Director: Ridley Scott
By Roderick Heath
I can imagine opening a newspaper in 1979 and glancing at a review of Alien with its plot recounted in dry ink lines, or perhaps at a poster and beholding the infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I think one would have been forgiven if the thought didn’t cross your mind that it would one day this film might be considered a major cinematic classic. Even when you know much more about it, the improbability still stands. Sold to prospective studios in script form as “Jaws in space” by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a pair of young screenwriters who had happily looted the sci-fi B-movies and creature features they had loved as boys, Alien might have seemed something like a garish throwback in abstract, to the days when many a monstrous beast from space went on the loose was all the rage in drive-in fodder. After all, cinematic sci-fi in the late 1960s and ‘70s had generally taken on a more serious cast in keeping with the literary genre, complete with heightened social commentary and philosophical metaphors. Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (both 1977) made studios everywhere enthusiastic for the genre for the first time since the ‘50s, however, because suddenly it was making giant piles of cash. O’Bannon had one claim to fame before helping pen the script originally called “Star Beast.” He had co-written, acted in, and helped make the world’s best-known student film, 1974’s Dark Star. But John Carpenter had gained most of the credit for that, leaving the high-strung O’Bannon chagrined and on the hunt for his own success. O’Bannon was particularly taken with the idea of returning to Dark Star’s sub-plot involving a rampaging alien stowaway, visualised in that comic film by a beach ball with talons, and playing this notion straight as a horror movie in space.
At first the script seemed doomed to finish up as feedstuff for Roger Corman’s low-budget production farm, because its gore and perverse aspects turned off big studios. But when sci-fi properties suddenly turned hot, the duo sold it to producer-director Walter Hill and business partner David Giler, who had Twentieth Century Fox at their backs. Hill and Giler worked the material over, adding major subplots and changing character names. But they retained one notable corollary of the original script – the parts were “unisex,” and could be filled by any actors, male or female. Hill decided not to direct the property himself, as he was too busy and inexperienced in special effects work. Picking the right filmmaker was the real trick, as they knew the wrong director might play it as schlock, whilst the right one would have to prove equal mastery over both the hard-edged, hi-tech realism and the mysterious, eerie, virtually surrealistic qualities the story offered. They found their man in a 42-year-old former TV commercial director from South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne named Ridley Scott. Scott had gained a reputation for turning simple advertisements into great visual artefacts, and had just made an impression with his Cannes-screened debut film, The Duellists (1977). He grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Scott and his ideas impressed the studio so much Fox doubled his budget. The result, far from being just another creature feature, is today regarded as one of the major classics of sci-fi filmmaking and indeed modern commercial filmmaking.
O’Bannon and Shusett happily acknowledged remixing the futuristic terrors and beauties of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Forbidden Planet (1956), This Island Earth (1955), and even the far-flung alien graveyards and body-invading spectres of Mario Bava’s signal sci-fi/horror cross-breed Planet of the Vampires (1966). There was also some similarity to the creatures that menaced their way through the pages of A.E. Van Vogt’s stories “Black Destroyer” and “Moonbeast.” Although not based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Alien remains perhaps the most effective channelling of Lovecraft’s imaginative palette on film, conjuring a universe of infinite mystery and threat, replete with glimpses of things and places beyond human reference. This is a realm of things that squirm and ooze and move perversely and seem engineered for climes beyond any natural reference point, glowering with infinite disdain for precious human individualism and acumen. Here there is only the terrible beauty of survival talent and the cold equations of necessity. The purity of Alien as a narrative lies in the way it pits instinct versus intelligence. The self-propagating concept in the title of Scott’s first film is taken immediately to reductio ad absurdum: this is the duel at the edge of the universe, the perfect opposition. Alien as a metaphorical work is in its way as extreme as Solaris (1972) in exploring the essence of humanity through conceiving its opposite, with similar precepts – isolation and a manifestation of the incomprehensibly other. It’s another film that straddles the blurry genre midground with horror, essentially positing a haunted house movie in space mixed with no minor similarity to the slasher movie style that was just gaining real traction thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween, released the year before – a small cast stalked and killed one by one by a roaming killer.
The story is exceptionally simple on the face of it. The spaceship Nostromo, towing a combined bulk ore carrier and refinery through deep space back to Earth, is brought out of hyperspace and rerouted towards a remote and unexplored planetoid, source of a mysterious generated signal presumed to be a distress beacon. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and his crew, comprising flight officers Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), are awoken from their cryogenic sleep. After confusion and some argument, they follow the protocol mandated by the ship’s owner company (unnamed in this film, later dubbed Weyland-Yutani in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, 1986) and land on the planet. The Nostromo is lightly damaged during landing and Brett and Parker set about fixing it whilst Dallas, Lambert, and Kane venture out onto the stormy, hostile surface of the planet to track down the source of the signal. They come across a ruined spaceship clearly not built by humans, with the fossilised remains of an ancient pilot with a ruptured ribcage still installed in a kind of cockpit, and a collection of seed-like pods in the hull. Kane gets close to one, intrigued by signs of life within, only for the crab-like thing inside to spring out suddenly and burn through the visor of his helmet. The organism clamps itself over his face, holding him in a comatose state whilst keeping him alive. Ripley, acting commander of the ship, refuses to let Dallas and Lambert bring Kane through the airlock for fear of biological contamination, but Ash ignores her and lets them aboard.
The creature (again unnamed here but usually called a “facehugger”) on Kane proves to have deadly acid for blood and is impossible to remove without killing its host, but eventually it falls off by itself and dies. Kane awakens, seemingly fine, but as he and the rest of the crew settle down for a meal, Kane suddenly starts to spasm in agony. Something tears its way out of his chest – the larval stage of new creature that will grow to human size and begin killing or utilising rival life forms. The greatest question before Scott and the filmmaking team was what the title creature should look like. Reputedly, it was O’Bannon who suggested to Scott that he take a look at the artwork of Swiss painter H.R. Giger. Both men fell under the spell of Giger’s painting “Necronomicon IV”, which portrayed a bizarre demonic entity with a tubular head, spiny back, and penile tail. Giger’s disturbing, distorted, perversely eroticised pictures tried to render aspects of the subconscious and the surreal, murky and obscure and protean, and provided a vital catalyst not just for the alien’s design but for the aesthetic of the film as a whole. Alien certainly belongs to both the sci-fi and horror genres, rooted in the solid conceptualism of the former but using it to annex the id-shaped atmosphere of the latter. If the film had been painstakingly created to reflect a certain academic shift in the basic imagery and concerns of genre storytelling it could not have been more precise, as the usually solid Freudian forms of sci-fi – all jutting phallic rockets matched to neo-colonialist visions written on the tabula rasa of space – gives way to a nightmarish zone filled with gaping holes and hideous babies that sprout from a man’s body. In this simple yet ruthlessly clever concept lies the aspect of Alien that instantly announced itself as contemporary, compared to the older genre works that inspired it. The alien monster is no simple, clean beast that stows away and rampages, but as a monster insidious and infesting, predatory and parasitic, instinctual and apparently not interesting in anything more than self-propagation but also possessed of a jarring, baleful brand of intelligence.
This aspect fit into a phase in sci-fi-and horror cinema where anxiety over the human body was becoming a driving concern. David Cronenberg’s early works like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979) had helped define and polarise this new, queasy style. The alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, perfectly reflected this motif, twisting the fear of the alien other expressed in titles of 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) into a motif of internal disorder and rebellion, evoking both the bodies corporeal and politic. Emerging even before the spectre of the AIDS epidemic, this new unease with disease derived from the strange new anxieties of the modern world, one where suddenly awareness of aspects of human life that had normally not been talked about in the post-Enlightenment age were suddenly common currency, many of them sexual, bound up with a time of rapid revision in understanding of gender and desire (also, notably, the superhero movie made its first real impact around this time with Superman, 1978, providing an antithesis). Alien announced this style, dubbed “body horror,” in big-budget, mainstream cinema, as Kane is impregnated and torn to shreds by his own nominal progeny. This vision of perverted birth transplanted onto the male body comes after intimations of oral rape. The intensely sexual aspect of this was already encoded in a series of visual evocations and design refrains. The waking of the ship’s crew in the opening scenes is gently birth-like, guided by the ships supercomputer which is called, mischievously, MUTHR. The coddled human creatures nicely cocooned in the Nostromo and tended to by the maternal computer soon offered up as fodder for the sustenance of a creation that faintly resembles a human but also swiftly grows to blend into the interior of the Nostromo itself, with limbs and skin resembling the tubes and conduits and metal forms of an industrial zone. The human, soft flesh, red blood, is at the mercy of a thing that seems both monster and machine, something that evolves too quickly to be contained and too aptly to be positioned anywhere but at the top of the food chain.
Sci-fi had generally been a realm of gleaming newness and minimalist chic ever since Things to Come (1936) posited the future as a gigantic shopping mall with a slight Bauhaus edge. This presumption often (though not always) went unchallenged in sci-fi cinema until Star Wars intrigued and impressed genre creators with its “lived-in” vision of a futuristic age (albeit past) that looked functional, busy, often banged-up and dirty. The script for Alien envisioned a future of space travel that has devolved into something much more familiar than cosmic swashbuckling, one where working stiffs ride the highways of deep space hauling around loads of resources, worrying about pay and bills and getting home to loved-ones. This was taken up not just as a background detail but an entire holistic mission by Scott and his designers. Surely Scott’s background, his intimate familiarity with the reverse face of the age of industry and technology, told him something different about what a spacefaring future might look and sound like, gleaned from a youth staring out at the ships on the Tyne and the decaying industrial landscape of England’s midlands, sights that told him how little some spacefaring future was likely to look like the brochures. Aspects of Alien’s look retain the sleek and clean aesthetic of high futurism – the womb-like confines of the stasis pod room and MUTHR’s control room. But these abut the factory-like interiors of the rest of the ship, grimy, functional, and cluttered. The alien planetoid itself – once again dubbed LV-426 in Aliens but left nameless here – is a place straight out of the dark places of the psyche, with its roiling volcanic forms. The horseshoe-shaped space wreck is perched atop a peak like Dracula’s castle gone Analog Magazine, with an interior that is a polymorphous zone of strangeness. Such contrasted landscapes chart both the psychic and physical realities of contrasting life forms.
O’Bannon’s collaboration with Carpenter on Dark Star had envisioned men on a mission wandering listlessly through space destroying rogue planets in a deadpan satire on the Domino theory, with its main characters so bored and alienated they’ve swapped personalities several times. It made for a sci-fi landscape virtually unheard-of before. Similarly, the humans inhabiting the Nostromo are there purely to ensure the smooth running of the machinery and deliver the load of processed ore to Earth, casually observed, highly ordinary people. Even Ripley, eventually to be canonised as one of the great action heroes, is here just a woman with a slight edge of competence, intuition, and coolness under pressure that lets her survive where all her fellows eventually fall. One common concern of the diverse filmmakers involved in creating Alien, particularly Scott and O’Bannon, was this awareness of social and class conflict and also the individuals perpetrating such schisms. Dallas as captain (and the most Dark Star-esque character) knows his job and can do it virtually in his sleep, preferring to bliss out alone with some classical music and escape the bolshy niggling of Parker and Brett and Ripley’s by-the-book sternness. Of course, that streak had the potential to save the whole situation, as her refusal to let Kane and the facehugger aboard is correct both according to the book and instinct, if not sheer reactive empathy. Ripley is first really defined by this act, an attitude of caution that seems unfeeling whereas Ash does the “humane” thing, although it will eventually be revealed that he’s not only obeying the company’s agenda but is also a more literal tool of a distant but still consequential power, as an android posing as human.
Ripley’s adherence to principle as well as rules and Ash’s actions in countermanding her seems at first merely a moment of tension in outlook and a road-bump in the chain of command on an already lackadaisical hierarchy – Ripley confronts Ash over the point and pushes Dallas for action but he simply wants to go home and avoid more headaches. But it proves instead the pivotal action that unleashes disaster, and Ripley’s cold act is proven the wise one. This aspect, the human capacity to act both rationally and instinctually according to given situations, is pointedly contrasted with what Ash celebrates it for, its “purity” as a creature of raw survivalist nerve and shark-like purpose that sustains its life cycle through other creatures, a form of exploitation equated with the business of business that motivates all that befalls the Nostromo. The crew themselves are defined by their mixture of camaraderie and interpersonal tension, and also by their varying levels of interest and complicity in that system, from Dallas, the man in charge who’s all too aware how little power he really has, to Parker and Brett constantly bringing the “bonus situation,” their own concerns purely mercenary, a mode of realistic cynicism adapted neatly to the exigencies of a job that demands spending years in forced sleep drifting through the ether. Alien is littered with sharp vignettes, like Parker insistently stealing back “his” chair and brushing it off after Ash has occupied it, Brett’s half-interested parroting of Parker (“Right.”), and Ripley telling them both to fuck off as they try to jerk her around as member of the superior flight crew. The film’s pivotal, immortal sequence when the crew settle down for dinner with the revived, apparently well Kane is a rare moment when the crew are all relaxed, happy, and on level ground, a seeming resumption of normality shot through with relief that gives way to epic horror and tragedy.
Alien’s defining quality is rooted not simply in its thrills or its vivid imaginative palette, but in its slow, patient, nerveless storytelling, so different from the mad rush of images in much contemporary filmmaking. Scott’s return to this fount, Prometheus (2011), although fine in and of itself, was disappointing for those of us hoping for a stylistic rather than thematic extension, a project revelling in the creation of miasmic atmosphere and slow-ratcheting dread. The normally propulsive Cameron honoured the model with his follow-up in its deceptive blend of quiet and intensity with Aliens before hitting the gas. The opening shot of Alien, a slow, abyssal scan of the dark planetoid silhouetted against the rays of its sun, with barely audible music and the slowly compositing title of the film across the width of screen, immediately roots what follows in a mode of interstellar gothic. There’s a powerful echo of William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass to the Earth” in its image of a dark sun and the evocation of cosmic powers gathering, as Scott primes the viewer for a dive into an age where the dark, satanic mills and apocalyptic dragons of Blakeian verse have become universal state (and Blakeian ideas and images recur constantly through many of Scott’s subsequent films). This gives way to the Nostromo making its way through space, and much is made, in a manner reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; doubtlessly deliberate as per Scott’s avowed Kubrickian fetish), of the sheer mechanical intricacy of the ship’s efforts to get from space onto the planet, at once ungainly and majestic. Jerry Goldsmith’s seafarer scoring reinforces the way this moment seems at once a super-technological event and a throwback to a days of laborious transport on the whims of the wind and tide. Goldsmith’s scoring, which was subject to conflicts with both Scott and the studio, is nonetheless one of the film’s less-appreciated achievements, defining the eerie, sonorous mood at the outset before swelling to offer overtones of not just menace but also elegy, even romanticism, as these far-out labourers find themselves cast however incidentally as pioneers and adventurers. His music rises to crescendo during the attack on Lambert and Parker where the dramatic furore of the scoring offsets the almost languid, slow-motion quality of the horror, this death-dance where you can do nothing but watch as a grotesque hell-beast sizes you up and prepares to lunch on your brain. And then, no music at all – only the sounds of unimaginable terror, piped through to Ripley as she rushes to a rescue that only come too late. All of it, a master class in the use of film’s sonic textures as well as visual.
The film’s opening minutes, similarly, say much about what can be done even when nothing is happening. Tracking shots through the ship’s interior, resolving eventually on the forms of the crew in perfect stasis, computers clicking to life before humans, toy baubles bobbing up and down according to the thrum of the constant engines: Scott evokes presence by absence, the eerie chill of a haunted house, the crew already dead but not yet knowing it. The ship’s name of course was taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel, a tale of an ordinary but great man ruined by greed, and a step removed from the heart of darkness. The hunt for the creature commences after its gruesome birth, with the crew at first assuming they’re only dealing with a small, nasty vermin. But soon Brett, assigned to track down the ship’s cat and mascot Jones, encounters the alien, having grown into a gangly, man-sized monstrosity that rips his forehead open with a recessed, springing jaw. Dallas ventures into the ship’s air duct system to track it down, only to be outwitted and attacked, his fate ambiguous (in the later director’s cut, revealed to have been cocooned alive as a meal or host body for another alien). Brett’s ill-fated hunt for Jones and its jolting climax makes for one of the film’s best scenes, in part because of Stanton’s shambling, ineffably hangdog refusal to act like he’s in a horror movie, perfectly depicting a man worn comically ragged by a lifetime of bullshit work suddenly reaching its end in a way no-one could ever see coming, seen as a series of eliding yet hideously suggestive glimpses of obscene creation and violence. Scott uses his search as an excuse to shoot the Nostromo’s darkest reaches with its filth and dripping water in a way that evokes the feeling of such an environment not just as a tactile space but a way of life and a working world that somehow also spills over into the dreamlike. The alien is first glimpsed dangling from some hanging chains and yet the plain sight of it doesn’t register for several viewings precisely because it looks like so much of the mechanical.
Dallas’ hunt for the alien is a more traditional horror sequence in which tension is built not just by the carefully utilised claustrophobic space Dallas scrambles about in, but the register of the tracking sensor that shows something zeroing in on him, yet remaining chillingly unseen and elusive until it appears at the least expected moment in one of cinema’s greatest ever pure “boo!” moments. Ripley is next in command, and is left the one who has to make a call on what to do now, cueing my favourite moment in Weaver’s performance. This scene depicts Ripley, shaken and grieving after two severe shocks but at the same time coolly taking charge, pacifying Parker and registering her disbelief with Ash’s responses, contrasting the increasingly brittle Parker and Lambert and Ash’s inhuman cool. Suspicious of Ash’s reticence with ideas for catching or killing the monster, Ripley consults with MUTHR only to learn the company has instructed that the alien be returned to Earth with the crew considered expendable to this end. Ripley angrily strikes Ash, only for Ash to chase her down and try to murder her, starting to leak not blood from a graze on his head but milky white fluid – the sign he’s actually an android. Although it displeased O’Bannon, Hill and Giler’s decision to introduce Ash as an android was inspired, as it gave the film a jolt of narrative complexity and surprise, as well as one of Scott’s best whisper-to-a-scream sequences, particularly when Ash is revealed, having silently entered the control room and now standing next to Ripley when she’s just read the shocking orders in MUTHR, to tell her that, in spite of the evidence of her eyes and mind, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of it.
Ash plays a very similar role to HAL 9000 in 2001 as the electronic entity on board who proves nearly as dangerous as any other threat, and he introduces another common conceptual wing of the sci-fi genre alongside space travel and alien life – the artificial human. But where HAL was a proto-consciousness destroyed by its own confusion born of being perched between states of being, there is nothing confused about Ash or his role, as simulacrum contrived to be indistinguishable and as a proxy to carry out dirty work, a sleeper agent representing both the interests of the company and his own fascination for the alien. Scott would of course return to the theme of the cynically created android being in Blade Runner (1982) and push several ideas nascent here to a limit, particularly the question of how moral in the human sense one could expect such a sentient creation to be when given life to by entirely different creative forces. Ash intellectually votes a kind of loyalty to the alien precisely because it’s more like him than the humans around him, with the keynote word of “purity” signifying something both fascistic and atavistic in that loyalty, with the hint that there’s always something machine-like to any lifeform, in compulsion to survive in itself and to reproduce to extend its genome.
The alien is a sophisticated but also utterly simple expression of this essence. Parker and Lambert must stop Ash killing Ripley, with Parker decapitating him with a blow. But the android still deadly, until Lambert finally fries him with an electrified prod. The physicality of this sequence is tremendous, particularly as it serves in part as a repeat-cum-revision of Kane’s earlier demise, echoed in the ripping apart of Ash and the exposure of his vitals, except now the human form is substituted for something else – the company man revealed as unholy chimera of literal milk for blood and circuitry, the strength and wicked concision of the android physique suggested as Ash rips Ripley’s curls from her head, forms his fingers like a vice on Parker’s chest, and tries to choke Ripley with a rolled-up magazine. The image of headless Ash still trying to kill is as vital in its way as the alien itself in depicting the maniacal heart of this tale, animating the essential notion of a universe turned animate and hostile, of creation turned insane. When they briefly revive Ash to glean information from him, his mocking smile and cold humour (“I can’t lie to you about your chances but…you have my sympathies.”) give cold comfort but also a fire to the last three crewmembers. They resolve to abandon the ship and blow it up, ensuring there’s nothing left of the alien to pose a threat, or a boon, to anyone else. The climactic scenes see Alien’s pitiless logic still in play even as everything seems to spiral towards incandescent terminus. Parker and Lambert’s scrambling eagerness to survive creates a racket that attracts their nemesis. Ripley finds herself trapped on the ship she instructed to turn off, the intelligent but insensate MUTHR now calmly counting off minutes to self-destruction regardless of Ripley’s screams for awareness.
Only Ripley is fated to live, to become the emblematic survivor, the eternal neo-Odysseus voyaging home and battling demons of the underworld at every turn. Scott and company had the guts to take up that original notion of O’Bannon and Shusett’s and even take it a step further in a way, making her the film’s pivotal figure without rhetoric or cliché: she became the great archetype of a modern heroine because she simply is. Ripley’s force and character are made apparent long before she has to take up the mantle of command and then the face the axis that will make her either titan or afterthought lunchmeat. To a certain extent this idea wasn’t so radical, particularly as Ripley serves the role of “final girl” already being codified in horror movie terminology. She would become as the archetypal warrior mother in Aliens, Boudica with a pulse rifle. Here she’s just another member of the crew, blessed only with a slight advantage in muscle of body, mind, and spirit that allows her to survive. And even that may be in part due to the alien, as it’s heavily suggested, being canny is enough to use her to so what it can’t—fly the Nostromo’s shuttle away from the dying vessel. Weaver’s performance is both excellent but also less stand-out than the star-driven sequels, as Alien retains something of the Howard Hawks ethic of the ensemble as star, but also because Ripley is becoming, evolving, just as surely as the alien is, switched on by crisis and forced to work every cell in her frame to live. Still Weaver catches the eye at first with the blend of amusement and attitude she turns on Parker and Brett, and comes into focus as she interrogates Ash over his breach of discipline and, later, his seemingly negligent lack of urgency. “You’re still collating?” Ripley asks Ash, with Weaver’s reading at once emotional and beggared and exacting in her refusal to be bullshitted, before announcing a course of action to her fellows that signals both her emotional genuineness and her unfurling strength. It’s the moment Weaver became a movie star and Ripley becomes not just a character but a hero.
The breathless climactic scenes, as the formerly becalmed corridors of the Nostromo become a labyrinth of din and smoke, do graze the edge of impressive but empty hullabaloo on repeat viewings. But the sneakily appended final act is a perfect islet that repeats the film in miniature and punishes anyone who thought defeating such evil it would be so easy. Tough, resilient, almost androgynous Ripley strips down to her panties, suddenly, almost discomfortingly vulnerable, takes a deep breath, and prepares for sleep, only to find she’s trapped with the ultimate boogeyman. Much like Laurie Strode in Halloween Ripley is terrorised into a cupboard and forced into her make-or-break stand there, adapting tools and formulating a quick plan that needs profound courage to pull off and circumstances allow no other end. The cunning of this sequence lies not just in staging a great twist that the entire film has, in retrospect, been conditioning the viewer for – is it just more quiet and methodical observation, or leading to something? – but in the way it underlines both human and alien as creatures refusing to surrender or abandon their essence. Ripley finds her warrior pith, fusion of dragon killers like St George and Perseus with the princesses they saved, as befitting a modern myth, and the incredibly resilient alien manages to survive in space, still trying to find a way back into the shuttle after Ripley blows it out the airlock, will still not give up the game until Ripley gives it a roasting with the shuttle engines. The last image, of Ripley returned to sleep, is sublime in its sense of circularity, the waking life a nightmare that must contended with, and sleep the place where everyone is safe.