The creature slowly emerges from the shadows, face all twisted, mucus and saliva dripping onto the floor. A ginger cat intuitively backs away, careful not to make any sudden moves. What is this … thing? What kind of evolutionary leap was made in the formation of such a horrific, disgusting figure? What does it actually want? What is it thinking? WHY IS IT GOING THROUGH BOXES OF KLEENEX AT SUCH AN INCREDIBLE RATE?
* Not at the moment, anyway.
A couple of nights ago, after catching a virus that had knocked me sideways, I decided to re-watch Alien, Ridley Scott’s classic late 70s melding of science fiction and horror. Perhaps, on some level, I wanted to see fictional suffering far worse than anything I was currently experiencing as I sneezed and coughed and generally felt sorry for myself around the flat. Sure, I may feel rough, but at least there’s nothing bursting right out of my chest and scurrying across the carpet.*
Here’s a quick plot recap, including spoilers: The seven-man crew of deep space mining vessel The Nostromo are unexpectedly woken from stasis after the ship’s onboard computer ‘Mother’ intercepts a signal (distress? warning?). Three crew members investigate, and eventually discover that it is emanating from a crashed ship, where they find the skeleton of a long-dead alien pilot and, in the depths below the ship’s cockpit explored by Kane (John Hurt), a bunch of large eggs.
* I’ve always liked the ambiguous nature of the company’s anonymity in Alien. In the sequels, and in prequel Prometheus, there is more specific mention of companies called ‘Weyland-Yutani’ and ‘The Weyland Corporation’, but the lack of a name in the original film creates much more mystique and leaves us with several unanswered questions. The name ‘Weylan-Yutani’ (missing a ‘d’) does appear here and there on objects inside The Nostromo, but you’ll only notice them if you’re really looking hard.
Unfortunately Kane is just a little bit too inquisitive, and after a little prodding a creature springs from one of the eggs and wraps itself around his face and throat. Despite protestations from warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) the crew bring Kane back onboard, aided by science officer Ash (Ian Holm), later revealed to be a duplicitous android that has been given specific hidden orders by ‘the company’*.
Famously, Kane’s body acts as a host for an alien life form, which bursts from his chest in one of the most memorable horror scenes committed to celluloid. It grows quickly on board the ship into a hideous, dome-headed beast which exists simply to hunt and kill, gradually picking off the crew one-by-one as it thrashes around The Nostromo’s dark, claustrophobic corridors, ducts and air vents. Ripley discovers the company wishes for the creature to be returned to Earth alive, even if that means the death of the entire crew, and must thwart Ash and the alien to ensure her own survival.
Upon its 1979 cinematic release, Alien was bestowed with one of the most famous taglines in cinema (‘In space no one can hear you scream’, lest we forget). Although this gave its original audience some warning that grisly scenes would follow on the big screen, few will have been truly prepared for those iconic images of the ‘facehugger’ and the ‘chestburster’ (not to mention the fully-grown alien itself, the impact of which has since been diminished through familiarity, thanks to sequel, prequel and spin-off aplenty).
But this mention of noiseless space also hints at something other than the unanswered cries of the Nostromo’s crew. Alien is actually a very quiet film, relying on silence to both starve the viewer of information and gradually increase the levels of tension. Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon left long periods of silence in the first 30 or 40 minutes of the film, ocassionally punctuating it with exterior scenes where fierce, howling winds leave us in no doubt about the inhospitable nature of the terrain they are exploring. Few films before or since have managed to create such a sense of creeping, claustrophobic terror, and the periods of quiet help immeasurably.
There’s no prologue, no back stories and little that tells us where this is all taking place (the crew find out that they are approximately 10 months away from Earth, but that’s about it). When the crew wake up we are as disorientated and as confused as they are, and we receive information as slowly as they do throughout the film – drip fed, slowly. We have no idea about the origins of these characters in the same way we have no idea about the origins of the alien world they discover. Most of the time the crew members tetchily cut short their conversations with each other, which adds to the overall confusion. Nothing gets in the way of or detracts from the film’s core tale, which is one of survival.
* Though the most notable similarity between the two films, other than the fact they are set in space, is that both The Nostromo and 2001‘s Discovery One are fitted with computers with names; while 2001‘s Hal is autonomous, Alien‘s Mother follows the orders it has been given by the company.
Alien remains visually stunning over 30 years later. The Nostromo’s design is a mix of industrial dark hangars and corridors and lighter living spaces (though the alien’s sudden appearance over dinner shatters any notion of safety and comfort in one fell swoop). Some elements of the ship’s look seem to have been copied from 2001: A Space Oddyssey*, though art director Roger Christian and designer Ron Cobb also worked on Star Wars, and parts of the Nostromo have a similar used, battered look to 20th Century Fox’s other great sci-fi universe.
This look contrasts wonderfully with H.R. Giger’s celebrated alien world designs, strange and incredibly creative mixtures of organic and biomechanical matter, described by the actor Veronica Cartwright (who plays ship navigator Lambert) in the documentary The Beast Within: The Making of Alien as “so erotic…it’s big vaginas and penises…the whole thing is like you’re going inside of some sort of womb or whatever…it’s sort of visceral”. Giger designed and worked on all of the alien elements of the film, his influence on the finished movie so great that his name is forever-entwined with the project every bit as much as Sigourney Weaver’s or Ridley Scott’s. (If you watch it again bear this in mind – the film is full of body part imagery: the chestburster itself, the fully-grown alien’s head, the way its teeth appear in a kind of out-of-the-mouth erection, the crashed spaceship (which you could argue looks like a cross between a penis and a vagina), the sheer number of vaginal shapes within that craft…and so on).
Giger’s visual hints towards sexuality were important and in keeping with other more brutal sexual themes Scott and his team developed, eloquently described by Adrian Mackinder here: “The perverse, sexual element of Giger’s work not only adds to the inhuman terror of the alien itself but also seems to have permeated the entire film: the way the ‘facehugger’ implants the alien seed within the stomach of Kane (John Hurt) is effectively a form of male rape and how the seed emerges from within in the now legendary ‘chestburster’ scene is the worst kind of violent birth anyone could wish for.” (Mackinder also points out the theme of rape is also hinted at when Ash attacks Ripley later on, forcing a rolled-up pornographic magazine into her mouth in an attempt to suffocate her.)
The fate of Hurt’s character has been fervently discussed over the years. O’Bannon has suggested that the facehugger scene is a metaphor for the male fear of penetration, and that the ‘oral invasion’ of Kane by the facehugger functions as ‘payback’ for the many horror films in which sexually vulnerable women are attacked by male monsters.
* Unlike, say, Burke (Paul Reiser) in James Cameron’s unsubtle but action-packed and enjoyable sequel Aliens.
Hollywood’s preference for strong heroic males across the science fiction and horror genres is dismissed in the most brutal way possible in Alien; while none of the male members of the crew are cowardly caricatures* , it is important that all the men fail as heroes, from Yaphet Kotto’s strong-willed engineer Parker to Harry Dean Stanton’s dazed technician Brett and Tom Skerritt’s captain Dallas. All are hunted and either killed or cocooned save for the film’s heroine, Ripley. Even the fate of the Nostromo itself links in: the name refers to Joseph Conrad’s novel from 1904, and while it translates in Italian to ‘Shipmate’ it is also considered to be a corruption of the phrase ‘nostro uomo’, meaning ‘our man’. Yes, even the main spaceship is given a male identity, and true to form it is blown into smithereens as the film … ahem … climaxes.
Motherhood is another theme running through the film. Most obviously, as stated above, the ship’s onboard computer is named ‘Mother’, though the company takes away the computer’s original prime function to protect its ‘children’, leaving them at the mercy of the roaming, vicious creature. When Ripley is unable to abort the destruct sequence that she herself initiates on board The Nostromo, she calls the computer a ‘bitch’ (a phrase that’s used in a different context in Aliens). Then, of course, there is the completely unnatural version of childbirth and motherhood that is forced onto male crewman Kane. It’s a theme that James Cameron explores further with the introduction of the character Newt and revelations about the alien species in the sequel.
Alien is an incredibly rewarding film on many levels. If you’re looking for straightforward action and suspenseful horror – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – few films out there are able to match it for visceral thrills and shocks. But it has also demanded serious critical analysis over the years and will satisfy anyone looking for something a little deeper than two hours of creature feature hack n’ slash. The performances are all fine (Weaver was previously a stage performer and Alien was her first major film role, but if anyone stands out it’s Ian Holm as the emotionless android Ash) and the story is enjoyably vague, tied-up nicely at the end but leaving more inquisitive viewers with plenty of questions. However the most striking aspect of Alien today is still its visual design: excellent special effects (for the most part anyway) and innovative, creative and memorable sets and creatures, when added together, depict an entirely believable alien world. Its status as a revered landmark achievement in modern cinema is hugely deserved.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright
Running Time: 117 minutes