A digression is about to take place, one that I’ve been looking forward to ever since I started writing about movies. I’ve branched into sci-fi horror but a few times, and each time it was because zombies were involved. Now I take a moment to digress fully from the living dead and tackle a series of films I’ve loved more than any other (my affections for it rival those I reserve for Romero’s Living Dead Trilogy). This is a trilogy comprised of a film that changed science fiction forever, a film that became the first prestigious monster movie, and a movie that remains one of the most famous box-office horror stories of all time. Let’s start at the beginning, with the film that ran with the smartest ad campaign ever conceived for a movie. Close-up on an egg, not unlike an ostrich egg, cracking open and pouring light out of the center. Then a tagline: “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.”
by Ridley Scott
In actuality, the egg looks nothing like the one used in the film it advertised, and the fact that audiences in 1979 had no clue what was about to happen was just about the coolest damn thing I’d ever heard. Imagine going into the Exorcist or The Hills Have Eyes when they were new without any idea what you’re about to see (or for that matter, imagine going into Razorback), not even a vague hint as to the nature of things; that’s what audiences got in 1979. The film starts with one of those post-Star Wars miniature ship crawls, but the one here seems different from the million others you may have seen – it’s darker, less glamorous. The ship is called the Nostromo; a commercial towing vehicle on a return trip. In what will prove to be one of many brilliantly composed, devastatingly quiet, genre-breaking moments in Alien, the crew wakes up from hyper sleep and then goes to breakfast. The first to wake is executive officer Kane and then the others follow. Captain Dallas, warrant officer Ripley, science officer Ash, navigator Lambert, chief engineer Parker and his assistant Brett all wake to discover they’re being paged by some beacon or other on a planet a fair distance away from home (which is still Earth, in case you were wondering). There is also the ship’s cat Jones, but we don’t see him wake up. After trying to get in touch with traffic control in Antarctica (a Lovecraftian device), they figure out that Mother, the ship’s computer (on “company” orders, as we’ll later see) stopped them in their tracks to follow the signal. The planet is uninhabited and the weather conditions go a long way toward explaining that – it appears to be snowing nuclear debris at gale force speeds. The landing gear snags on something while they land and Parker and Brett have to fix it while Dallas, Lambert, and Kane go exploring the planet’s craggy surface to find the source of the signal. What they find is another ship, shaped like a crab claw that made a similarly calamitous crash landing and never took off again. Inside, our explorers lose radio contact with the Nostromo and then find the remains of its pilot: a behemoth alien entombed in its seat with a hole in its chest that would indicate something has burst out. Beneath the carcass is a hole leading to a cave-like basement area where a few thousand stowaways wait for our intrepid space cadets. Kane belays down into it and sees that it is full of leathery eggs that would probably come up to Kane's waist if he stood upright. Kane is understandably fascinated and thus doesn’t run like a bastard on fire when one of the eggs opens up and like the proverbial cat he pays dearly for his curiosity. Ripley has in the meantime figured out that the signal was some kind of warning (too little, too late, eh?); Ash tells her not to worry about it.
When Dallas breaks radio silence a short while later, Kane has something stuck to his face that no one has ever seen before. Ripley refuses to let Dallas, Lambert and the incapacitated Kane back on board as it’s a direct breach of safety protocol. Her objections are over-ruled when Ash lets them in anyway, much to the third officer’s chagrin. When Dallas and Ash surgically cut Kane’s mask off, they find a pale-skinned animal with eight humanoid digits for legs all clasping his face and its tail wrapped firmly around the man’s neck. X-rays reveal that it’s got a proboscis of some kind in Kane’s throat and might be feeding him oxygen. Prodding it just makes the tail clench tighter on Kane’s neck. Making a minute incision releases highly acidic blood that promptly melts through three floors worth of ceiling stopping just short of the hull. Kane is most assuredly in some hot water – Dallas is flustered and clueless. Parker and the others get the ship running again and they take off for Earth once again. Not 24 hours after they brought Kane on board, Ash looks in on his patient and discovers a paucity of space spiders – a search of the room turns up its corpse hidden in an overhead compartment. Kane wakes up in time for one last meal before they all go back into hyper sleep. Kane really ruins the jovial mood when he starts having an attack and then a wormy thing with fangs bursts through his chest and runs away leaving everyone coated in their first officer’s blood. They jettison Kane’s body into space and set about locating the culprit – what they don’t count on is that it has been growing rapidly since its escape from their friend’s anatomy. When next we see it, it’s a much more formidable opponent than it was in its spider-crab or worm stage and it appears to have no qualms about eating people.
The ways in which Alien succeeds are almost innumerable; there’s the score, the production design, the art direction, the cinematography, H.R. Giger’s creature and ship designs, Ridley Scott’s script doctoring and direction, the stellar performances, and the scare moments. In order then? Jerry Goldsmith’s score is, along with Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, the first thing we encounter in this film. Goldsmith does a very interesting thing with his compositions. The music seems to always convey a sense of doom and/or foreboding, even during lighter moments. The scene in which the ship makes for the uninhabited planet and the crew enjoys a rare moment of cooperation; everyone’s smiling but the music tells us that they’re making a grave error and that darkness lies in store. His music also greatly helps the scare scenes unforgettable like when the Alien shows up in Ripley’s mad dash for the escape pod and the horns flare up like torches. What’s better even than his moments of orchestral-filmic synergy is when his music builds up to something and then gets quiet. When the music just ceases after a build-up, moments like the climax of the chase scene in the ducts take you fully by surprise. Perhaps Scott had something to do with it, but those moments where everything is deathly quiet except for the odd faraway clanging or industrial-sounding noise are brilliant. In fact a good deal of the film’s action sequences happen in silence and they’re much the better for it. Letting the terrific sound design take over was a wise choice in those moments; the noises that accompany the alien attacks are superbly chilling.
The production design and art direction complement each other beautifully. I think the perfect example of this is in the difference between the ships dirty underbelly where Parker and Brett spend most of their time and the sterile control room where Dallas talks to Mother, the ship’s computer. Alien was the first film to make the interior of a space ship look like an old factory, which is, let’s face it, what a commercial towing space craft would look like after years of use. This was the movie that revolutionized the sci-fi film in that regard. Star Wars took steps in that direction, but Alien was really the one. The viewer is constantly confronted (in a tasteful way) with the many corridors of the big, dirty Nostromo. The color and relative size of everything is all perfect, it’s realistic and mesmerizing and best of all Ridley Scott places his actors in the thick of them, but doesn’t give them the Lord of the Rings money shots Peter Jackson gives to every one of his scene changes. Scott keeps everything reigned in and he can basically keep wowing people because all the elements are in check. His story arch is also pretty remarkable; killing the characters he does when he does is just another way to ensure that the audience is just as confused as the crew of the Nostromo. The subplot involving Ash confuses the hell out of everyone the first time they see it. Derek Vanlint’s cinematography helps a good deal; he works no small feat in making the sets of Alien look realistic; his use of low-lighting and brilliantly placed incidentals (the flamethrower, the emergency lights, the lights on the space helmets) makes everything all the more realistic and never draws you out of the action. This is key in the scenes when the creature shows up. In the wrong hands, the alien would look painfully like a guy in a suit (as it is this almost happens a few times) and that would have been a goddamned crime. Scott and Vanlint wisely keep the critter out of sight for most of the film. Nothing kills a monster film quicker than overkill; filmmakers need to know how to tease and deliver in proper doses. I choose my words carefully here. Anyone who’s seen the design of all things Alien knows about its creator’s affinity for putting sexual undertones into his work. The movie is, ostensibly, about a forced birth, so it makes a lot of sense that the creature and his home base should be a little suggestive. This is why every possible architectural hole looks like a vagina or a sphincter, like the openings to the big derelict ship or the tops of the eggs, and why the monster has what looks like a penis with teeth in its mouth that spews a viscous secretion. Giger’s work has been praised probably more than Ridley Scott’s direction, and it stands to reason I guess, as aesthetics stay with people much longer than mechanics. And when you’ve seen three people in space suits walking into a giant vulva, you don’t soon forget it.
As for mechanics, another reason why perhaps Ridley Scott isn’t the first name that comes up in a discussion of Alien is because his direction is pitch-perfect. Ridley Scott is one of those directors who can get a film to work so organically that his direction basically disappears. In other words, Alien is a movie that never lets you know it’s a movie. There are so few times where you wonder about the making of this, the placement of that, all those thoughts comes afterwards once the magic is done. Alien sucks you in so thoroughly to its man-made world that you forget that it’s man-made. The only time that the medium is revealed are in those sly close-ups Scott employs on things like the face-hugger, but those are so subtle you don't notice them. He is dead set on making sure rapt attention is paid. And the secret ingredient that ensures we aren’t constantly focusing on the little things are the unprecedented performances. In one of the few instances that a producer has been dead right about a film’s direction, Walter Hill and David Giler decided that the Dan O’Bannon/Ronald Shussett-penned script they were handed was not nearly good enough. They took liberties and rewrote the everloving crap out of O’Bannon’s script and once Ridley Scott finally got to the set, he set about making a real film out of a B script. The dialogue is a minor miracle – to capture the feel of a real, worn-down, grimy space ship, similarly worn-down people would be needed to pilot it. So, in what would become standard operating procedure for Alien films, a handful of character-actors were hired.
Alien has exactly seven characters and if they weren’t all excellent, the movie would simply not work. Tom Skerrit as Dallas is believably over-matched and tired – his flustered claim “I just run the ship” is a wonderfully timeless line and fits so many ill-fated cinematic captains like a glove, and he seems to know it. Dallas wants desperately to feel like he knows what’s best, but he makes mistake after mistake and he’s all too aware that he’s a clueless pawn and just wants to go home. Harry Dean Stanton is one of my favorite character actors and his turn as Brett is one of his most believable. Yaphet Kotto is tremendous as Parker – he is menacing just through his sheer physicality and his dialogue delivery is prosaic and full of that sort of mechanic's bravado. John Hurt and Ian Holm, the only British faces in this British movie, are both a joy to watch. They both make whatever film they’re in much the better for having them in it, and they both command their screentime well. Watch John Hurt as they take atmospheric readings of the alien planet, he does and says so little, but he’s hypnotizing. Ian Holm’s acting becomes much better after the twist has been revealed. Go back and watch the way he deflects questions and subtly pushes all action toward one objective, then you see that his ambivalence has a much more sinister edge to it and that Holm was really doing a much better job than you thought. Veronica Cartwright was by 1979 an old hand at the damsel in distress role and in some ways her over-wrought horror is the most believable. It may be the first real performance by any woman in a sci-fi film up to that point. Sigourney Weaver was the odd man out, having only done minor film roles and stage plays in England. She walked away from Alien with the best possible rewards waiting for her – I think it’s safe to say those Oscar nods she’s accumulated wouldn’t have come about were it not for her turn as Ripley. She’s a terrific and beautiful actress and it took something as intense as Alien to get her face in front of the public’s eye. So with such competent actors handling everything glamourlessly their weariness can grow as things become more and more grim. These are seven people who were already at the end of their rope who now have even less to grasp onto. Imagine for a second being woken up in the middle of the night and asked to stay awake for another 48 hours and survive constant tests of mental endurance and then fight the smartest killing machine you’ve ever encountered. You think you’d be as collected as Nicole Kidman in The Invasion, or might you look a little more like Lambert?
Finally the movie is simply terrifying. Ridley Scott had said that he didn’t want to make a film in the tradition of the B-sci-fi the script so clearly took its cues from. He wanted to make, in his own words, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction.” It comes closer to being The Legend of Hell House in Space, but, its horror elements are assured in any case. The Nostromo is a huge environment so the characters are able to co-exist with the creature for long stretches of time, and yet, its darkness is reminder enough that things are bad. So when the film wants to scare you, it’s already gnawed at your fear center enough to make you susceptible and despite tremendous build-up in some cases it still manages to surprise. Ridley Scott really is some kind of genius; twist after twist and we should see it coming, but somehow we never do. Alien is unquestionably one of the greatest films ever made; it's one of the greatest sci-fi films and one of the greatest horror films, all you have to do is decide which aspects you like best, but either way you'll enjoy yourself.