Amid the deplorable, third-rate horror films that come out on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) seems as fresh and foreign as its title character. Here is a truly frightening film that’s not afraid to take its time. Not only does a good chunk of time pass before any character dies, but several minutes go by before anyone even speaks. The tension and atmosphere build slowly, resulting in a mature masterpiece that more filmmakers should take pointers from.
Set in the future, Alien opens with the mining ship Nostromo returning from a successful mission. Halfway back to Earth, the ship’s computer awakens the small crew (five men, two women) from hypersleep after receiving a broadcast of unknown origin. The crew traces the signal to a wrecked ship on a small planet and sets down to investigate. A small alien creature attacks one of the crew members, bonding itself to his face, and the other crew members lead the victim back to Nostromo. The “facehugger” alien unexpectedly detaches and dies; its victim seems to be fine, but after a much more vicious alien bursts from inside the victim’s chest, the other crew members realize that none of them will be safe while the alien lives.
As far as science fiction films go, Alien has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey than with typical sci-fi fare. Long scenes go by with very little dialogue, and overall atmosphere matters more than plot. The opening shots show us the vast emptiness of space and the long, abandoned corridors of Nostromo. Before the human crew awakens, we see what they don’t; a haunting vision of space as a silent, desolate wilderness. I recently saw a gorgeous print of Alien at a local theater, and as the camera moved about the deserted Nostromo early on, audience members seemed very nervous. We’ve been trained by traditional horror films to distrust silences and expect creatures to jump out and scare us, but the initial terror of Alien is more mature in nature: there isn’t anything there at all. The crew awakens to an empty, quiet world in which they are completely alone.
When the crew does appear, they look and sound like normal people. Most horror films are populated with good-looking teenagers who mistakingly wander into some creepy place to have sex. The people of Alien are adults, and they look more like construction workers than movie heroes. Yet again, Alien stands above other films by presenting a simple, believable cast. The characters look about the way you would expect for people on a mining ship to look; they’re typical, garden-variety folks. The cast features great talent; Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, and Ian Holm have all become accomplished veterans in the years since Alien, but the other three performers are just as strong. We believe that these are real people caught up in a nightmarish situation.
The alien itself is one of cinema’s great, iconic monsters. The image of the alien is now fairly well-known: the elongated head, the wet, glistening skin, the mouth within the mouth. It’s worth remembering, though, that audiences first went to the theater with no knowledge of the alien’s appearance, and the film used that in its favor. At every turn, we’re given something new to be afraid of. Our first glimpse of alien life is the large egg. The egg produces the facehugger. The facehugger lays an egg in a man’s stomach, and that egg hatches a small, frightening creature with very sharp teeth. The next time we see the alien, it has grown rapidly to the size of an adult man. We never get a really good look at the alien, and the glimpses we do get are creepy as hell. Ridley Scott remembered the oldest and most often-forgot trick in the book: the power of the unseen. I don’t know if Alfred Hitchcock saw Alien before he died in 1980, but I think he would have enjoyed it.
Science Fiction and Horror are two of the least respected genres of cinema, and with good reason; more B-movies have come from those two corners of the film industry than any others, but when a film from one or both of these genres gets everything right, it can be spellbinding and powerful. The sequels became increasingly action-oriented, and therefore less interesting, but the original Alien remains a champion of both Sci-Fi and Horror. Thirty years after its initial release, Alien still wields the power to transfix and frighten. It’s every bit as creepy, chilling, and exceptional as it ever was.