Why I Love Alien
"Final report of the commercial starship Nostromo, third officer reporting. The other members of the crew - Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash, and Captain Dallas - are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off."
Alien is one of the greatest Science Fiction movies ever made. It is also one of the greatest Horror movies ever made. It gave rise to many sequels and prequels - some amazing films, including James Cameron's Aliens, David Fincher's Alien 3 and of course Ridley Scott's return to the universe with Prometheus and Covenant - and made space seem like the most dangerous place to be. Gone were the hopeful, innocent tales of alien encounters from Steven Spielberg and in came Ridley Scott's harsh and terrifying vision of the future. Alien was released in 1979, and it is far from hyperbole to say that no-one had ever seen anything like it. There are reports of people fainting in the cinema from how intense and terrifying the movie is. What could have been a cheap and cheesy B-Movie, was transformed into something that could stand alongside any movie, in the same genre or not, and be considered a work of supreme artistry.
Alien was Ridley Scott's first Science Fiction movie, which would lead to four more exquisite pictures in the genre: Blade Runner, Prometheus, Alien Covenant and the Denis Villeneuve directed, Ridley produced Blade Runner 2049, my favourite film of 2017. As the first entry in a series of movies, inside and outside of the universe of Alien, this film begins a lot of threads that would become familiar conventions for viewers. Namely that the future is controlled by all powerful corporations, who care more for the profit margin than they do for the women and men in their employ. The reveal that Ash is not a human being but a synthetic/replicant is one of the great twists in movie history, and raises so many intriguing thoughts, such as what can be considered life. The relationship between Ash and the creature echoes that of David's love for the lifeforms in Covenant, something that connects these two characters across a sea of decades. The synthetic/replicant question would become one of the key elements in every Science Fiction movie that Ridley would make.
Alien has major Science Fiction chops, in how it crafts a terrifying, but somehow beautiful vision of the future. I think it is a mistake to think that Alien is merely the story of Ripley -though that is undeniably an important aspect of the movie - its vision was always larger than that. The alien itself is just as important as Ripley, with the great care and skill which Ridley and his team brought the creature to life. The Space Jockey, which was the inspiration for Prometheus, is an enigmatic and awe inspiring figure, and leads the viewer to so many exciting and scary thoughts. The eggs are perhaps the most iconic image of the movie, their shape pure and holy. That Ridley and his team were able to follow up on these elements so well in Prometheus and Covenant is some kind of miracle, and not to diminish the mystery but to enhance it. Alien is about the mystery of what is out there, somewhere in the universe. It is about humanity's need to know, even at the cost of their lives. Ripley is interesting for how she does not care to know the secrets of existence, but is just narrowly concerned with her own safety, and that of the rest of humanity. Contrast this with Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus and see a compelling, brilliant bit of conversation between these two great movies.
While Alien is undeniably a great Science Fiction picture, it might just be the best Horror movie ever. The film remains terrifying all these years later, operating at 100% in spite of all the years that followed it, including some excellent and extreme examples in the genre. The thing everyone remembers from Alien, is of course the chest bursting scene. Thank the stunning and effective special effects yes, that's a given. More than that though is John Hurt's performance, which is, in its relative brevity, one of his best turns, up there with The Elephant Man and 1984. The film is a slow burner, but once it kicks in, it rips your fucking brain out and smushes it. The sheer panic and terror of that scene runs through the entire movie, and establishes the stakes so well that the audience just cannot for the life of them relax after that point. The rest of the film manages to be just as intense, and ramps up to pure, all encompassing fear. Sigourney Weaver is, along with the creature, the star of the picture. Her character is written as smart and capable and that is how Sigourney plays it. She makes all the right choices, and is still in mortal danger. She turns in one of the iconic performances of the 20th Century, and I really hope that the talk about her returning to the series is true.
Alien has some amazing jump scares, probably the greatest in the history of the genre, but as already mentioned the film is a slow burner, establishing mood and tone long before throwing some scary shit at the audience. When those jump scares come - I'm thinking of that moment in the ventilation ducts - they have so much more potency because of the long, long build. Every time things seem like they are going to be okay, Ridley and his team pull something new out of their cinematic hat and throw the viewer for a loop. I am not sure if the false dawn was an innovation of Alien or not, but it is damn sure the greatest example of that twist. Something that is interesting about the Horror in Alien is that the creature is not the evil one. The Alien is just trying to survive. There is no malice in its actions; it's an animal. The evil comes from the Company, and if you are prone to think that Ash has some kind of soul, from his perspective too. It's like people who go hunting tigers and end up getting eaten. The tiger is clearly not the one to blame. Just as in Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, those on the bottom have to do the dirty work.
Alien is a true classic. As a work of Science Fiction and Horror, it is one of the elite. It will continue to dazzle, enrapture and horrify for as long as there are movies. I am particularly glad that Alien allowed for Prometheus and Alien Covenant, two of my very favourite movies of the last decade. This is not just the story of one woman's survival, but of the vast and merciless nature of the universe, as well as our desire to know what is behind the door, even if it's something that is going to impregnate us with chest bursting creatures. This is something that I feel was missed in Prometheus and Covenant. Alien was just as filled with people making stupid decisions. It's not a plot hole, it's a plot point. It is meant to represent our desire to know, at the cost of our own lives. John Hurt's character just had to look into that egg. He was destined to. John Hurt's character can be said to be representative of the viewer. We too, must look behind the curtain. It has never been such a pleasure to do so, than with Alien.