There’s a reason why people are still making sequels to director Ridley Scott’s Alien today and trying to recapture its claustrophobic and terrifying atmosphere. This 1979 science fiction horror film is a standard of both genres and holds up incredibly well almost 35 years later.
As a horror film, Alien builds up incredible tension as it progresses, sticking to some of the genre’s classic formulas while offering enough twists and turns to not become cliché. However, the movie’s science fiction concepts elevate it beyond horror. The original ideas that are present add a deeper story, creating mystery and mythology that have brought back countless directors and fans to continue exploring the film. Alien could have easily been a standalone film, but its unmistakable imagery and ideas have been the impetus for one great film and some terrible ones.
The premise of Alien has become so iconic that even those who have never seen it know its basics. Spaceship crew. Chest-bursting alien. Creeping terror coming to devour you in the middle of outer space.
Countless films have involved a group of misfits being picked off one by one by some evil force. Many did it before Alien and far more have done it after. Unlike many of those other films, Alien doesn’t make this structure so obvious from the beginning. The audience is slowly sunk into this premise and before they know it, crew members of the mining spaceship Nostromo are having their brains eaten and being subjected to unimaginable horrors.
An Atmosphere of Lonely Dread
From the very beginning, Scott and company set out to create a sense of quiet, foreboding fear. In the first shot, the camera slowly pans past a sickly green planet and the title Alien takes shape at the top of the screen piece by piece. Scott plans to take his time with you, wearing you down and shredding your nerves minute by minute.
Setting the story in a rundown spaceship gives it a unique feel compared to other horror entries and ratchets up the claustrophobic nature of the story. There’s nowhere to run and there’s no help in sight for literally billions of miles. The ship’s industrial nature is a complete reversal of the clean and bright visions held by many other science fiction films made before. Like Scott’s other seminal sci-fi film Blade Runner, the future is grimy, dark, and far too likely for comfort. Visual aesthetics like dripping water, clinking chains, dark corners, and blinding warning lights hide the terror that could be lurking anywhere.
Unlike most horror films, our victims and heroes are adults, not nubile teens looking to get laid. Every character is a grown up blue-collar worker. These people were just looking to mine some asteroids and get paid. Instead, they’re drawn into unimaginable terror underpinned by corporate conspiracy and greed. This gives the scares and shocks a less clichéd edge that makes it far more relatable. You are scared with the characters, rather than itching to watch them get offed in gruesome fashion. Of course, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is the standout in the cast, with her character coming to define the series just as much as its monsters. But the film doesn’t let you in on her being the star of the show. Anyone could live or die at any moment. Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto all make their characters unique and human.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score only adds to the creeping dread that quickly fills every frame. Music is sparse and light and as the film continues, its musical themes become darker, but not necessarily faster and more intense. Not until the end at least, when the audience has to sweat it out with Ripley as she tries to escape her ever-worsening situation.
Terror from Within and Without
The terror that is on display frightens on multiple levels. The alien onboard, later known as a Xenomorph, is a perversion of human form and sexuality. Not so surprising when you know that it was based on the designs of terrifyingly-sexual artist H.R. Giger. Its origin preys on our fear of the vast unknown of space, while its nature makes us fear our own bodies.
The Xenomorph is forcibly conceived when a male crewmember is grabbed by a facehugger (spider-like first form of the monster) and implanted with an egg, which eventually is born by bursting violently from his chest at the dinner table. Ideas of male impregnation, violent birth, and forced sexuality are nightmarish. While they are not mentioned by name, their themes inform much of the horror on display. In fact, writer Dan O’Bannon stated that he wanted to terrify men, making them the targets of horrific ideas, rather than going after over-used female victims.
In its fully-grown form, our monster is slick, dripping, and sexual, with parts that are both phallic and vaginal in nature. However, Scott keeps things in good taste, with nothing graphic directly shown, only left to our imagination. This fear of the unknown makes the concepts far more frightening. In the end, the true terror of Alien is the underlying idea of it all, not some throw-away jump scare. Alien is far more than just a title, it is the concept behind the many fear display within its two-hour run time.
In fact, the full form of the creature and its attacks are often obscured and kept off camera in a Jaws-like fashion. Budgetary constraints and unconvincing monster makeup may be the reason behind darkly-lit hallways and obscured shots, but they add to the unknown terror of the Xenomorph. Later films would lose their shyness as their budgets increased, but the aliens lost their terrifying nature in turn. The Xenomorph became a swarming, skittering bug, rather than an all-consuming manifestation of our sexual subconscious.
Additionally, the creature’s mysterious origins are the stuff of fanboy dreams, allowing rampant speculation and consistent exploration in various media. Scenes involving the alien eggs and the derelict ship they are found on only take up a small percentage of the film, but their H.P. Lovecraft nature make them haunting, horrifying, and mystifying. These mysterious settings were enough to make Prometheus not seem like it was milking a concept for far more than it’s worth. That film’s problems are its own doing, not the result of Alien’s content.
35 Years of Terror
All these years later, Alien is still a terrifying horror piece and an exceedingly well done film. Sure, some of the effects and styles are dated, like green text-only computer screens and one egregiously-edited swap between model and actor. But these matter little in the movie’s overall impact. Even after more than three decades, countless directors, writers, and artists are still trying to carry on Alien’s legacy. In many ways, the horror genre has never quite moved on. But iconic films cannot be recaptured or recreated. They are simply frozen in time, waiting to terrify and mystify a whole new generation.