Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Photographed by Derek Vanlint. Edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley. Production designed by Michael Seymour. Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm.
There are several factors that make Ridley Scott’s Alien so masterful, but its most crucial ingredient is intelligence. It’s cerebral. It asks questions. Instead of following an impatient need to get to shock surprises, it values deliberation, expressing genuine curiosity for a ship and crew, the nuts and bolts of long-term space travel, the genuine eeriness of an extraterrestrial landscape, and the creature that is eventually found there. It observes specific people doing their jobs, and notes how that reveals things about them. Even after a threat is established, the crew tries desperately to stay collected: when panic finally takes control, we witness the professionalism slip away. This strategy of Alien, to depict characters reacting smartly to a mounting terror, is key. It treats the cast as more than props, and it raises the stakes: instead of being about morons who are picked off one by one, it is about clever people trying to deal with a crisis with the tools they have, the best they can.
What also makes Alien work is its tone—cool and a little detached (note the opening sequence, where the camera walks through spaces and literally waits for things to happen in them). It’s unromantic, placing it worlds away from Star Wars (1977) and more towards the area of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the “hard” science fiction of Joseph E. Campbell, where the heroes are scientists and realists that solve problems with cold logic rather than melodrama. When attacks occur, the moments are never oversold, as if the movie doesn’t care too much if everybody dies. And when considering the infinity of the cosmos, it barely matters if they do, a point which is underlined by long shots that heighten the characters’ insignificance. After one major sequence, the expected sentimentality is avoided: instead of grief, no one has anything to say. It even gives a voice for this clinical perspective with the character of Ash (Ian Holm), who says about the alien: “I admire it’s purity, it’s sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” This is a point-of-view that the film sees as unfortunate, but not unsympathetic.
The result is a horror thriller with a curious pull. Some movies overtly try to draw you in, but Alien doesn’t really seem to care. That gives it a special flavor, since we end up being drawn in anyway. It borrows the aloof methodology enjoyed by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and some plot points from Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951, based on a story by the aforementioned Campbell). But it raises these elements by adding an element of bafflement: not just towards the physiological make up of the alien creature, but also its origins. It appears to originate from a sophisticated culture, which makes its brutal behavior even more frightening; the dichotomy itself directly teases human comprehension, as if we do not deserve the answer to this paradox. As long as we’re piling on Alien’s obvious influences, let’s put at the top the work of horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft, who was not so much a great writer as he had great concepts he liked to write about, on the edge of human understanding. Certainly Alien’s central conceit, of an extraterrestrial creature who’s mere existence corrupts and destroys the humans it touches, would have made him smile. Yet the film is more than a compilation of references—it’s a skillful picture that frankly, deserved to start one of the most iconic horror franchises ever, regardless of the quality of that franchise itself.
Alien is frequently described as “truckers in space.” That’s not the plot, but it is the aesthetic: one of mercenary trade workers living in an adopted home. The opening scenes work hard, and yet appear effortless in how they ground the story in a realistic milieu: the Nostromo is a commercial vessel towing 20 million tons of mineral ore, and its seven crew members are awakened from hypersleep to groggily realize that they are not near Earth, but instead have been diverted to an unknown planet. The captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) consults with the shipboard computer, MOTHER, and learns they have been ordered by their employers (“The Company”) to investigate a mysterious signal that may indicate an alien intelligence. The crew cares not a whit about the signal, or aliens, or anything but their incomplete, lengthy journey home. But the option to ignore the signal is dismissed when Ash, the science officer, stipulates in no uncertain terms that not obeying the order would cause a forfeiture of their shares. The dialogue in a lot of the early scenes is, frankly, standard. What makes it sparkle is the actors, who regard each other with familiarity but not camaraderie, and pepper their lines with hints of buried histories and past greivances. They feel like an actual working group of professionals, especially in the way they half-sell the pretense to each other that they work well together.
Their landing on the planet is a complex and nerve-wracking team effort, even with their experience. The planet itself harbors a violent storm and a disquieting terrain, and when Dallas, Lambert (Veronica Cartright) and Kane (John Hurt) venture out into the cold, they are dwarfed first by their own landing strut and later by the landscape itself, which is gray and craggy, like a boneyard. The particulars of the Nostromo’s endeavor are sold by little moments: the damage done to the ship by the landing, and the way the search party is isolated by interference that neutralizes radio contact. The first sign of a crashed (?) alien ship, which is massive. Then, the vast interior corridors which are dark, confusing, and don’t conform to any human sensibility. Back on the ship, the arbitrary class divide is referenced when Parker and Brett (Yaphett Koto, Harry Dean Stanton), the engineers, resent the presence of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who comes down to supervise their repairs before being distracted by the mission. Of the early passages, perhaps the most quietly unnerving moment is when Ripley decodes the mystery beacon as potentially a warning, not an SOS, and Ash rightly rebukes her attempt to go after the landing party, with fatalism: “What’s the point?” By the time she catches up with them, after all, they’ll know if it was a warning or not.
A different film would answer that question about the warning, and also try to explain the sight that greets them inside the alien ship, the skeleton of a massive “space jockey,” his chest pierced from within. The chest bit is explained, eventually (natch), but much of the story of the ship remains oblique; the film’s central mystery is pushed aside when the story becomes about survival: Kane, in his unsettling trip to the alien cargo bay, comes across a hold full of eggs, one of which opens to reveal a creature that attaches itself to Kane’s face. When they return to the ship, Ripley refuses to open the hatch, fearing a biological contagion. Again, smart. You’d think something like that is narratively pointless (they get in anyway), but it tells us a lot about Ripley: her authority, her ability to be cold. She doesn’t take it personally when Lambert accosts her, and her later confrontation with Ash about why he let the organism in is a matter of safety, not pride. She’s a good officer, and with what they’re up against, she will need to be.
Ash’s fascination with the creature is shown long before its commented upon; he’s frequently talking about it, analyzing it, rebuffing Ripley’s attempts to quarantine or destroy it when it finally detaches from Kane’s face. It is later suggested that he may have a buried motivation for his interest in the creature, but that explains his manipulations, not the intellectual thrill he seems to receive from it. How can one not be fascinated by an acid-blooded monster that inseminates a host through its mouth and causes the seed to briefly incubate into a tiny new life form, which emerges from the stomach of the victim with gruesome finality? Alien’s power to shock and disturb definitely grows organically from the way it depicts an alien that co-opts human biology with sex, leaving Kane to give birth to an evil…thing with a phallic head and tiny, clenched teeth dripping with mucus—the Freudian inspirations here are…undeniable, without even taking into account one character’s final appearance on screen is when a tentacle slithers up their pant leg. H.R. Giger, the alien’s creator, describes his monster as “the embodiment of the fear of rape,” and indeed the alien’s behavior plays on this fear by making the act gender-neutral, escalating it into a primal metaphor.
This becomes more apparent in the last hour of the film, When the alien, now fully grown. Even then, however, it keeps to the shadows. We never get a full look, instead getting just hints at its overall shape, or close-ups that don’t mollify our concerns about its viciousness. The film keeps its distance from the alien, sometimes out of fear, yes, but other times the camera seems to emanate a bit of awe and wonder—as if this is an event documented not by a human but by another intelligence that didn’t quite know how to feel about what is happening.
Characterizations are lean but not thin—the movie never resorts to unwelcome backstory, but refuses to cynically turn them all into ciphers. The screenplay is effective in how it views the characters as individuals: Dallas is a good captain but too trusting, Brett is monosyllabic and grim, and Parker is fun-loving and avaricious, which underlines the increase in tension when his smile finally fades. Cartright, as Lambert, is stuck with the role of the woman who crumbles under pressure, but this has value, too, as it reinforces the notion that these are normal people reacting to incalculable pressure. The scene that follows Dallas’ disappearance is today a little lesson about how to successfully graph a horror film: notice how each character reacts differently: Lambert despairingly, Ash silently, Parker with insubordination, and Ripley with a fraying sense of control.
The film is astonishingly well-made, utilizing ‘70’s-era lighting that evokes environs that run hot and cold: from the womblike computer room (of MOTHER) to the steely blues of the command center to the near-monochrome alien surface. The photography, by Derek Vanlint, captures details that flesh out the spaceship as lived-in: gas valves and steam, dirt and grit, fingerprints, and when the alien comes aboard, it sheds its own trail of slime and skin in its wake. Scene after scene features arresting compositions, from the floodlights filling the thick fog of the alien world to the long takes that make the ship’s layout understandable. It’s one of those movies that is so good looking, it feels like its own portfolio of concept art, and you’re tempted, at times, to forget the story and watch it like a painting.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is an interesting case. It works wonderfully in the movie—but then, much of it that was recorded was not used in the film: many were re-scored and several cues were actually replaced (or “tracked”) with Goldsmith’s music from different films. I’ve heard the Goldsmith music on album, and it’s terrific. But Ridley Scott and editor Terry Rawlings removed a good deal of it, and I can’t say they were wrong, because Goldsmith’s cues are intrusive and pushy—they insist on the tension rather than suggest it. Take his main title, for example, which originally was majestic and grand, and in the film is creepy, filled with obscure chattering and timid woodwinds. The film approach is better: more appropriate, more reflective. It doesn’t try too hard. The only time I think the film’s music selection fails is during the scene where the crew tracks the acidic alien blood eating through multiple decks of the ship–the music is too spritely and jarring.
There are a lot of strengths here, but the biggest is Weaver, as Ripley. It would be no surprise to first-time viewers of Alien that the story eventually boils down to being entirely hers—by making her the only survivor, she became the star of the franchise. Everybody knows this. What’s intriguing about the character is that it was decided after the script was written that Ripley would be a woman—all seven characters were conceived to be either gender, but by making the lead female, it shifted the direction of the story and, in my estimation, made it work: there’s lovely irony in Kane, a man, being the one who gives birth and Ripley, a woman, being the most determined to destroy it. Ripley is prone to emotion, but not overly so, and Weaver’s performance possesses a commanding toughness that goes against the grain for horror films, where most of the time women are victims or sex objects. Even when Alien puts her in a t-shirt and panties, it’s done to make her vulnerable, not break the momentum with eye candy. Between her turn here and in the follow-up, Aliens (for which she got an Oscar nomination), Weaver cemented the ability of a woman to open an action picture, and has influenced the pop-culture zeitgeist ever since, establishing a cottage industry of mainstream entertainments feature ass-kicking women. The Bride, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, Yu Shu Lien… All heirs to Ellen Ripley.
Ellen, of course is a name not mentioned in Alien—Ripley doesn’t get her first name until James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which is a sequel that is plenty fun but not quite in the same league as the original. The series continued with David Fincher’s mean-spirited, modestly intriguing follow-up Alien³ (1991) before dribbling into irrelevancy with Jean Pierre-Jenuet’s misguided Alien Resurrection (1997). (The two Alien vs. Predator films are best ignored.) Even at its worst, however, the series holds a unique interest, because each entry bears a maker’s mark quite different from the others—no one would confuse Cameron’s feminist war parable with Fincher’s ode to nihilism, or Jenuet’s efforts to make a self-parodying medical shoot-em-up. Nor would any of those approaches be mistaken for what Ridley Scott does here, creating a creepy aura that favors mysteries and quiet contemplation. This approach recalls film school exercises where several directors are asked to shoot the same script—it becomes rather exhilarating to watch talented directors take the same material and put their own, unique spin on it.
For Ridley Scott, life would never be the same. Scott was 41 when he made Alien—in other words he was certainly a late bloomer, since this film jump-started his career (after his debut, the barely-noticed The Deulists). He would go on to be a prolific and valuable director, one of our most adventurous and smart, going on to direct the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, as well as Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and the intelligent Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. He has made weak films (Gladiator), and he has made bad films (Hannibal, Black Rain, 1492, Robin Hood), but even then he has never made a boring one, because he gives a subject his all. With Alien, his oft-criticized dispassionate directorial style is a perfect companion for this story, evoking not just the necessary fright, but also the awe, the nervousness, the loneliness of being adrift in a universe capable of springing surprises as nasty as the alien.
What is striking about Alien is that it hasn’t really dated. There’s a few effects shots that are no longer impressive, and its computer science these days looks no more an extension of our present than From the Earth to the Moon. But its scare strategies, its abilities to induce fear, are timeless. The approach and style are correct for the material, and the film savors craftsmanship: character development, plot, theme. History has shown that a bad horror film can still make a killing at the box office, but Scott wasn’t interested in that–he wanted to make a good one, and he did. Recent rumblings have stated that Scott is interested in going back to Alien, perhaps directing a prequel. I wish him the best. I just hope he has the good sense not to delve too deep in the buried mysteries of Alien, and even if he does I hope he has the good sense not to try to answer them. I don’t really wish to know where the space jockey came from, or the origin of the creatures, or any of that stuff. Some things man was not meant to know. Just fear.
NOTES: There are two versions of Alien, the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2003 in-name-only “director’s cut.” The director’s cut makes some unfortunate editing choices that sap the energy out of some of the suspense sequences and makes some unfortunate here-and-there cuts. It also adds a scene towards the end that gives more information on the alien biological process, adds more screen time for Tom Skerritt as Dallas, and answers Lambert’s earlier question of what happened to the alien ship’s crew. But it breaks up the momentum of the third act. I recommend the theatrical cut.
I give cursory attention here to the sexual undertones that permeate Alien. For more analysis, I recommend Tim Dirks’ detailed review of Alien at filmsite.org, and David McIntee’s book Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to the Alien and Predator Films (2005, Telos Publishing). Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of Alien helped inform some of the research and discussion points for this review–I’d be remiss not to note it.