A benchmark in the science fiction genre, 1979’s Alien is a simple “Jaws in space” idea which was executed with phenomenal filmmaking prowess. Alien arrived two years after the first Star Wars, and it served as a hard-hitting reminder that not all journeys through space will be heroic, exciting flights of fantasy. And on top of being a top-notch depiction of the mundane disposition of space, Alien is one of the most hair-raising horror films of its era. In fact, this is not strictly a science fiction movie – it’s more of a skilful exercise in sheer visceral terror that happens to be set among sci-fi trappings.
While en route back to Earth, the crew onboard the commercial vessel known as the Nostromo are prematurely awoken from cryogenic stasis. The ship’s central computer picks up a transmission of mysterious origins coming from a nearby, unsurveyed planet, and the crew are summoned to check out the situation. But when they land on the desolate planet, eggs are discovered which contain alien organisms, one of which latches onto a crew member’s face and cannot be removed. With no choice but to bring the life-form back onboard the Nostromo, a deadly alien soon breaks loose, taking up residence within the labyrinthine corridors of the vast ship.
The iconic “chest-bursting scene” doesn’t actually occur until halfway through Alien. The build-up is what makes this film so special – we are given the chance to get to know the crew, and such care towards character development augments the sense of tension and peril when the monster is introduced. It helps that Dan O’Bannon’s script is so smart. Conversations between the characters are engaging and have a naturalistic flow, which builds the impression that these people are real space truckers with lives back home. Furthermore, O’Bannon introduces relevant themes about corporate greed, as the possibility of discovering and studying an otherworldly organism is deemed as more important than human life.
It’s common in horror films for protagonists to be trapped in a claustrophobic space, most often a haunted house. Of course, characters can often escape haunted houses if they’re smart enough, so writers usually invoke the supernatural to prevent them from escaping. But such an approach was not necessary for Alien, as it’s set onboard a spaceship in the empty vacuum of space. It’s a vast setting, but there is no escape, and the alien creature can be lurking in any nook, cranny or shadow. This increases the sense of claustrophobia, dread and, most terrifyingly, unpredictability. Director Ridley Scott plays on this several times, occasionally lulling us into a false sense of security before unleashing something on the unwitting crew. Scott’s directorial approach emphasises tension and atmosphere, taking heed of the “less is more” adage which worked so well for Steven Spielberg in Jaws. All glimpses of the alien add up to probably around 5 or 10 minutes of screen-time, and thus each sighting is scary. Alien is often branded as too slow in this day and age, and, admittedly, to some extent this criticism is justified. While the slowness does make the movie as enthralling and suspenseful as it is at times, certain sections needed tightening, especially when it’s obvious that a long slow patch will eventually yield a xenomorph attack. Plus, there are a number of pointlessly slow shots examining ship equipment at the film’s beginning. For the most part Alien works miraculously well, but a tighter cut would have yielded a superior picture.
Alien is almost unrivalled in its visceral horror. We see gory “torture porn” movies so often, yet the gore works here because of how sparingly it’s used. The chest-bursting scene is so sudden and tragic, and the fact that this violence arrives an hour into the movie – when we have grown to care about the characters – makes it even more unnerving. Jerry Goldsmith’s unobtrusive score is a perfect fit for Scott’s visuals. Music is used sparingly, subtly weaving its way in and out of the film to become an extension of the experience. Best of all, Alien is no less effective when devoid of music – in fact the periods of silence constitute some of the film’s most riveting scenes. Most ’70s fright movies have dated all these years later (even The Exorcist has started to lose its original punch), but Alien has stood the test of time.
Three decades on, Alien‘s visual effects and sets remain immaculate. The xenomorph in particular is visual perfection – designed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, the creature is meticulously-detailed and terrifyingly inhuman. This film is also a solid demonstration of why practical effects are more effective than CGI. The extensive, insanely-detailed sets and models look stunning, and the alien itself has an actual screen presence since it was portrayed by a stuntman in a suit. The face-hugger, meanwhile, seems to be alive, and the egg from which it emerges looks remarkably organic. A few effects are admittedly rough-around-the-edges (the alien looks almost comical when it flees across the table after the infamous chest-bursting moment), but there are far more hits than misses.
Yet another of Alien‘s myriad of assets is the cast. This is a terrific example of ensemble acting, as each performer is recognisable and distinctive. There are no bland faces without names here, which raises the stakes since you do not want to see any of these established characters get killed. As the iconic Ellen Ripley, Sigourney Weaver is pitch-perfect. Inhabiting the role with effortless abandon, Weaver’s performance presents Ripley as a woman of sense and resource who still seems fundamentally human. Also excellent is Tom Skerritt in the role of Captain Dallas. Skerritt’s duality is especially brilliant here; Dallas initially seems strong and charming, but he changes once the alien is introduced. Meanwhile, Ian Holm is brilliant detached as science officer Ash, and John Hurt consistently impresses as Kane. Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton and Veronica Cartwright are great, as well.
Alien is a movie which grows on you. This reviewer found it stilted and boring at age 13, but after several more viewings years later I’ve grown to love it. It’s an intoxicating experience which immerses you into Ridley Scott’s cinematic spell and refuses to loosen its tight grasp until the end credits begin to roll. For any amateur filmmakers, Alien serves as a wonderful lesson in tension – at certain times it’s even difficult to take a breath. This is a quintessential watch for film buffs, sci-fi enthusiasts and anyone who just likes good moviemaking.