“A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
In light of the new movie dropping this summer, I decided to pull the original Alien off the shelf and take a look at the movie that started not only a franchise but an entire subgenre of modern sci-fi horror. The premise of this movie incorporates some of my favorite story features, and expert craftsmanship from Ridley Scott launches this movie into a higher plane of enjoyment for me. Its one of the most exciting films I’ve seen lately, and I hope that Alien: Covenant can pick up on a few lessons from this classic movie.
Alien depicts the commercial space vessel Nostromo as it makes its return back to Earth. Strangely, its crew members are awakened from stasis when the ship’s computer recognizes a distress signal, leading the crew to stumble upon a planet with alien life. Although they flee to their ship, an alien presence has found its way onto the Nostromo, and Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) must find a way to stay alive when faced against a ferocious alien life form lurking throughout the vessel and an incompetent ship of crew members making survival all the more difficult.
I feel that most horror movies come down to a balancing act: How well can you deliver thrills while also keeping your audience guessing? Most horror movies I see in theaters measure up poorly, and they hit you over the head with predictable beats in every scene. I often wonder if there was any creative inspiration for some of these movies or if the filmmaking process has simply stifled a director’s vision along the way. They all seem like trailers for themselves, and they’re endlessly frustrating for this reason. Alien is not only the exception, but its the gold standard for this balancing act.
From the first moment of Alien, the creeping camera exploring the empty spaceship, you’re invested in this environment. The Nostromo is a pressure cooker from which mayhem can erupt at any corner. From the first time the crew members break quarantine protocol against Ripley’s orders, you know something is coming. Something is on this ship. A horror movie can never hide that something is coming. Where Alien succeeds is when that something comes. The pacing is brilliant, and it evokes maximum scares with its admirable sense of restraint.
I also found myself fascinated with Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal on this viewing. There’s something outside the norm about Weaver. Her powerful voice and heavy screen presence simply demand your attention, and her character is written to maximize these strengths from the actress. You stand by Weaver early on due to her strength and intelligence, and this devotion to the protagonist never seems to falter. The other crew members, however, seem to deserve their fates. In this sense, Alien is a cautionary tale. Listen to Sigourney Weaver or die. And nobody listens.
I’m also really intrigued by the sexual imagery that Alien is famous for. Scholars have asserted that the film is a progressive take on sexual assault, and the imagery is hard to deny. An interview with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon reveals his intent was to “attack the audience sexually,” and every scene seems to adhere to this philosophy. The movie is forceful, refusing to pull punches or to lessen its impact on the audience. Straight-on camera angles and near-Cronenberg levels of body horror are key components of a pervasive visual style. Every death is visceral, and it conveys a primal, sexual horror that sinks into your subconscious as you experience the movie.
Alien is brilliant, and I’m delighted that I get to write about its very different sequel, which I plan to do soon. For now, I’ll sign off with an affirmation that Alien is a benchmark of horror thrillers. It continues to be studied and imitated because it’s so damn smart, and it’s hard to imagine today’s horror genre without it.
Films Left to Watch: 876