[I recently ran a poll on my social media over which sci-fi classic film series I would be covering over the next few weeks, and the winner--by a slim margin--was this one. To have a say in future polls, make sure you're following me on Facebook, and if you want to have even more influence on the topics I cover, consider joining my Patreon.]
When I was a mere nine years old, my family moved from a relatively small house into what felt, to me at least, like a miniature mansion, with a big, open floorplan and a ludicrously high ceiling. Before all of our furniture and belongings had been properly transfered, we set up a television and VCR on the floor in the corner of our enormous living room. One night, my parents decided to go out, leaving me in the care of my eldest brother and his best friend (who is no doubt reading this). After the sun went down, we huddled into that corner by the flickering shadows of the old cathode ray tube, and we watched Alien.
According to my mother, I was deeply traumatized for weeks by this experience, but in my memory, it was a seminal moment, where my future love of science-fiction/horror took root. While she says she will never forgive my brother and his friend for it, I will never stop thanking them. Alien has since become one of my top five most watched movies, because I have seen it at least a hundred times (no exaggeration). Sufficed to say, I am not even going to pretend to be objective in this review, because in my opinion, this is one of the greatest films ever made, full stop.
I'm pretty sure this is a screenshot from the film, not Alien: Isolation
Instead, I'd like to break down what, exactly, makes it work, why Alien is the ground-breaking sci-fi horror classic that it is. On paper, there's nothing terribly special about it; it's a creature feature slasher film that happens to be set in space (and it definitely wasn't the first movie to fit that description). Just watch any of its myriad imitators from the years immediately after its release and you'll see why the basic formula isn't what makes it so great. There has to be more to it than that.
Let's start with atmosphere. In a time where spacebound science-fiction was getting cleaner and more futuristic--following the mold of the absurdly successful Star Wars--newcomer Ridley Scott decided to paint a portrait of space travel that was grungier and less idealized. The primary setting, the commercial towing space vehicle, the USCSS Nostromo, is barely held together with spit and duct tape, and even though some of the walls may be crisp and white, they are all coated in a thin layer of dirt and grime that no amount of scrubbing will ever clear off. Vents periodically eject steam, lights flicker and fade, bulkhead panels hang open with exposed bits of wire and jagged metal, spaces are just a little tighter than comfort requires, computers take too long to boot up, and there is enough clutter to believe that people live here and are simply too exhausted to bother keeping things neat.
They're like oil riggers
Next we have the characters. Instead of heroic, larger-than-life figures running around polished, well-lit corridors with blasters and laser swords, the universe of Alien is populated by blue collar workers who get through their sweaty days with bickering and hard work, more often wielding socket wrenches and welding caps than futuristic sidearms. They're more concerned with the sizes of their paychecks and arguments over authority than they are the fate of the galaxy or needless relationship drama. Their dialogue is similarly naturalistic, avoiding pithy flourishes and overwritten sentiment in favor of utilitarian directness, with only the android Ash bothering with anything above three syllables. They clearly know their work and are able to communicate complex information relatively quickly, but they never feel like they're expositing for the sake of the audience.
Of course, that brings me to the titular alien. I'm well-steeped in creature features, and I can say without doubt or hesitation that there is absolutely nothing prior to this film that is even remotely similar to the Xenomorph. Most of the credit goes to H.R. Giger, whose twisted visions gave birth to a creature more viscerally organic and agressively sexual than ever before or since. It's also got a fully realized life cycle that is shown rather than explained (if you've seen that deleted scene, you know it was a closed loop), tweaking on the concept of a natural parasite combined with some truly ingenious sci-fi ideas like acid for blood and a naturally excreting silicon armor. It's more than just Freudian nightmare fuel; it's designed to unnerve you on an almost primordial level, to make you feel physically violated just by looking at it. People who've grown up with it as a pop culture icon just can't comprehend how truly alien and horrifying this thing was back in 1979.
I also want to talk about pacing, because this film is a master class in escalating tension. It doesn't just start slow and gradually increase in intensity; there's something more subtle at work. The tension comes in fits and starts, with bursts of distress thrown at the end of long, sweeping moments of sustained tension. A fifteen minute landing sequence ends with fire, smoke, and confusion as something breaks, but then the crew is able to assess the damage, make a plan, and move on. Then three of the crewmembers spend another fifteen minutes exploring a creepy--almost gothic--alien vessel in a hostile environment, which ends with a sudden burst when the facehugger jumps on Kane, accompanied by a blaring whine and a jump cut to the next complication: whether or not they should let the alien aboard the ship in order to save Kane, a tense problem that is resolved with sudden swiftness by Ash.
The movie goes on in this vein for its entire runtime, and there is no greater example of the pattern than Kane's last meal. This is suspense in a truly Hitchcockian sense, only instead of there being a bomb under the table, its an alien inside Kane's chest. Even though the characters don't seem tense until Kane starts choking--in fact, they are at the most relaxed they'll ever be--the audience knows something is about to happen, even if they don't know what it is. Then the insane thing happens--something unlike anything ever seen before--and we again jump cut to the characters forced to calmly evaluate the next problem and come up with a plan to deal with it rather than stand around screaming about what just happened for the next ten minutes.
Let's not downplay Sigourney Weaver either
The key thing here is that none of the climactic moments genuinely relieve the tension. The facehugger drops on Ripley and is revealed to be dead, but not knowing how it died, what it did to Kane, or what to do with its corpse are loose threads that sustain much of the tension that was built before. With each iteration of the cycle, the tension thus builds in layers. Even the cat jump scare--a tired cliché of horror, even back in 1979--isn't allowed to completely release the tension, as it immediately leads to an argument over having to catch the cat which leads to Brett wandering around alone and inevitably meeting his end. When the film is over and the alien is finally defeated, the tension still lingers, because the entire film preceding that moment has trained you to never trust resolution.
Lesser horror movies try to ape this formula, but few make it work. Either they misunderstand the nature of a well-placed jump scare--using it to completely deflate the tension like a mishandled soufflé--or they lack the atmosphere, characters, and ingenuity to prop it up. Alien, thus, is a perfect balance of these ingredients, and if any one of them had been off, the movie would have collapsed under its own ambitions. A film requires a lot of things to go right, and the greatest films of all time find that harmony, either intentionally or by accident, using several extraordinary components. That's what Alien does, and that's why it will always be a sci-fi classic.
-e. magill 3/5/2020
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