What we get now, are horrors, slashers and action movies that are too focused on throwing action right in your face without so much as saying please first. What “Alien” realises, like “Jaws” before it, is that part of the splendour of these films is mostly found away from the explosions. “Alien” is special for many reasons but particularly because it knows exactly how much to show you and how little as well. Ridley Scott uses restraint perfectly and the end result is one of the best science fiction movies of all time but also one of the best movie movies of all time.
Echoing “Star Wars”, “Alien” starts with a huge ship called “The Nostromo” drifting in the vast and lonely expanse of space. Scott creates unprecedented scale here with the first shot just by simply having the ship take up a majority of the frame and also having it visibly move like a hulking mass of machinery. The ship is almost gothic in nature and it is definitely a stellar setting for a science fiction horror. The crew of the Nostromo have been awoken from cryo sleep due to a signal being intercepted from an unknown planet. A clause in the crews contract states that if the origin of the signal is not investigated, then they will forfeit their salaries. Something Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) simply won’t stand for. After a tumultuous landing, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and Kane (John Hurt) go searching for the signal and find an alien ship filled with leathery eggs. This is where the viewer starts to really try and put things together, for the alien of the movie is a puzzle. It’s unclear where it comes from, how it becomes what it becomes, what it even really looks like and what relation it has with that huge elephantine creature sitting in the turret.
“Alien” is able to show you quite a bit whilst also never showing you enough for you to be able to build a suitable mental image of the creature. It has four (visible) stages of life and you get to see the first three very clearly. Even when you do see these though the questions left unanswered, not by the appearance of the organism, but by the motives and function of it. Before they completely lose track of the creature the crew has many options with it. The unknown nature of it, and what it might do to Kane if it is removed from his face, prevent the crew from making any real progress. These fears are only amplified by the discovery that the blood of the creature is made up of acid so strong it can burn through around three ship decks. “A wonderful defense mechanism” Parker says, but he doesn’t even know the half of it. Neither do we, and that’s the absolute beauty of it. The creature later on takes advantage of the dark and does a remarkable job of being obscured by the camera so that you only ever see parts of the creature. Admittedly these parts you usually see quite clearly unless they are perfectly blended in with the like coloured ship. H.R Giger is a genius for designing the alien, especially considering the intricacies of the environment a majority of the film takes place in.
The strongest performances are from Ian Holm as Ash and Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Holm is able to express his character incredibly effectively using subtle nuances while he is often in the background. If you aren’t concentrating you will miss a lot about him and the mystery behind him. Weaver absolutely proves herself as the headstrong main character that has her head screwed on incredibly tightly. She knows what she should do and, more than that, what everyone else should be doing. If the crew had listened to Ripley and left Kane outside for decontamination procedures, they wouldn’t be in this fine mess they end up in. Ripley is a spectacular character to follow in the story as we witness her become stronger and more prominent the more her crew members allow themselves to fall into chaotic disarray.
There is never a feeling of the film trying to get through to the juicy bits as fast as possible. Scott knows that it takes a long time for fruit to become ripe, and he applies this straight into the movie. Right from the outset we are introduced to the ship via ambient noise that rattles down the dark steamy corridors, which tells us what to expect later, and we can’t help but dread it as the camera slowly pans around to show us the vastness of the ships innards. So many places to hide yet so many places to be found. The iconic scene involving the chest bursting is still unmistakeably shocking as it ever was and horrifically phallic too. Much of what the alien does relates to subverting masculinity and horrible images of rape and death. It takes an imaginative yet throttled mind to come up with horror as glorious as this and I’m glad that Ridley Scott and especially H.R Giger were able to so vividly portray how deplorable what the alien does to it’s prey is.
Ash calls the alien a “perfect organism” and I’d like to forcefully take that quote and gratuitously apply it to the film itself. You will be hard-pressed to find science fiction that rises above this and chances are if you do find it, it was heavily inspired by “Alien” because of how revolutionary it is. That or it’s “Bladerunner”