Dir. Ridley Scott
Written by: Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm
Imagine being in one of the first audiences to experience Alien when it was released in 1979. The film’s opening credit sequence cues that this is going to be a different sort of space adventure. The only sound on the soundtrack at the opening of the film are low strings, mimicking wind howling in the vacuum of space, as the letters of the film’s title slowly begin to reveal themselves. The word “alien” not only refers to the monster that will soon be unleashed on the crew of the Nostromo, but also to the fact that this film must have been fairly alien to the sensibilities of a viewer in 1979. It isn’t that Alien is without filmic precedent. Some of its DNA can be traced back to 1951’s The Thing From Another World, and it also borrows heavily from the newly established slasher genre, particularly sharing a tonal similarity to John Carpenter’s Halloween, released just six months prior to Alien. It’s the way that Ridley Scott combines these disparate influences to create one of the first true sci-fi/horror hybrids that makes Alien such a unique experience, and a seminal classic in both genres.
From the start, Alien takes its time, lulling the audience into a false sense of security as it spends the first half hour of its runtime detailing the fairly mundane activities of the crew of the Nostromo who have been awakened early from their hyper sleep to investigate a signal of unknown origin. Instead of forcing the pace early in the film, Scott lets the film’s set design build up a sense of foreboding in the audience, particularly after the Nostromo touches down on the alien planet and the crew begins to explore the ancient alien ship. The sheer size of the ship and its strange biomechanical construction, where the walls seem to ooze and breathe, seemingly aware of the presence of the exploring crew members, is inherently unsettling. The film’s opening half is a master work in building and releasing tension, using tone and pace to create nearly unbearable suspense that is paid off with some famously gory scenes later in the film.
One of these gory scenes, featuring the film’s famous chest-bursting alien, is the only thing I can remember from my first time ever watching Alien. I went to a friend’s birthday party in elementary school and we were going to watch monster movies all night, so his parents had rented us an assortment of classics, including Alien. I don’t actually remember watching the rest of the film, but the scene where the alien bursts out of Kane’s (John Hurt) chest was forever etched into my mind after that night. I had already seen Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, so I knew what was coming from the parody, but I still wasn’t prepared for the visceral intensity of the scene. By today’s standards, the scene is actually fairly tame, but my ten-year-old mind was not ready for something so shocking and violent, and I imagine that I don’t remember anything else about the rest of the movie because I actually checked out shortly after seeing Kane’s ribcage explode as the infant xenomorph is born.
Since that initial introduction to the world of Alien, I have seen the original many, many times and have also seen all of its sequels and related spin offs. Up until this rewatch, I likely would have said that my favorite of the series is Aliens, the James Cameron directed sequel that expands on the original film’s mythology, introducing new characters and cementing Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) role as the franchise’s central hero, and as one of the most important heroines in all of film history. The sequel jettisons the original’s horror elements in favor of a faster paced, more dialogue heavy, run and gun action film. It opens up the mythology, firmly cementing the Weyland-Yutani Corporation as the real evil of the series, as it remains insistent on bringing a xenomorph to Earth for study and potential weaponization, despite Ripley’s vehement protests. Simply put, Aliens is bigger, more bombastic, and, often, more fun than its predecessor. However, after watching both films in the same afternoon for the first time in years as I prepared to write this post, I have to come down in favor of the original. Aliens is a great film, and unquestionably one of the best sequels of all time. I wouldn’t question anyone who told me that they preferred it to Alien, as I once did, but for right now, I just find the original film to be more fully realized and interesting on the whole.
I think the biggest reason for my new preference for Alien over Aliens is the former film’s deliberateness, in its construction and its pacing. The slower pace and extended introduction of Alien allows for more discovery, whether in the film’s early tracking shots that explore the Nostromo before her crew awakens in their pods, or the aforementioned highlighting of the set design on the alien planet and in the alien ship. Alien is a film that wants its construction to be noticeable and appreciated, and through highlighting that construction Scott and Giger’s effects team create a fully realized world, which raises the stakes on the terror that is unleashed in the second half of the film. The slower pace of Alien also allows the audience to get to know the characters a little better than the characters of Aliens. I care a lot more about the intergalactic truckers who crew the Nostromo than I do about the space marines who populate the sequel.
One thing that I really enjoy about both of these films, though, is their class sensibility. In both films, the heroes are simply working class people who are doing a job, particularly so in Alien. My favorite character in Alien is Parker (Yaphet Kotto) because he voices the crew’s class concerns. He has one of the first lines in the film, and he uses it to express his dislike for the inequity in the bonus structure for the crew. He and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), the ship’s mechanics, have to split a share while the rest of the crew each gets full shares. Parker is also the one who reminds the rest of the crew that the Nostromo is not a search and rescue ship when their mission directives are changed to investigate the mysterious distress signal. Parker just wants to do his job, get back to Earth, and get paid. This class consciousness extends to the presence of Weyland-Yutani Corporation as the series’ overarching villain. The corporation’s desire to obtain a xenomorph for study trumps all other concerns, including the safety of the films’ protagonists who are often corporation employees, throughout the series. This positioning of corporate interests or meddling corporate scientists as evil is not uncommon in the sci-fi genre, but it makes for a nice subplot in the Alien films.
Whatever genre you decide to classify it in, whether sci-fi or horror, Alien is undoubtedly near the top of the pile. It launched an iconic franchise of films with variable results. Its influence extends beyond these direct sequels to dozens of sci-fi and horror films that have come since, but none have been able to top the original for innovation and sheer terror. Alien is a timeless classic for that reason. When talking about the history of films, you can’t ignore the xenomorph in the room.