In space, no one can see your chest explode as a Giger alien protrudes from your stomach after impregnating you. In fact, nothing is more alien than space. The inexorable isolation of the characters in Ridley Scott’s masterful Alien is what makes the film so shrewdly frightening. The eponymous ‘alien’ is not merely an extrinsic monster terrorising the astronauts aboard the Nostromo. It is also an intrinsic force – the intrinsic force of unequivocal, sepulchral alienation and loneliness. It is an internal force that is constantly reborn, and manifested in the penetration of the external alien into the internal human body.
The astronauts on board the commercial vessel Nostromo, including Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), Kane (John Hurt), Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), receive a distress call from an unexplored planet. On this planet, a mysterious life-form is released from an egg and clings onto Kane’s face. After a while, an alien explodes from his insides, exponentially grows and starts to decimate the crew.
The debate as to whether Alien is a science-fiction or horror movie has rightly died down over the years as people have begun to realise that, yes, it is both. I have long proclaimed that science-fiction films are about the intersection of an evolved humanity with an evolved technology. Alien, with its prodigious new life-force pervading the film and its display of sheer technological advancement through the scientifically ambitious aims of the astronauts, clearly meets these criteria.
There are also strong elements of speculative fiction as well. Speculative fiction is fiction which escalates contemporaneous social concerns to a hyperbolic degree for a didactic, cautionary purpose. Indeed, the characters’ blind adherence to the capitalistic interests of a masked corporate entity – Weyland-Yutani – is a concept that Scott would extrapolate in his 1982 Blade Runner. The film also conveys messages relating to the sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s. There is something of a safe-sex message: the alien that is reborn is somewhere between the physical manifestation of a sexually transmitted disease and an unwanted child constantly haunting its birth-givers and nurturers.
Moreover, the post-Baby Boomer blurring of distinctions between out-dated masculine and feminine stereotypes is reflected in the film. The pregnant vulnerability of John Hurt’s Kane when he violently gives birth to the alien is contrasted with the stoic heroism of Ellen Ripley, which before Alien was traditionally embodied in a male protagonist. And yet Ripley’s stern stoicism is balanced with the stereotypically feminine maternal instinct that she shows, mothering the crew’s cat. The complexities of Ripley’s characterisation set Alien apart from any other sci-fi-horror pastiche ever made.
To me Alien is first and foremost a horror movie. It is also one of my favourite horror movies of all time. The film is a fusion of the slasher model and the haunted house model, escalated within the barren, empty void that is space – pathetic fallacy of the highest order. It is axiomatically a slasher movie – ‘Jaws in space’ as it was pitched. A foreign life-form is obliterating our heroes one by one. And though Ripley emerges as the hero rather than the last surviving victim, contrary to seminal slashers like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she is technically the ‘final girl’ in a horror movie context.
However, the indefatigable anxiety and tension that permeates Alien is achieved through its escalation and simplification of a skeletal haunted house model. The Nostromo spaceship is a haunted house equipped with labyrinthine passages, expressionistic mise-en-scene and relentless deceptions. Yet despite the lack of ghouls, ghosts and gargoyles, the haunted house that is the Nostromo is so chilling because of its inescapability. If the characters flee the spaceship that is haunted by the alien, they are no better off – left alone to fend for themselves on the outskirts of the universe. If you don’t want to be eaten by the shark in Jaws, then don’t go in the water; the characters in Alien don’t have this luxury. They didn’t have to go to space, but how could they expect such a display of violence. Even though Alien isn’t a particularly scary film, the sheer inescapability of the titular alien is what sustains the film’s constant aura of fear.
This aura of fear is built through Alien’s patient and measured exposition, consisting of suffocating close-ups and lengthy sequences of the characters debating and performing official duties. The first half of Alien is made up of languidly suspenseful build-up that some may mistake for dispassionate and dull filmmaking. The second half is made up of horrifying death and destruction, and yet the two-acts are given coherent flow through the wonderful performances from the superb ensemble, the beautifully baroque and ornate art direction and the consistent mix of jump-scares and atmospheric tension.
Alien might not make you scream. But it will make you quiver. And it will make you think.