THIS WEEK: Alien(1979) – The Nostromo, a space mining vessel, answers a distress call on a strange alien planet. They bring aboard a deadly creature that threatens the entire crew.
HOW IT STARTS: The crew discovers some alien eggs near an abandoned otherworldly space ship.
THE PREFACE: Ridley Scott is in the headlines again with the $55 million debut of his sci-fi movie The Martian. His success began with this legendary horrifying science fiction film, Alien. Stylishly filmed with an emphasis on a dreadful atmosphere, this horror film rises above the genre. Sci-fi and horror are not normally taken seriously, especially decades ago when this amazing film debuted. Scott changed the game by taking his story seriously. The unique and desolate setting of outer space elevated what is essentially a hybrid of a haunted house and a monster movie.
Although, the story was nothing brand new, the creature was unlike anything we have seen before. Designed by artist H.R. Giger, this slick black xenomorph terrifies the entire audience. The eerie and impending score from Jerry Goldsmith fuels the horror, amplifying the tension and complimenting the visuals.
The delibrate pacing and matter-of-fact approach to space travel really helps set the stage well and roots the story in realism. Our heroes feel like they are so accustomed to space travel they have lost all awe and amazement. They are just doing their jobs… in space. Because they are bored by space, does not mean we are. Scott frames space and the Nostromo with such purpose that every shot feels worthy of a poster.
Sure, the film is astoundingly beautiful and the focus on realism really helps create a believable world – but make no mistake, we remember this iconic horror film because Alien is absolutely grab-your-arm-rest scary.
THE SET-UP: Our hero is played by Sigourney Weaver, but we do not know that (or expect that) up front. Now, we all know of her as the iconic character from this memorable franchise. People who have not even seen Alien know she is the hero. So, no spoilers, right. Really, it is the emphasis on the entire crew as a unit that helps increase the anxiety. We are never sure who will die next. The first character to get attacked is played by John Hurt.
Answering a distress call, several crew members set foot on alien soil to investigate. They come across an exotic looking space ship and a (giant) dead pilot. Nearby, they discover a swirling mist, hiding cocoon-like pods within. The scene is staged perfectly. Scott takes his time, milking the tension as Hurt descends through the mist. It only gets more thrilling as he approaches the pod – and we learn that this is an alien egg.
A tendril flashes inside when Hurt shines a light on the semi-translucent egg-skin. He can not help but prod the egg further. In a flash, a coiled creature lashes out, springing onto Hurt. Somehow the alien breaks through the space helmet and latches its crab-like hands around his face. This sequence built up its scares to this jump-in-your-seat moment. Despite knowing what to expect, we are still afraid because of how well Scott has put us under his spell.
THAT MOMENT: The crew bring Hurt on board the Nostromo and attend to him in the medical facilities. They are shocked and alarmed. There are no records of this creature on file. The crew are not sure what to do. Instinct tells them to try to cut away the fingers of the alien face-hugger, but they are worried it will harm him further. We learn later that this monster has acid for blood, so cutting it away is a big no no.
That Moment happens when they first attempt to pry away the clasped fingers of the alien. When they do, the long strong tail tightens around his throat. It is a subtle Moment that speaks volumes with one powerful image. We instantly know the crew cannot remove this alien safely. It solidifies are worst fears. This will not be easy.
While the chest-burster scene may be more memorable due to its shocking nature (and fountains of blood), it would not have been so effective if we were not dreading that moment so much. Because of the excellent staging earlier, we are anxiously anticipating the shift into horror. This anticipation (or foreplay) is almost better than the reveal of the chest-burster.
Earlier, once the face-hugger finished its mission, it simply let go of Hurt and died. Meanwhile, nobody knew that it impregnated him, using his body as a host vessel – although, Ripley had her doubts of even letting him back on board.
The arc of being scared, feeling safe, to being scared again creates a rhythm of anticipation, like a valley of climaxes. The subtle face-hugger tightening the throat was just one beat in that rhythm, but it always resonated with me. This Moment somehow haunted me more than the iconic chest-burster scene.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: The visceral nature of the violence and horror of Alien helped it rise above the ranks in a genre most look down upon. Ridley Scott directed a masterpiece that broke through into the mainstream and provided the man with an incredible career. He executed a simple premise to perfection, with style and atmosphere you could taste. The palpable tension combined with the best of photography, music, and design of the genre automatically makes Alien one of the best horror movies ever made.
A big reason this dirty little horror movie works so well is the alien design itself. First, there is the macabre beauty of the H.R. Giger design. Secondly, there is the writing. The alien is well thought out, it is not simply a man in a monster suit. The alien goes through a captivating metamorphosis – going from pod, to face-hugger, to chest-burster, to the tall black xenomorph with a domed head.
Signourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley was one of the first butt-kicking female action heroes out there… and she was up against one hell of an opponent. Part of the reason the audience latched onto Alien so emphatically had to do with this amazing performance and no-nonsense character. Weaver would actually get recognized by the Academy with a nomination in the James Cameron sequel. Ripley is that good.
A lot of movie fans have missed out on Alien because the sequel is so much more action-packed they decided to skip right to it. However, if you are alright with a slower pace, you will be greatly rewarded. This is not one of those old movies that looks really cheesy. This is sci-fi done right. Decades later, directors are still influenced by the fantastic work of Ridley Scott in his debut feature.