Alien’s film poster features an egg against a black background, with spaced out letters forming the short title. Sparse and simple, this image encapsulates everything that is brilliant about this sci-fi horror from Ridley Scott. As much about silence and emptiness as it is about sound and shock, the film explores evolution, sexuality, gender and survival whilst remaining refreshingly un-convoluted. The plot of the film could be summarised in about two or three sentences, with it basically being about the slow demise of a small crew on a ship, who answer a distress signal which turns out to be a warning. What marks Alien out as a classic, though, is its careful treatment of themes, as well as its awesome visual effects and character design. The titular Alien (or Xenomorph), is quite possibly one of the most iconic monsters from a science fiction movie ever. Gut-wrenchingly terrifying, uncannily human, and perversely sexual, it is the quintessential outer-space antagonist.
The film begins with the word ‘Alien’ slowly appearing on the screen, followed by shots of the Nostromo sitting quiet and lifeless in space. The silence is unsettling, with no dialogue for the first six minutes. Faced with technology and interiors instead of characters, the audience is made to feel detached from humanity, dislocated and suspended in a sort of limbo as they wait for someone to make an appearance. Placing the viewer within the ship, the film forces us to feel loneliness akin to that of the crew. Finally, the ship’s computer (“mother”) awakens the humans, and the drama unfolds. Captain Dallas, Kane, Lambert, Ripley, Ash, Brett and Parker are introduced to us, and each character is perfectly cast. Tom Skerritt plays Dallas with authority as well as friendliness, which sets his character out as a father figure of sorts (and also romanticises him), and John Hurt is brilliant as the short lived Kane. Often criticised by reviewers, Veronica Cartwright does her best with a wimpy character; Lambert’s nervousness may be irritating, but it very cleverly emphasises the steadfast courage of others. Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton offer suitable light relief with their humorous quips and complaints, and Ian Holm is decidedly creepy as the android undercover. The star of the show, however, is undoubtedly Sigourney Weaver. Excellent as the youthful and brave Ripley, she appears outwardly stoic throughout most of the film, but Weaver makes sure that her character never appears too unconcerned. Her reaction to Dallas’ death and her interactions with Jones, the ship’s cat, are little instances of sentiment that save her from being two dimensional.
The level of imagination involved in the set design and visual effects is astounding. H. R. Giger is the man responsible for the alien and its evolutionary stages including the egg, the facehugger and the chestburster. He also worked on set to create the inside of the derelict spaceship, and the “space jockey”. The supernatural elements of the film are designed and created with exquisite attention to detail. As a facehugger, the creature is parasitic, with uncannily human fingers clasping round the back of the head and a tail wrapped round the throat. In the film, its choice of Kane as a host subverts typical ideas of motherhood, and so at this stage in its evolutionary cycle the Xenomorph has the ability to undermine normative sexuality and reproduction. As a chestburster it is the nightmare of birth, the newborn turned monster, inspired by Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. And in its final alien form it is large and menacing, with a pharyngeal jaw and no eyes. The creatures represent an array of worst fears, and this is part of the appeal as people endlessly pick them apart for analysis.
Deliciously terrifying scenes abound whilst the alien stalks each of the crew members. The scene with Dallas and his flamethrower in the air shafts where Lambert cries that the creature is getting closer is genuinely distressing. And Brett’s scene with Jones the cat where the alien drops down slowly behind him is iconic. Manipulation of every sound of the ship, every hiss of steam coming from a pipe, every trickle of water, means that tension is built to an almost unbearable extent. Always considering originality, Scott directs these scenes with incredible inventiveness. Having just witnessed the death of Brett, for example, the viewer is faced with the dispassionate eyes of the cat, forcing us to consider animal instinct over any emotional response.
With a perfect ending where Ripley shakes and sings You Are My Lucky Star (my personal highlight), Alien is successful from opening to close. Blending sex, danger, and monstrosity in one small space shuttle, Ridley delivers us a satisfying conclusion.
In Prometheus, the latest instalment in the Alien franchise, David says that “big things have small beginnings”. Watching the original Alien for the first time in years after having sat through endless sequels and spin-offs, this line gains new meaning. Not that Alien as a project was small, but you can still appreciate that it set in motion endless queries and conspiracies that were never fully satisfied by the following films. The fact that it has inspired so much new material since its initial release in 1979 is proof that the film has made a lasting impact, one that will hopefully never be forgotten.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★★