It sucks when you don’t get along with your co-workers. It makes every shift a drag and makes most jobs even worse than they already are. Now imagine your job is hauling 20 million tonnes of ore through deep space with a group of people that you both dislike and distrust. Then add an apex interstellar predator to the mix. You’ve got the workplace scenario from hell but you’ve also got Ridley Scott’s Alien: one of the greatest science fiction horror movies ever made.
The crew of the interstellar cargo tug Nostromo are awoken by a beacon from a nearby uninhabited planet. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), executive officer Kane (John Hurt) and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go planet side to investigate the beacon. Engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), along with warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and science officer Ash (Ian Holm), stay aboard the Nostromo. While on the freezing primordial planet, Kane investigates an egg which hatches a spiderlike alien that attaches to his face. He’s brought back to the ship and not long after awakens. All seems normal until a small other alien bursts out of Kane’s chest and starts picking off the crew one by one.
The horror in Alien is twofold as it is in most good horror films. Not only is there a predatory insectile creature moving through the air ducts of the ship but the crew’s cabin fever threatens to boil over at any moment. It had been done before but Alien made the concept of space madness truly terrifying. This was mostly thanks to screenwriter and horror luminary Dan O’Bannon, but it wasn’t just claustrophobia that O’Bannon captured well: it was character too.
By the film’s halfway point it becomes clear that Ripley is the only person with a chance of surviving. The rest of the crew aren’t stupid but they are, at worst, treacherous or, at best, too lazy or unprepared to deal with the Nostromo’s newest passenger. What’s interesting is the way the film treats Ripley. For the first third it’s the men that are the focus of the story. Dallas, Kane and Ash are consummate professionals just following orders while Parker and Brett are a comic relief buddy-cop duo. All of that changes with Kane’s encounter with the facehugger.
Instead, whether through bad luck or the alien’s exceptional abilities, the most capable crew members start to die off leaving Ripley with command of the Nostromo and increasingly big pairs of shoes to fill. It’s amazing how well the original pitch of “Jaws in space” works. An out-of-their-depth character loses every possible companion and has to fight off an unthinking, unfeeling monster with improvised weapons on a rapidly sinking ship. Not to mention the fact that there are two unthinking, unfeeling monsters on the ship.
O’Bannon hated the idea of Ash as an android in disguise. He felt it was unnecessary but it might actually be the most necessary part of the whole film. Ash’s actions, from the moment Kane is attacked, are strange and unpredictable. It creates an internal sense of tension for the crew as well as the external presence slowly ripping them apart. As science officer, Ash has jurisdiction over what should happen to the creature. Ripley distrusts him from the start and as the film makes clear this intuition is why she would go on to survive three more films in the franchise.
Alien would never have become the pop-culture juggernaut it is now without the designs of H. R. Giger and the more dystopian, realist designs by Ron Cobb and Chris Foss. Giger’s slithery, psycho-sexual imagery for the facehugger, chestburster and the now infamous xenomorph itself are some of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Ask anyone to think of the word alien and it’s either little green men or that beast that’s a third reptile, a third insect and a third penis.
Cobb and Foss’ design of the Nostromo is just as important especially in relation to the universe of the alien films. The factory-like, long-haul truck quality of the Nostromo would echo down into Aliens, Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. It’s the ramshackle rebel designs of Star Wars taken to the extreme with an extra layer of dirt and grease on top. Add to that Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score filled with serpentine scuttling and Alien was a bonafide classic before it even hit the editing room.
There are many imitations but there is only one Alien. Its legacy is felt everywhere, from John Carpenter’s The Thing to its own numerous sequels, prequels and (shudder) crossovers. Alien was as much a part of a golden age of horror as it was a part of the late 70s sci-fi revival. Much like Spielberg before him, director Ridley Scott knew it was important to leave the monster mostly to the audience’s imagination. A thrusting tongue here; a twitching tail there. A collection of pipes that unfurl purposefully to reveal that even though the Nostromo is gone the alien is not.
There’s no real relief at the end of Alien. The Nostromo along with its entire crew bar one is gone. Yes, the xenomorph has been kicked out an airlock and roasted in the escape shuttle’s engines, but there is still the endless blackness of space and the burgeoning trauma of survivor’s guilt to contend with. Not to mention all the paperwork Ripley will have to go through when she eventually gets home.
In space no one can hear you scream. Alien never lets that scream loose instead allowing it to build and build and build over the course of an entire franchise. On it’s 40th anniversary that scream is still in our chests as much as it is in Ripley’s. It’s just waiting for the right moment to burst out.