I first saw Alien (1979) about two years ago. My previous exposure to Alien came from the Great Movie Ride at Disney World that had me cowering in my seat. I figured after reviews of some not so great movies, it’s time for something a little different.
Two years ago, I found out that there was a midnight screening of the movie near my apartment. I then rounded up friends of mine who had varied experiences with the movie and got ready to watch it in all its original glory. For the next two hours, I was spellbound, terrified, and riveted. After the movie ended, I was so full of excitement and left completely breathless. I couldn’t focus. I wanted to run around Washington Square Park at 3 a.m. I was suddenly starving and wanted to go somewhere to digest everything I had just seen. I mostly wanted to start the movie over again immediately.
For someone who sees a lot of movies, to have this feeling of exhilaration and wonder and excitement, felt so absolutely liberating. I watched Alien several more times over the next few months, because I can be an obsessive movie watcher.
Alien is a perfect combination of expert film making techniques. There’s the blending of science fiction and horror to make this perfect suspenseful atmosphere. Scenes are either overlit or almost pitch black to emphasize the deep sense of fear and unknown. The camera often takes the perspective of the actors, giving the audience a too-intimate view of the action; we are there in the dark, as afraid and scared as the crew of the Nostromo. The score is minimalist and sparse. Often audiences are overwhelmed by the complete silence on screen as the crew and audience both wait for the inevitable attack. The script is excellent; all of the characters have a full hour to develop their personalities and relationships before the main bulk of the horror story even begins.
Alien does follow the horror movie formula of picking off characters one by one and fully isolating one lone hopeful survivor. We get the badass Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as that survivor for the whole Alien quadrilogy. Her success as a survivor, and the fact that she endures as an action-horror icon, is not just because she’s great, but because every interaction between her and the rest of the crew is great. Ripley is presented as competent and inquisitive from the start, wanting to understand Dallas’s (Tom Skerritt) calls when he seems go against protocol. Her tension with Ash (Ian Holm) is derived mostly from him refusal to cooperate with her, both because of his role as a science officer who’s own authority conflicts with Ripley, and because of his own nature. Unlike the android David in the prequel Prometheus, who is cold and silent and calculating, Ash is more impulsive-seeming, often making quick rash motions despite his emotional detachment. His actions are a little too quick and jerky, a little too forceful.
Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is drawn as fearful, reluctant and overwhelmed from the start, placing her slightly at odds with the more measured Ripley. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) are mostly in the whole business for their own profit, but once things turn serious, their more comedic nature gives way to their desperate attempts at self-preservation.
Again, all of these relationships and interactions are either underscored or undermined by the vastness of the space around them. Space is a constant reminder of their precarious position. Sets are large and exposed or small and extremely confined.
The crew of the Nostromo isn’t just isolated in space, 10 months journey away from home, their fear as crew members are picked off one by one starts to divide them slowly. Their ideas of self preservation seem to conflict with each other. But to both audiences and the crew, the reveal that there is a larger plan at play and that ultimately the crew is expendable is the moment when you know there is no real happy ending. Survival is all you can ask for.
Alien is a movie that has become deeply ingrained in pop culture, with now-famous scenes such as this one:
See what I did there?
There is also Ripley in her underwear, which I’m sure triggered the start of puberty in many people:
The most enduring part of movie is Ellen Ripley herself, the final girl. Apparently, producers wanted to avoid having a final girl situation and make the cast all male, as this was becoming a major trope in Hollywood horror films. Thankfully, they kept Ripley as a woman, and helped create a counterpoint to that final girl; a survivor who was slightly more resourceful and active in her own escape.
Alien gave us Ripley and it gave us one of the scariest movies ever. One thing people fail to acknowledge is that Alien also gave us Jones.
Jones: The Most Selfish
plot device Cat Ever