by Daniel Suddes
Alien (1979) Directed By: Ridley Scott Written By: Dan O’Bannon – Based on the Story By O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Produced by: Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Hold, and John Hurt.
“You still don’t know what you are dealing with.”
While the aforementioned quote is used in the film to describe the titular xenomorph, it still works as an explanation for those who have heard about the film but dismiss it as a mawkish horror piece that is not worthy of re-examination. Rarely has a film been able to critique itself or even imagine the impact it will have on future filmmakers. Sure, the sequels (including, yes, James Cameron’s Aliens) have tainted it somewhat. Most just think of it as a standard horror film with some great production design.
But Alien was successful in capturing the paranoia and nihilism of a society that had been scared by Watergate and recessions. Something that is meant to be the pinnacle of imagination for our future (the enormous Nostromo) is reduced to the stuff of nightmares. Business is not just something impersonal that can cause ruin when it fails but can be responsible for deaths when things go wrong.
And yes, the film is a masterpiece of production design. William Gibson has stated multiple times that this was the film that inspired his classic Neuromancer. At the time, it was downright brave to picture the future in this way. Go back and watch 2001. Notice how sleek and detailed everything on the ship looks. It is how science fiction has always worked – something futuristic must always look brand new.
Alien seemingly takes place on a beat up Chevy and is populated not by brilliant scientists or young adventurers (almost the entire cast was over thirty during filming) but of working stiffs who are obsessed with their shares. Only Ash seems to speak like any sort usual science fiction dialogue but what he says, as we find out, is often unreliable. The film became far scarier because the people in this fantastic setting seemed completely normal. None of the other films in the franchise have come close to that level of believability.
Of course, those statements are not original. That is just what attracts the most attention of the film and what has been copied. What is a lot more difficult to copy is the film’s unrelenting pessimism and cynicism. Ripley, who has since been redefined as the archetypical female action hero, is no more or less notable than any of the other characters (she only seems to survive, indeed, because she was the highest ranking officer left and thus knew about the ship’s layout). As such, no character becomes gung ho (as happened in the sequel far too often) and all act scared and angry about their situation. In fact, some of the most horrifying moments come, not from the creature, but from the in-fighting amongst the crew. As with Night of the Living Dead, Alien is not a monster movie but one that deals with the human condition. That there is a predator in the ship becomes an afterthought in some scenes.
But Alien does not only represent the fears of individual people but also the fears of society. The U.S. had the same level of pessimism during the time period that the film was released. Alien seems to take the optimism of the previous decade (particularly the sexual revolution) and turns it into a nightmare (the alien represents both childbirth and its design takes references from the genitalia of both sexes). The violence in the film was also poignant. The U.S. was also still carrying the scars of war and was dealing with a new crisis in the Middle East that it had no idea how to solve. That uncertainty permeates throughout the film. The Alien may as well be any number of foreign nations that had challenged the U.S. in the previous decade. As in life, the victory at the end of the film seems quite hollow – Ripley is relieved rather than proud. So was society when it all seemed to end.
Alien has always meant to reflect the darkest aspects of society and the human experience. It is why I (somewhat controversially) prefer the third one to the second. Neither can compare to this one though. It was the right movie for the right time and successfully combined two genres in a way that has yet to be equaled. It also manages to subvert the audiences by bringing them themes they certainly recognize, but could not necessarily identify on the first viewing.
I could go into the details of the chestburster scene, but I would rather explore uncharted territory. The most effective scene, for me anyway, is the famous air duct scene that has Dallas searching for the creature as the rest of the crew watches via computer. Also, until the end of the film, this is the best constructed scene in the film. Like Hitchcock, director Ridley Scott is someone who knows how to play the audience. The scariest parts of this segment are not the revelation of the alien, but the anticipation to the inevitability. Of course, the visual themes are still present (Dallas may as well be crawling through a fallopian tube) and the clever set design enhances the proceedings. This one scene explains why Alienworks as well as it does.
Did You Know: It has often been said that the actors were not told what would happen in the chestburster scene (except for John Hurt) to make their reactions of shock and horror seem real. This is not entirely the case. The actors were aware of the ultimate end of the scene and that the alien would emerge. However, according to Ridley Scott, they were not aware of “how” it would occur. Veronica Cartwright did not expect to be sprayed with blood and the cast was not told that real animal intestines would be inside of John Hurt’s mechanical torso used for the scene.