[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B006MGB31Q][/pullquote] One must wonder what crossed the mind of Nobel Winning Edward Teller when he developed his thermo-nuclear bomb, after all it’s not like the atomic bomb failed in its simplistic remit of blowing shit up. Clearly though; there comes a time when ˜awesome just isn’t enough’ and it can only be assumed that a similar thought must have crossed the mind of whoever first conceived of the sci-fi slasher movie. Two genres, each so prolific in spawning sequels their fertility makes Genghis Khan look like a eunuch; merged into a single blockbuster. Whoever it was, it was Alien that grasped the concept and like a blood doping Forest Gump; ran with it.
The film begins with a protracted moving shot of the interior of the deep space towing vessel ˜The Nostromo’. Fantastically designed, it is a fusion of the mechanical and the magical, juxtaposing dark cluttered corridors reminiscent of primitive submarines with futuristic white panelling and banks of flashing lights clearly inspired by 2001‘s vision of the future. This clever design serves a distinct purpose, on the one hand it awes us with a level of technology beyond our understanding, yet on the other it offers a very relatable environment, allowing greater empathy with the crew’s terror while awakening primal fears such as nyctophobia claustrophobia in the viewer.
The scene setting ends with the ship picking up a distress beacon that rouses the seven member crew from its artificial slumber. Over breakfast we get to know the characters, as the excellently written and subtle discourse is done a great justice by what is a truly marvellous cast. Captained by the amiable but firm Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and seconded the by serious stickler Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the rest of the crew run the breadth of personalities. Kane (John Hurt) the Executive Officer and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) offer strong performances as middle of the road crew members, subtly conveying a sense of unease at the isolation of deep space without the luxury of resorting to overt personality traits, while Ash (Ian Holm) is exemplary as the traditionally stoic science officer. The standout performances however come from the Nostromo’s excellently portrayed mechanics, Parker (Yaphet Kotto); the cheeky rogue, and his laconic side kick Brett (Harry Dean Stanton).
Tracing the distress signal to a nearby planet, an exploratory team lands on its desolate surface and begins to track its source. In their traversing of the landscape we are gifted with a some fantastically eerie topography, rocky trenches cleverly amplify the feelings of claustrophobia inherent to the film while rasping winds assault the senses, increasing tension as we question what terrible sounds their invasiveness may mask.
Eventually the crew find the origin of the signal, a huge space vessel of alien design perched upon a steep rise. It is here we are gifted with the first contribution of the cult Swiss artist H R Giger whose disquieting designs depict that which is alien with a visceral Gaudi like quality distinctly contrasting to the artificial feel of that which is human. In this instance, Giger has created a fantastically organic vessel, uncomfortably antagonistic in its alien asymmetry and so greatly divergent from what we find comfortable we can only wonder at where it is crewed from, how it is propelled and indeed, how it even follows what we know of the laws of physics! In the beauty of the design we forget these questions, instead; we accept that the vessel works and move straight on to marvelling at its advanced nature, subconsciously comparing it to the aesthetically grim Nostromo as we humble ourselves before its majesty.
The inside of the vessel is equally breathtaking and its organic nature is amplified further by its convex walls, rib like supports and the most importantly the cockpit of the vessel’s alien pilot. Here the ˜Space Jockey’ (as it was dubbed on set), sits deceased but resplendent in a mighty command chair as if fused with the very machinery of the space craft. This once again points to a humbling level of technology far more advanced than our own. In this instance however; it serves a frightening double purpose: not simply high-lighting our own deficiencies when compared with the breadth of the cosmos, but raising the question, what could have lain this mighty being low?
Investigation of the corpse yields answers, as a hole in the torso of the mysterious alien gives every hint that he was killed from the inside out. Putting the gruesome discovery aside the crew investigate the rest of the vessel, with Kane coming across what appears to be a cavernous room full of eggs. Again designed by Giger, the eggs continue the organic theme, living organisms in themselves that birth their contents as opposed to simply cracking and falling away. Original concept art typifies this notion as Giger wanted the birthing orifice to have an overtly vaginal appearance. This interesting design is just the start of an entirely unfamiliar life cycle that totally divorces the alien from our comfortable concepts of humanoid extra-terrestrial life that has conveniently managed to evolve in an almost identical way to us; but for the odd imperative mutation of brow ridges.
In examining these eggs Kane is introduced to the Facehugger, a small alien shaped like a pair of hands with long probing fingers that clasp his face and a tail that anchors it around his neck. Smothering his face it seems to go dormant as Dallas and Lambert take his comatose body back to Ash and the landing vessel.
It is at this point that Ripley actually identifies herself as a character in the narrative, previously blending into obscurity so as to heighten the unpredictability around the film’s outcome. Quoting rules and regulations, Ripley at first refuses entry to the vessel under quarantine regulations only to be overruled by Dallas . This contrast opposes her to his cavalier but caring nature, throwing a curve ball that reinforces his bid as the heroic lead, while removing her from such a theory through her conservative opinions, a tack that only increasing the plot’s unpredictability.
Attempts to remove the Facehugger prove ill fated as the crew discover its blood is a virulent acid. This discovery curtails their options and they eventually opt to give Kane some lone time to snog his new friend in a critical yet stable condition. This course of action proves itself fruitful as in time the Facehugger, rather anti-climactically, just falls off his face and dies. Returning to the crew, Kane seems dreary and rather fraught, no change there so he must be fine! Queue the film’s most iconic scene.
The Chestburster scene from Alien has long been a talked about piece of cinema. Introducing the film’s primary antagonist, it does so in a gory and horrific way that appeals to every sensible person’s fear of parasitic infection, playing on this general disgust to shock the viewer as the nascent alien springs from Kane’s convulsing body and escapes. Occurring in a sterile white dining area, the environment plays perfectly into the scene’s hands, as the clinical surroundings leave little to the imagination. The introduction of food to the equation ands a further layer of revulsion too, after all, who doesn’t find the thought of blood in their dinner disgusting (unless they’re northern)? The act of impregnating Kane adds another dimension to the Facehugger’s horror as it draws on our repulsion of rape to further enhance its shock factor. This shock is amplified; as unlike other rape analogies the nature of this attack was consciously designed to distress the predominantly male audience that typically watch science fiction.
The story goes that when Harry Dean Stanton was pitched the film he said I don’t like science fiction and I don’t like monster movies, to which he was then told Alien was more like Ten Little Indians in space. Ironic that Harry shouldn’t live to see the metaphor play out, with Brett being the first to fall. Wandering off alone to save the ship’s cat Jones he’s accosted and killed by what amazingly appears to be a fully grown alien. This rapid development enhances the metamorphic nature of the creature, its ever changing physique increasing uncertainly in the viewer to build a questionable image of the Alien in their minds, exacerbating the widely used horror technique of obfuscating your antagonist.
Leading from the front, Dallas then hunts the creature through the air ducts with his jury-rigged flamethrower and is the next to fall. Command of the Nostromo necessarily falls to Ripley, which also means command of the ship’s computer. Examining ˜Mother’, as the computer is called, yields terrifying information; with the corporation ordering the science officer Ash to return the Alien to them, even at the cost of the crew! Challenging Ash on this information, the science officer attacks Ripley with disturbing strength until Parker bludgeons him with a fire extinguisher, striking Ash’s head off to reveal the artificial innards of an android.
Messily interrogating the remnants of Ash, the remaining crew are treated to a sinister ordeal as they realise just how isolated they are, not just on the ship, but in the galaxy. It becomes clear that Ash’s previously expressed admiration for the perfection of the Alien is echoed by their company’s management, transferring the android’s sinister adoration for the creature’s deadliness onto them and making the corporation as menacing as Ash by association as the two’s outlook become synonymous.
With only three left and a plan to use the escape vessel, the survivors do what all good slasher victims do, split the group. Lambert and Parker team up and set off for supplies while Ripley leaves to arm the self-destruct. Predictably it fails to go to plan as Lambert and Parker meet the Alien. Armed with an indiscriminate flame thrower the mechanic finds himself unable to douse the creature in fire due to Lambert inconvenient freezing in terror. As a result, they both die, leaving Ripley to flee to the escape pod on her own.
While at least alive, Ripley’s travels aren’t more of a picnic as she comes across the makeshift home of the alien. There, trapped in a sort of web like resin, she finds the body of Brett and the faintly living Dallas, the latter of which begs for death, receiving mercy on the business end of Ripley’s flamethrower. This potentially terrifying scene doesn’t quite have the impact of similar scenes in the sequel Aliens, however at this point the pace has picked up and it is clear that a tangent into a touch of personal horror would only slow the momentum so far gained.
With the self destruct set and the rest of the crew dead, Ripley reaches the escape pod and launches, exiting the Nostromo and reaching the cinematically obligatory minimum safe distance before the vessel explodes. With the tension diffused and the apparent third act over the film then teases us with wrapping up scene. It’s not long however before Alien throws a fourth act into the mix, as it quickly becomes apparent that the alien is on board the escape craft. This begins an excellently suspenseful scene as Ripley attempts to evade the seemingly resting creature at a slow and deliberate crawl, desperate not to rouse its suspicion as if playing some fatal game of Buckaroo. This highlights the bestial nature of the alien, playing up to the predisposition of ˜making no sudden movements’ when trying to escape an animal. Donning a space suit she prepares to open the airlock and flush the alien out. Ripley does this, despite a scuffled moment of doubt when the alien springs to consciousness to fight for its life. Clinging to the doorway however, the creature then survives the harsh vacuum of space and attempts to climb into engine pod. The engine is of course ignited, giving us closure and a wrap to one of the greatest science fiction horror films ever made.
As can be seen throughout the plot there is a reoccurring theme of duality and synergy; thesis-antithesis synthesis. It blends sci-fi and slasher in its genre, organic and artificial in its species identities, primitive and advanced in the antagonists of Ash and the alien. Cleverly it takes these various opposites and like the German philosopher Hegel synthesises them into something greater.
The success of the formula has however made Alien it’s own worst enemy, as to really appreciate its beauty; the viewer must first forget everything they know. For instance: Ripley, the protagonist of the quartet of Alien movies barely registers on the viewer’s radar for the first half an hour and comes across as almost peripheral, a subtle aspect of the story telling often lost in today’s spoiler saturated audience. Indeed, it is only with the now prevalent meta-understanding of slasher convention that one would foresee the female Ripley as the sole survivor (albeit a somewhat atypical one); early hints instead point to a traditionally heroic Dallas, or a reluctantly heroic and selflessly reformed Parker.
The ambiguity of the cast member’s importance creates a genuine suspense in the first time viewer. With no obvious stand out lead there is no shoe-in for sole survivor and it is only in the more subtle hints that we can foresee Ripley as being the last woman standing. As with all slasher movies Ripley displays the sort of sixth sense prevalent in the target of the killer, as only she seems aware of when danger is afoot (examples of this include her refusal to allow the face-huggered Kane back on board the Nostromo). Likewise she’s a strong character able to stand up for herself when lesser members come up wanting (Lambert freezing in terror when faced with the alien offers a gender comparator for Ripley’s bravery). This issue of gender leads us to our final and most important slasher analogy, as survivor Ripley follows the genre’s tradition of being female.
This issue of gender however only scratches the surface of Alien‘s sexual subtexts. As with most slasher films, the female lead is the victim of a foe that favours phallic thrusting attacks be they with its toothed tongue or its tail (the latter being truly sexualised in its suggestive attack on Lambert). These obvious clues however don’t do justice to something that is indeed far more complex.
Unlike many films of the genre there is a very clear homogenisation of gender. Ripley is masculinised by her asexual name (a trick often used in slasher movies), minimal makeup and desexualised, faintly unisex hair (did you see Kevin Keegan?). Clad mostly in a unisex flight suit, she appears no different to the male cast and when we do inevitably see her in underwear it’s only vaguely sexual at best as it refuses to conform to traditionally appealing curves of the female form. Strangely however the Alien also offers a certain gender ambiguity. Giger’s sexual style of art is evident in the alien’s aforementioned phallic attacks forms as well as other aspects of its body shape such as its head, however, it is also lean and graceful (certainly in later incarnations), traits that are not usually associated with aggressive masculinity. Also The animalistic nature of the killer makes its deadliness interestingly at odds with typical human slasher antagonists, as, in the animal kingdom, the female is more deadly than the male. Furthermore the alien reproduction implies an even greater impression of asexuality as it seems it is capable of reproducing on its own, in fact, logical progression even feminises the final stage alien as it can only lays eggs; the masculine penetrative role of impregnating only possible via the facehugger stage of its life-cycle.
This subtle twist on gender stereotyping is cleverly used by Ridley Scott to reinforce the science fiction elements of the film, painting a picture of a future where gender bias has been diluted and where women regularly fill masculine roles unheard of in today’s society. After all, how many women do you know who are second in command of a commercial towing vessel?
This futuristic element necessarily leads us to the second half of the film, away from the primal and primitive alien and on to what could be conceived as the real antagonist, ˜the corporation’. Revealed in later work to be the Waylan-Yutani Corporation, the corporation in Alien takes on a dangerous and oppressive roll as it sends the crew of the Nostromo off to investigate the distress beacon, all the while relying on their android Ash to obfuscate the truth and recover the species no matter the human cost.
This dynamic alludes to not only a fear of overarching authority but an unsettling suspicion of others, complete with the paranoia inherent in that. As in any oppressive regime there is always a sense of being watched, the references made to the computer as ˜Mother’ and the android in the midst of the crew hints to a monolithic organisation, above regulation and above the law that doesn’t think twice at infringing upon what we deem to be inherent human rights. An organisation that can hold such sway on an individual is surely a frightening prospect, irrespective of whether you’re floating around in the most inhospitable environment in the universe. Such a setting indeed only exacerbates the disquiet, amplifying the fear felt as even if the alien if defeated, where do you run? Who will help you? Will anyone even know? For as the tag line of the film reminds us: in space, no body can hear you scream.
Possibly the greatest science fiction horror film of all time; Alien is a masterpiece by director Ridley Scott. It brings the unimaginable to life, creating a relatable fear from unknown and a sense of realism from the outlandish.