A L I E N
As a kid growing up, you eventually learned that monsters weren’t real. After seeing Alien, you hoped that it was still true.
If there was ever a movie that divided the past of its genre from the future of its genre, it was Alien (1979). For the un-initiated, or the audience too young to have witnessed its original theatrical release, be assured there is a distinct line between ’before Alien’ and ‘after Alien’. It changed how we look at the space, sci-fi, fantasy and horror film and it terrified its audience. Alien was not a movie that broke a mould, it shattered several at once.
Remember, of course, that the early stereotype space traveller was modelled on comic book heroes. This meant that up until the late 1970s, if you were a science fiction TV and movie fan, you probably knew what you were in for. Back in the 1950s and 1960s there was usually a bunch of white guys dressed in tight tunics who shot laser guns at a bunch of aliens. Sometimes those aliens looked like the white guys, but dressed a little differently, or sometimes they looked like insects, brains, or blobs. That’s not to say all of these movies were bad; they were of varying levels of sophistication and entertainment.
In 1977, almost ten years after the release of the very sophisticated 2001 a Space Odyssey (1968), a new space movie called Star Wars hit the screens and grabbed the attention of the genre’s fans. Star Wars dispensed with the tight tunics and evoked the possibility of other worlds in another galaxy and another time, a place where the struggles of life and death were on a greater scale than our own. But the laser guns kept firing.
The success of Star Wars provided the green light needed to progress Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett’s story of an Alien, and an up-coming director named Ridley Scott was brought on board to direct the project.
When people went to the cinema to see Alien, what might have been just another space-sci-fi movie was something entirely unexpected. Here’s why:
In Alien, there were no heroic captains in tight tunics, no princesses in need of a saviour. Instead, stripped of almost all glamour, there is a cargo ship in space. This ship is not on a quest to contact alien civilisations and save them. Far from it. The ‘Nostromo’ is a mineral shipment vessel, transporting ore from one planet to another, much like a ship might trudge slowly across an Ocean transporting grain. Its purpose is trade and transport; its Ocean the un-ending dark and quiet of space.
The crew of the Nostromo are working class grunts in boiler suits ‘working for the man’, or, in this case, ‘The Company’. No heroism expected. Confined to their cargo ship in space, their confinement is their endangerment. They’re only on board to get the payload from A to B, get paid for their time and go home. When woken from their deep space cryo-sleep to answer a distress call from a passing moon, they worry how this might affect their bonuses and argue about the possibility of not responding. Later it is revealed, as the lower classes come to expect, that they are there after all, only as the dispensable fodder for a much bigger project.
The most striking difference between the crew of the Nostromo and other agents in space is their limited advanced technology. The crew of the Nostromo are like we are now; they have computers and radio to rely on. Instead of hurtling through hyperspace beyond light speed or teleporting themselves to other worlds and firing laser bolts into anything that moves, the crew endure the terrible monotony and darkness of deep space by sleeping. They are like us and therefore we relate to them and see them as real people.
When the Nostromo crew take a shuttle down to the moon from where the distress signal emanates, they find an unusual ship grounded there. This ship is strangely phallic on a grand scale. The large entrances on in its sides are vaginal, and, like a tropical plant found in a jungle, inside the whole thing drips with organic, sticky moisture. Sex and nature, it seems, are universal.
These sexual references were drawn from the work of H R Giger, an artist who could make an iron wall ooze sex. Not only was Giger a brilliant choice for the Alien creature sets, he was the creator of the exomorphic alien itself, a creature that is both us, but not us and scares our very soul. A creature that is at times, like sex itself, blind, wet and deadly.
Inside the derelict ship the search party find the remains of a giant humanoid alien with a chest wound. They also find what appears to be a small field of large leathery eggs. Meanwhile, back on the mothership, warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has drawn the conclusion that the derelict ship did not send a distress signal; it sent a warning.
Against Ripley’s wisdom, and after a frightening incident in the derelict ship, the search party get back onto the mothership and continue their journey home. Unwittingly, they are incubating an alien, a creature whose gestation will be their terrifying undoing.
When under attack from what might be the deadliest creature in the known universe, the crew rely on their own wits and improvised skill for survival. In order to fight their attacker, there are no laser guns at their disposal. Instead they jerry-rig a flame-thrower that they hope will kill the invader, or at least do it some serious harm.
Other sci-fi movies had their robots: good, bad, paranoid or friendly. On the Nostromo the crew are unaware that one of them is a robot, namely, Ash (Ian Holm). More specifically, Ash is a synthetic human. That is, until the synthetic tries to kill Ripley, and in the ensuing fight, the crew members, in their efforts to stop him, happen to break him open. It’s then that the crew, and you the audience, come to the horrible realization that the synthetic is on ship for only one purpose, he is invulnerable to attack from the alien.
The captain, the second officer and the navigator all succumb. Survival is left to Warrant officer Ripley. She, obviously, isn’t a know-it-all ruggedly handsome white male; she is the rangy female with her wits about her. As the movie’s main protagonist, Ripley’s character revives the gutsy female lead in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1930s, and as far as space sci-fi is concerned, hasn’t been matched. Ripley does not respond to her situation as a gung-ho hero. Like people who find themselves confronted with real situations of life and death, her situation is thrust upon her unwillingly. All she can do is fight, flee and hope to save herself and hope to help any remaining crew survive the onslaught. The outcome isn’t what you might want or expect.
In the end, Alien works because it has a slow quiet pace and it has no special futuristic weapons. It is set in a cold, dark space from which there is no escape. And in that space, ultimately, no one would hear you scream.
In the crew’s ‘last meal’ scene, also known as the ‘chestburster scene’, Ridley Scott grounds the reality in a naturalistic ensemble with some overlapping dialogue. This is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s style for MASH (1970), which also features on this website.
Alien highlights how much a feature film is a collaborative process. Alien worked not just because of Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ron Shusett and HR Giger. David Giler and Walter Hill were also script writers. Ron Cobb and Chris Foss were set designers and the list goes on.
There were earlier movies that showed space as less glamorous, among them Solaris (1972) by Tarkovsky, and Silent Running (1971) by Trumbull.