An Appreciation – Alien
In space no one can hear you scream
It continues to amaze me how the first act of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is so…quiet. Very little happens in the opening scenes, and yet even now, they induce an unsettling feeling. Maybe because we know what becomes of the characters, but there’s something in the way Scott photographs them. A lonely ship drifting through space with empty rooms and hallways showing evidence of life, but no one around. Even when the characters awaken from their hyper-sleep, they do so with a level of detachment. We meet them in mid stride, sneaking into their conversations, not really knowing who they are or what they’re even talking about. But we recognize their movements, their behaviors; the way they talk and interact. They’re very much like us, regular people going about their everyday routine. By introducing them as such, Scott has already set us up for what lies ahead.
This may be the very best film made combining the immediate thrills of horror with the mystery of science fiction. It came in a very particular time in history. American cinema was transitioning from the new wave boldness of the late 1960s and 70s toward the big, mainstream blockbusters of the 80s and beyond. This could be considered the turning point, as it incorporates each to tremendous effect. Science fiction was big at this time, as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977) captured audiences’ imaginations. This was a direct descendent, especially with the design of the spaceship (Nostromo) echoing the size and scope of other movie vessels (like the Death Star). But don’t be mistaken: this has an identity that is arguably just as (or even more) unique than any other film. Where 2001 explored mankind’s place in the universe and Star Wars was a grand adventure, Alien depicted space as a frightening trap where escape was near impossible.
That is the great purpose here. Scott (along with writers Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon) has created what is essentially a traditional horror film. A group of characters get stuck in a closed off area, and are randomly picked off one by one by a dangerous menace. But the sophistication in the craft and the inspired vision of the story has elevated it above B-movie classification. Instead of focusing solely on gore and violence, there is an equal effort on building and extending suspense. Scares are preceded by agonizingly long stretches of white-knuckle tension. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is less melodic and more otherworldly, sometimes quiet and at other times filled with clangs and shrieks. Incredible that this is only Ridley Scott’s second feature-length outing as a director. Images and scenes have been placed firmly in popular culture. The filmmakers captured lightening in a bottle in a fashion few others have. It’s no surprise the film would spawn a franchise that has lasted into the modern day.
One of the biggest reasons this made such an impression was through the art direction. There is such a visceral sensation emanating from every part of the environments. Take a look at the Nostromo, with its long corridors and low ceilings. Pipes and tubes line the walls, and everything feels mechanical. The entire set of the ship was built completely, to where a person can turn 360 degrees and never be able to see outside of the façade. This would reinforce the claustrophobic tone. It takes an object common in science fiction, but places it firmly into a modern and recognizable state (this melding of sci-fi and reality is something Scott will enhance further in Blade Runner (1982)). Notice how often characters have to bend down or crouch to get through a doorway or move around a room. Nothing about the Nostromo is soft or comfortable. It’s a refinery vehicle, transporting ore back to Earth. As such, the characters are covered in grime, sweat, and dirt. All surfaces look blanketed in oil, the entire ship resembling the inside of an engine or a submarine. It’s no wonder they preferred to stay in hyper-sleep.
And then there’s H.R. Giger. His design of the crashed alien ship and of the alien (Xenomorph) itself was an act of brilliance. It’s strange, mesmerizing, and disturbing all at the same time. There is an odd appropriateness in how he included sexual imagery in all facets of his layout. When I say “all facets,” that’s exactly what I mean. There are phallic and vaginal images everywhere. From the open hatches the crew enters to get inside the alien ship, to the elongated head of the alien, it almost gets to the point of being inappropriate. This is not a subtle approach – there is no attempt to disguise what is being conveyed here. An even better example is the infamous “Facehugger”, with its testicular sacks and the method it “impregnates” a human by implanting its seed through a victim’s mouth. In fact, the theme of body and sexual horror go beyond just Giger’s concepts. The operating system of the Nostromo is named Mu-Th-Ur, and the mainframe is located in a womb-like control room.