Science fiction was in vogue in the late ’70s, largely due to the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, which kick-started perhaps the greatest popular revolution in American film history and drove the medium to new commercial heights. Of course, it saw mixed results for the art-form: a rebirth of genre filmmaking married to the deadening and eventual end of the New Hollywood drama which had married classical themes to European New Wave modes of storytelling to brilliant effect and which, in fact, made American film interesting after a long drop-off in the ’60s. After Star Wars, many studios grew less interested in drama and shifted toward pop commercialism, aiming for big, big, and bigger at the expense of nuance.
In the midst of this transition, many filmmakers didn’t know what to do. Left with the choice of going “pop” or going further into independent art films, many succeeded at neither and floundered. However, one of the late-bloomers of the New Hollywood, someone who hailed from Britain unlike most of his brethren and who had given us one solid film in The Duellists, clearly saw the change coming and knew he had to adapt. He also knew, truly, that new genres didn’t necessarily mean fluffy ones. After all, Stanley Kubrick had given the film world one of its most esoteric, most haunted pieces of chilly intellectualism in the sci-fi genre, so why couldn’t others follow suit?
Of course, unlike Kubrick, this director wasn’t going after intellectualism – he wanted to go straight for the throat. That’s because he saw not only the populism and intellectualism of sci-fi, but the importance of other newly-reformed genres as well. For instance, in Italy, a new horror cinema was brewing as well and, a year after American horror was revolutionized with John Carpenter’s Halloween, Scott took the same lessons to heart. With Alien, America may have been expecting a new Star Wars. Scott had other ideas in mind.
The smartest thing about Ridley Scott’s Alien, like with Spielberg’s Jaws and Carpenter’s Halloween, is that the title character takes a good long while to appear. For the first 30 minutes, it’s just us and the seven human characters that make up the Nostromo’s crew. They’re scientists, but the film gives us a grungy, lonely science that plays out more like the loneliness of a truck driver’s perpetual life on the road. The main character is Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in a career-making performance, the ship’s warrant officer, sent out with her crew to explore a distress call on an assumedly abandoned planet. She has no solace but her few compatriots and the vast emptiness of space.
During this time, the film accomplishes two things. First, unlike so many horror movies, we actually get to know these people. We see them talk to each other, have fun together, form little clicks, and argue and bicker about mundane things in the way humans do. These are above all people, workers who are just doing their job and who live to get home. Secondly, the down-time allows the dread to mount as the film establishes a pain-staking sense of earthy yet alien place. Scott emphasizes long hallways with a clean, white aesthetic that appears just a tad too sterile to be comfortable. As the camera moves in and out of the ship’s corridors, we get a real sense for how large it is and how empty its largeness feels. Long, slow takes exhibit a patient atmosphere that allows the film’s foreboding sense of doom to froth and grow, concocting a labyrinthine hell of corporate functionalist spaces and hard angles that suffocate and strangle. By the time the characters make their first trek outside the ship, the atmosphere is all but seeping out of the screen and threatening to overtake the audience.
Of course, the film goes on beyond this cavernous, clinical descent into cosmic, soulless atmosphere, although that would have been enough for a great film. The characters do venture out of the ship though, and they do come back, albeit with one extra passenger in tow. Specifically, one of them comes back unconscious with an alien species on attached to their face. The crew experiments with it but it soon enough shrivels off and dies. Everyone seemingly assumes all is well, and perhaps out of the molasses-thick desperation and a need to hide any lingering doubts, they gather for a dinner and tell stories and jokes. As the audience, we know something isn’t right, and soon enough our suspicions are confirmed. In a masterful display of editing, effects, and animatronics, things go to hell with an unbridled, pitch-black fury not yet seen in a film that had until that point used silence to make even the slightest noise pierce the ears. Screeches and gut-curdling screams combine with quick editing and practical, deeply fleshy effects to create one of horror’s finest scenes.
After this, the hunt begins as the crew is slowly whittled down. It’s tempting to call it a “slasher movie”, with an unseen antagonist, the “Xenomorph”, picking off members of the crew one-by-one. But it’s not quite apt, at least relative to the form the slasher would soon take. The main different is its complete and utter lack of judgement, antithetical to the slasher films of the 1980s which were, in essence, all about judging human bodies. If slashers were moral conservatives, Alien is a deep nihilist who couldn’t care less about its characters. This gives the film a more primal, elemental bent where-by humans become pool balls rattled around a table with no rhyme or reason. Slashers had a certain logic to how the killings went, and Alien’s complete and utter lack of logic makes the film all the more dreary and hellish.
The film is at least like Halloween in another more superficial sense – the terse, efficient set-up provides a simple, straightforward canvas upon which director Scott can give us an exercise in pure style, and truly, pure terror. The pace picks up, but the sense of atmosphere and dread never diminishes. There’s a masterful scene in which the ship’s captain chases the Xenomorph in air ducts that become abstract color hellscapes. Here, Scott uses sound to brilliant effect, establishing that deeply fryed beeping noise that would soon come to be associated with the franchise and which increases in frequency to a cacophonous fever pitch as threats near. Throughout, in fact, sound plays as strong a role as the film’s suffocating, claustrophobic visual element in enhancing fear – after all, with so much silence in space every noise hits that much harder. But it is in this scene that we see Scott’s most masterful command of negative space and sharp, worrisome lighting, the two things which center the film more than anything else. This is a man who knows how to use darkness and the sensation of something being just off camera even when the camera is functionally pointed directly at it.
The absolute highlight of the film, however, is its final 20 minutes, where, accompanied by blaring red lights, sound (this time larger alarms) again becomes key. Here, Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s signature role and one which she imbues with a down-to-earth competence and a demanding sense of immediacy, emerges as the most capable of the group and has to go toe to toe with the creature with whatever she can find. Importantly, the film maintains its gritty, low-tech aesthetic throughout, so “whatever she can find” often means everyday objects rather than the too-ubiquitous lasers of pop fiction. This sequence sees Scott replace soul-deep black with blaring, fiery, sapped-out reds and turn his edits up to the point where the cuts register less on a physical level than an unconscious one.
It isn’t until the film’s climax that we really get a sense of the Xenomorph’s appearance. Until then, it exists more as a thought and an absence, shadow, a “just there”, than a tangible object. Although the design itself, by HR Giger, is terrifically creepy, its greatest achievement is less its raw appearance than its pscyho-sexual roots. Scott would over time expand upon the series’ implicit commentary on pregnancy (giving Ripley a pseudo-daughter and naming her “Newt”, like the lizard-like Xenomorph itself, for instance), but he never saw it with such an immediately physical eye as he did here. Of course, the Xenomorph’s mouth, which it uses to kill, is undeniably phallic, penetrating with a force to match only the parasitic, egg-laying face-hugger that had spawned it. The film, in its penetration of the male form only for the woman to take charge and fight back, has been seen as revenge on male rape, a valid viewpoint. On a more base level, it reflects the terror of rape more than anything, capturing better than most any film the surreal despair and grotesque, urgent violence of attacks that come out of nowhere and fade into the darkness. Whether this is a feminist film is hard to say, but it undeniably has male violence on the mind.
More than anything, it is this combination of challenging subtext and pure, tormented filmmaking that sees the film through on its claim as a New Wave film, far more than any of the 1980s genre films that would soon emerge in its wake. It does not use its skill to entertain, but to worry. And it is deeply worried, not only about rape but corporate inequality (there’s a delicious twist mid-film that reconnects the characters to their day-to-day roots as they realize what their employer has in store for them).
More broadly affecting, however, is the pure loneliness of the film, implicit in many horror films but often missing in the final analysis of the genre. After all, being cut off, left alone, and lonely is central to so many horror movie plots, but Alien brings it to the forefront. Ripley consoles herself through audio journals throughout the film, which are played for us aloud. But there’s a melancholic, malevolent sense that we’re the only ones who will ever hear them. They’re often read over seemingly empty backgrounds, with a deadened quiet in front, behind, and all around, as though the entry interrupts the quiet only to fade back into nothingness. There’s a certain eloquence to the film’s tapestry of dread that digs in to our internal fears of being alone in the world and doesn’t let go. As we see the Nostromo slowly crawl through space while Ripley intends to create a memory of her experiences, perhaps to share them, we see the irony of how alone these people truly are. As we weave in and out of the Nostromo’s wide and expansive corridors we come to see that on the inside there’s no less a pervasive, singular loneliness.
So many science fiction films explore the desire of mankind to discover that they are not alone in the universe. For those wide-eyed, probing films, Alien poses a different question. Our concern and a certain unstated arrogance to continue exploring endlessly when we don’t know what we are up against and when we don’t bother to explore the loneliness that rots and curdles us already, as seen here, may be our end. This is something posed in many films, admittedly, including this film’s own sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens. But few of them match Alien for its elemental dance of silence and emptiness, for experimenting with what it can avoid and not show. It is an elemental, intentionally vague, melancholy hole left out in front of us that nominally closes in two hours, but infests our soul forever.