fact, in the first act she’s arguably the least likable member of the crew. She’s curt, abrasive, and a stickler for company protocol. Ripley is a genuine person—not some fantasy creation that instantly wins your affections by being perfect. Ripley wins you over because of her survivalist nature, and, in fact, because Sigourney Weaver plays her with such conviction, she’s never been able to step out of the shadow the role.
The rest of the Nostromo’s crew are all equally well developed and compelling in their own way. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the spaceships navigator, is the polar opposite of Ripley. While the latter remains focused on survival, the former loses her head, giving into the intense fear and pressure of the situation. While it may be easy to dismiss Lambert as the annoying whiny one, she serves an important purpose in that she mirrors the fear of the film’s audience. Her inclusion allows you to become fully immersed and almost feel like you’re a part of the world, as she acts out the terror you’re feeling.
Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) are the two engineers of the ship. They’re a pair of blue collar workers more concerned with their paychecks than the mysterious signal coming from LV-426. To many, the idea of space exploration is the stuff of wild fantasies; however, to these two, it’s a job, plain and simple. Parker and Ripley’s interplay is particularly strong in the first act and actually gives Alien a few comedic moments, which play well against the intense thrills that come later. Ash (Ian Holm), another critical member of the crew, is a science officer that was mysteriously brought in at the last minute on express company orders. Ash is the most mysterious member of the crew and his allegiance is tough to work out. He’s an excellent example of showing a characteristic rather than telling; the audience quickly senses there’s something off about him even if never suggested dialogically that this is the case. Even the least developed crew member, Kane (John Hurt), leaves a strong impression which is only a testament to the quality of writing.
One thing the crew all have in common however is that not a single member is prepared for what they discover on LV-426. Those on board the Nostromo are intergalactic truckers, not colonial marines. They lack both the training and the resources to take on a beast so perfectly constructed for hunting and killing. While Aliens would later show the effectiveness of a pulse rife against an alien skull, here there are no such displays of bravado. Even when Dallas ventures into the ventilation shafts to confront the alien armed with a flamethrower (in one of the film’s best scenes), he wields it clumsily. This serves only to make the film all the more chilling as it quickly becomes clear that once a crew member becomes ensnared by the creature, their demise is guaranteed.
The beast itself is iconic for good reason. Designed by H.R Giger, the Xenomorph (the alien) is a perfectly-sculptured creature—one that manages to be both visually impressive but also so horrifying you’ll desperately want to look away. The Xenomorph’s breeding process, from the egg to the chest-burster, is skin-crawling in the best possible way and again displays how Alien is never content with the ordinary. The alien is used sparingly to great effect. We see so little of it that the creature is, well, alien to us. This was largely due to limitations with the costume, but the reduced screen-time serves the film remarkably. The enemy that we’re unfamiliar with is always more threatening than one we’re intimately aware of (it’s why the sequels get less and less frightening). The Xenomorph is shown just enough for the audience to appreciate the impressive design, but never enough for us to feel like we truly know the beast.
Much like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the Bates Motel in Psycho, the Nostromo is as much a character within Alien as any of the cast. Contrasting with much of the science fiction media that had come before it, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which displayed a clean interior aesthetic, the Nostromo is instead a dirty and twisting labyrinth. With its crackling CTR monitors and whistling engines that appear a prod away from complete shutdown, the whole spaceship has an eerier almost villainous feel. This is a much more industrial future, which matches the working class crew keeping the behemoth of a spaceship running. The bleak surroundings only add to the sense of dread: the Nostromo is, after all, a horrible place to die.
While the vast majority of the film takes place on the Nostromo, the secondary locations are just as inventive. The derelict spacecraft found by Lambert, Kane and Dallas on LV-426 is another bold location, and it’s also here that we have our first encounter with the “Space Jockey” (who we’d learn more about over thirty years later in Prometheus). The look of this abandoned ship was also created by Giger; the walls curve up like a grotesque spine, mirroring the design of the creature contained within its bowls. The production design across the board is absolutely unparalleled, everything from the twinkling hub of the Nostromo’s AI unit, MU/TH/UR, to the rocky landscape of LV-426 itself is painstakingly constructed down to the finest detail.
Alien has found success across the board primarily because it can be appreciated by almost anyone (assuming of course you don’t have a weak heart). It’s deep enough for cinephiles to dig into—there’s even some light social commentary focused around corporate greed and the dispensability of manual labourers—but also quite accessible for a mainstream audience just looking for a sci-fi/horror to keep them awake for the rest of the month. What could have been disposable, B-horror schlock is elevated instead to be the complete opposite thanks to artists at the peak of their careers. Alien is a perfect marriage of meticulously crafted sci-fi and spine-chilling horror. It’s a work of brutally-haunting art that embodies pure horror filmmaking at its absolute finest.