Director Ridley Scott Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphett Kotto, Bolajo Badejo, Helen Horton
Over time we’ve become desensitised to on-screen fear. In modern times, where all information is easily available to us, we’ve seen the worst the scary places of the world (and space) have to offer, which makes suspending disbelief beyond difficult, and because of this films now lack the ability to scare us. Only a select few are able to truly instill fear in the viewer, but they are small in number, so a film that can scare us more than forty years after it’s release is a rarity in the world of cinema.
Alien didn’t just successfully scare us, it innovated a whole new way to scare us, helping usher in the jump-scare phenomenon, kick-starting the modern monster-movie genre, which, until the late 70’s, consisted of a few gems and a whole lot of campy B-movies, and successfully meshing sci-fi and horror in ways that had never been seen before. It’s a concept so perfect in execution it comes along only once in a lifetime. Be thankful this one came along in yours… but at the same time be afraid…
A crew of seven, on the freighter spaceship Nostromo, awaken from hyper-sleep to discover the ship’s computer system, MU-TH-UR (or Mother), has intercepted a signal and changed course to an uncharted planet. They land on the surface, where Kane (John Hurt) encounters “leathery eggs… or something”, after which he’s dragged back to the ship by Capt. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), unconscious, with an organism attached to his face. Attempts at removal by Dallas & Ash (Ian Holm) reveal “a wonderful defence mechanism”, but later the fan-named facehugger seemingly detaches and dies. Kane regains consciousness, a little groggy and very hungry, but seemingly healthy, until dinner, when the chestburster makes its infamous arrival in one of the most shocking scenes in cinema history.
The remaining six break into two groups to flush the small snake-like creature off the ship, but when Brett (Harry Dean-Stanton) goes in search of the crew’s pet cat, Jones, he discovers it doesn’t take long for the infant Alien to reach maturity. A very scared Parker (Yaphett Kotto) describes the glimpse he got of the Alien as the reluctant Dallas, using a make-shift flame-thrower and Ash’s tracking device, elects to go into the ship’s air-ducts to find the beast. He tries to keep his cool but when the Alien, though hiding in the shadows, appears on the tracker, conveniently after he’s told Lambert to close off his only escape, he panics, and all he can do is blindly run, eventually coming into contact with the unseen and terrifyingly awesome creature.
They’re now despondent, panicking, fighting among themselves, and not knowing what to do next. It’s up to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who now has command of the ship, to think of a way to save them all. Communicating briefly with Mother, Ripley learns a horrifying truth about their change in course, the distress signal and the reason they are where they are. This results in a confrontation and Ash literally losing his head over the circumstances. Now down to three the only option they have is to flee via escape shuttle “or we won’t need no rocket to fly through space”, but while preparing for departure the Alien makes its third appearance, and we, along with Ripley, have our hearts almost beat out of our chests to the sounds of the curdling screams of another victim.
Now alone, but not alone, Ripley must attempt to escape a ship set for self-destruction while managing to avoid any close encounters. Not all goes according to plan, but she manages to make her escape in the shuttle, taking with her not just Jones, but another uninvited passenger. One last confrontation concludes the film with not much hope, but survival.
The film’s tag-line – in space no one can hear you scream – is not only commercial brilliance but so succinct in its summary of this film. There’s almost always a pay-off in cinema involving a daring escape or gallant rescue, with larger-than-life characters that go above and beyond, but at no point in Alien do you ever feel like salvation is right around the corner. Trap it and blow it out of the airlock isn’t just the best plan they’ve got, it’s their only option, as they’ve no military training, makeshift cattle prods and home-made flame-throwers are the only thing at their disposal, with no concept of what they’re up against, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Their job was to haul mineral ore back to earth, and they chat about pay discrepancies over breakfast as if they were about to head out to their nine-to-five job down at the office. They’re not space adventurers, none of them are super-human, but simply your average Joe working for an intergalactic mining company in the distant future, with jumpsuits and work uniforms that are old and dirty, and the attitude they bring is akin to mechanics down at your local garage. All they know is what they’re employed to do, and the performances from the cast portray that quite effectively. They each have a distinct role to play, and they play it perfectly.
In a genre of film that has little room for character development, Ridley Scott has circumnavigated this weakness by displaying several different personalities across the seven characters he has, all them of relatable to the viewing audience. Dallas is the leader with no idea where to start when dealing with an extraterrestrial monster, but he’s bound to his sense of duty, and steps up when needed, while Lambert is the audience’s perspective personified on-screen, and aptly details the blubbering mess we’d all be in the same situation Parker is gung-ho, aggressive under pressure, but even his tough exterior can’t hide how scared he really is, and Ash is a blur in the background in every scene, eerily calm, silently watching what’s going on around him as if he’s a viewer in a theatre himself, and at no point do you suspect anything is untoward. But it’s Ripley who stands out above all others. In one of her earliest roles she uses her lack of experience to her advantage, portraying a very unsure and reserved woman who, over the course of the film, develops into a willing leader and incredibly strong fighter, all the while retaining the feel of a little girl lost in space.
The Making Of
Ridley Scott almost single-handedly created the formula of picking them off one by one, and utilised it better than anyone since. Kane’s son is considered one of the greatest death scenes of all time, and it truly is. The cast was not aware of what was to come, and the reactions you see in the finished product are real scenes of surprise and shock, an abrupt shock that comes just once in the film then ripples through afterwards. The rest of the film is a slow burn in terms of horror, as fear and death become inevitable. When Dallas goes into the air-ducts, you just know that flame-thrower is utterly useless, but what scares you the most is knowing that he’s alone, cut-off from everyone else, and that thing is there, in the darkness, waiting for him. He hesitates. Then tension. It’s coming. Panic. A jump-scare. It’s all over. You see almost nothing, only a single shot of the Alien, but that’s all you need. It’s the fear of the unknown that scares you the most. Lambert’s terror echoing through the ship makes your blood run cold, you don’t need all the gory details, just the sound is enough. There are no anti-climatic moments and false-finishes, what Scott does is create fear with tension and claustrophobia that’s rampant until the final moments of the film.
Scott’s work behind the camera is also a step above the rest. The long, quiet tour of the Nostromo to the hyper-sleep chamber, the continuous shot rotating around the breakfast table, the long and wide shots inside the derelict spaceship, the quickly changing camera angles during scenes of rising tension are all handled brilliantly, and the unclear scenes that feature the Alien, almost cloaked in darkness, help to give Alien the feeling of a slowly rising heart-pumping horror film.
The script, originally written by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shussett, later revised by Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill, has perfect pace from beginning to end, with solid dialogue, and some amazing twists and turns, including the self-explanatory chestburster scene, written by O’Bannon as a way to get the Alien on-board the ship, the entire scene with Dallas in the air-ducts, and the entire characterisation of Ash, which was written into the script in later revisions. The script is what made this film, and without the innovative minds involved could very well have been another poorly produced campy B-movie from a bygone era. These five writers made this film an experience.
Jerry Goldsmith is one of my all-time favourite composers, and his score is up there as one of my favourites. Though some pieces during the film feel slightly dated its main theme, used in the trailer, is so incredibly experimental in composition, and the longer it goes the more the tension builds. Otherwise the score gives a very strong feeling of exploration of the unknown and deep space. His work earned him a Golden Globe, and rightfully so.
Ron Cobb’s work on the Nostromo is timeless and helped lift set design to a new level in film-making. The issue I have with modern sci-fi films is the design features, everything about them; the ships, the spacesuits, and the equipment, looks brand new, as if it’s never been touched let alone utilised, and this trip into space is the first it’s ever undertaken. The Nostromo looks like it’s been in use for several years, and this space journey is simply another space journey, the same as many before, and the same as many to come. It’s not built for comfort, or to look sleek, it’s built to do its job, and nothing more. The ship breaks down, the drop-ship landing on the uncharted planet is not smooth, and the surveillance system doesn’t work. This ship has lived a long time, and Cobb’s efforts make it live just a little longer.
H.R Giger, the creator of the Alien, also worked set-design, creating the derelict spaceship and the space jockey, which are all disturbing, but it’s the title creature that’s truly terrifying. Based on Giger’s painting Necronomicon IV, it’s not until the latter stages of the film that we get a good look at the Alien and when we do we wish we hadn’t. There’s nothing in cinema quite like it, all others flail in comparison; eight feet tall with no visible eyes, acidic blood, and a set of inner jaws that can destroy your skull is something nightmares are made of, and Giger made it all come true. Rest in peace.
Whether you’re a fan or not, Alien isn’t just one of the greats of horror or sci-fi, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s apart of a very exclusive selection of cinema creations that can claim such influence in the many aspects of film-making, from setting to plot to design, and it’s because of this it’s as fresh as ever and shows no signs of aging any time soon. The production that went into Alien is amazing for its time and can only wish to be replicated now, introducing us to the one of cinema’s greatest heroes, a pivotal female role, and one of the most frightening villains ever thought of. Don’t bother screaming, however, nobody will hear you.