By Marc S. Sanders
To be lost and alone is my absolute greatest fear. I don’t know what to do when I find myself in situations like that. I feel palpitations and terrible anxiety. The only argument my wife and I had on our honeymoon was when we got lost in the Louvre in Paris. She was relaxed. I definitely was not. I didn’t know in which direction to walk through the massive museum, located in a country that I’m not at all familiar with, inhabited by a majority of people who speak a language that I’m terribly limited at using for conversation.
When a person is completely, physically isolated, the only thing to depend on is his/her own wits and sensibilities. That’s step one in constructing a scene of terror. Step two is to lock that person away with an entity that is unpredictable, unrecognizable, smart and grotesquely frightening. In a film, each time that entity comes into the play, the scene should not look like the last time the protagonist or the audience encountered this creature. Whatever I learned a few minutes ago is not going to offer much help the next time around.
I’ve just described the spine of the story that makes a horror film like Ridley Scott’s Alien so successful.
Science Fiction always works best when it can be convincing enough to lend authenticity to the fiction of its, well, science. With Alien, a variation of biology and evolution lends to the terror of the picture and you don’t even realize it until the movie is half over. The title character is introduced in different characterizations with every scene it is called for. First, it’s an egg, then a tentacled creature wrapped around the face of an unfortunate victim. Later, at dinner time, it reveals itself in an unforgiving and memorable scene as a phallic shaped organism with a snake like tail and steel teeth. Lastly, you just can’t even describe what it is except to say it is huge and its even worse than the monsters you imagined as a kid hiding in your closet or under your bed. Credit has to go to the creature designs from H.R. Giger. Every limb or shape of the monster seems to serve a purpose. If that’s not enough, the animal bleeds acid that’ll burn through the hull of an enormous spaceship. The alien in this 1979 film, later deemed a “xenomorph,” is one of the scariest and most unforgettable monsters in movie history.
A crew of seven are piloting a large ship back to the planet Earth. Their cargo is carrying mineral ore (whatever that is). This crew is not military of any kind. There’s a science officer, but by and large, I’d characterize these people as truckers in outer space working on behalf of a company, by hauling a load across the galaxy. During the long journey, they rest in a cryo-like sleep. As the film opens, they are awakened by their transmission computer, known as “Mother,” to respond to a distress call. Their ship has been diverted from Earth to investigate an unexplored planet. As the piece continues, the crew brings back a plus one. They have no idea what to expect or how to handle its presence, and then they are hunted across the maze of the large ship, dispatched one by one.
The byline for Alien is marketing brilliance. In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream. It only scratches the surface of the terror you encounter when watching this terrifying film. Ridley Scott uses art direction set up with long, dark hallways and warehouse size rooms that make the cast appear infantile. His labyrinth of a spaceship offers up practically any place for a killer creature to hide and strike at an opportune time.
It’s important to point out that Alien lends to the argument for the value of 4K resolution. This latest print to honor the film’s 40th anniversary offers much clarity within the dark settings of the picture. Having seen Alien countless times, I still examine each frame carefully because Giger’s designs allow the monster to blend in properly with engineering architecture of long and large pipes and cables, and immense darkness. Chains hang from the ceilings and water drips down for no reason to be explained. It’s just how the spaceship lives, apparently. The atmosphere rattles you, however, when you realize there’s a dangerous bug crawling around somewhere. Did I just catch a glimpse of the alien’s head there???? Was that his tail???? Is that a limb, like an arm or a hand???? I know all of the highlights of the picture by now, but to this day I still look for when and where the silent terror is looming, thinking I missed it from the last time I watched. Would you believe on this last viewing, I found a caption of the alien I don’t recall ever seeing before?
Once the monster is established and we see our heroes within inescapable danger, then paranoia and mistrust can lend to their erratic nature. The screenplay from Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon establishes how the “grunts” of the seven (Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton) debate what is and isn’t their responsibility and what monies they truly are entitled to on this mission. Early on, before the threat is even considered, a divide exists within the band. They are not always going to get along. Later, the debate on whether to quarantine the crew members who investigated the distress signal on the strange, unknown planet comes into play. It would be easy to simply make Alien all about blood, guts and sci fi laser pistols in a post Star Wars/Star Trek era, but it is even more effective to create disagreements and seeds of unreliability among the group. One or two of them could end up operating in a different and unexpected direction that won’t help their cause. Maybe it’s not just the alien we should be afraid of.
The seven members (5 men, 2 women) all have different personalities. They like one another well enough, but they all have uncommon values and motives. Sigourney Weaver portrays Ripley, the third in command, behind two men. However, in outer space, does it really matter where she falls in the line? The science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), seems to drift into his own way of thinking, separate from the rest. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) moves along the straight and narrow, only doing what’s assigned simply to move on and get things over with. The other woman Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) does not have much dialogue to work with, but her expressions seem to be questioning why she even took this job. Was this woman desperate for work and this is the best she could find? She’s definitely the most unrelaxed and fearful of the crew.
Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Alien does not operate on the movie monster alone. There are other factors at play. A popular Hollywood story is that Spielberg didn’t show the shark for a long period of time simply because the thing would not work, mechanically speaking. Ridley Scott, however, demonstrates that he can present the animal one way and then show it in a completely different form later. When it has reached what we can only believe is full evolution, we still don’t get a clear physical picture of the creature’s design from head to toe. Scott will show us teeth, or maybe a shoulder blade or a tail that whips or moves at a slow and cautious pace. The alien functions with a combination of real-life predators’ behaviors. It hatches. It sheds its skin. It bites. It runs. It hunts a prey. It grows and evolves…and seemingly very quickly.
Alien has been duplicated many times following its release, including a few shameless sequels. Mind you, some of the franchise follow ups remain exceptional in their own right. What misgivings Ridley Scott’s movie have later inspired cannot be helped. Mr. Scott should consider it an honor, at best, that various craftspeople have attempted to top what he accomplished, I guess. Those copycats don’t follow the recipe of Alien though. There’s either too much of an ingredient included like blood and guts or there’s a lacking in its script, such as the eerie haunts of a dangerous setting or the overeager intelligence of its characters. Whatever the case may be, the achievements in horror work so well in Alien, because it moves with dread, uncertainty, helplessness, a lack of knowledge, and then with only a few touches of gore and violence that are mostly left to our worst imaginations.
Alien is not only one of the best science fiction films ever made. It is also one of the best horror films ever made.