Alien: At 40, No One Can Hear You Scream
On its 40th anniversary, Max Shepherd celebrates the seminal science-fiction classic.
Despite the questionable sequels, unquestionably bad prequels and the downright unforgivable Predator crossover films, Alien still remains a benchmark in sci-fi horror. The Oscar-winning set and creature design of the original film alone would have been enough to solidify its place in sci-fi movie history. The accompanying script, acting, cinematography and musical score elevated Alien beyond its genre, securing its spot in the pantheon of great films.
When watching the 1979 release today, one is struck by how little the film has aged visually. Even from the minimalist opening credits, it is obvious how seriously the producers and director – Ridley Scott – took the design, with the title slowly revealing itself through the gradual addition of white lines to a menacing orbital shot of an unknown planet. The scenes of the blatantly model ship landing on planet LV-426 and the sketchy exit made by the alien after ruining dinner are the only real exceptions. The retro-industrial aesthetic of the cargo ship Nostromo is done to such a high standard that it really feels like every blinking light and steaming vent has a genuine purpose. H.R Geiger’s biomechanical design of the alien ship and the alien itself are to this day as unique and unsettling as they were 40 years ago. Following in the footsteps of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien managed to become timeless by creating sets so detailed and iconic that they could rival any modern film aided by CGI.
The film still represents a huge step forward in the representation of women in mainstream cinema.
The pacing arguably rivals the design as the best aspect of the film. The naturalistic, almost mundane first act establishes fleshed out characters, grumbling about unfair wages and tasteless food. The tension is then built expertly with the revelation that they have been awoken to investigate a mysterious signal on an uninhabited planet. Officer Ripley’s realisation that it appears to be a warning rather than an SOS signal comes only after the team sent out to investigate have lost contact with the ship. By the time the rescue team witnesses the monumental alien craft on the horizon, it is clear that they aren’t going to find the Clangers or any other benevolent extra-terrestrials inside. Personally, I find the scenes inside the eerily organic alien ship to be the creepiest part of the film. The fossilised space jockey corpse with an exploded chest cavity should have been a clear indication for Captain Dallas and the others to leave. A lingering close up shot of the space jockey’s eternal scream as Kane (John Hurt) lowers himself to his doom, is a not so subtle warning of what is to come. From that point onwards the film proceeds in a fairly straight-forward, but brilliantly executed, horrific fashion. The chest-burster scene is a beautifully crafted jump scare and the subsequent crew casualties are all suitably tense and gruesome.
The secondary themes of the film are what really set it above most other horrors of its time – Jaws being the notable exception. The evils of corporate capitalism are illustrated by the willingness of the all powerful “Company” to sacrifice the crew in order to obtain the alien for their weapons division. The Company’s interests are personified by Ash, the covert android, placed in the crew last minute to protect the alien at every opportunity. Sigourney Weaver’s iconic performance as the hard-headed heroine Ripley was practically unrivalled in its depiction of a badass lead woman until Milla Jovovich starred in Resident Evil about 20 years later. Despite Ridley Scott’s inability to resist showing a scantily clad Ripley in the final scenes, the film still represents a huge step forward in the representation of women in mainstream cinema. Another subversive aspect of the film was the distinctly sexual undertones built into the alien’s design that were specifically intended to induce anxiety in men according to the screenwriter Dan O’Bannon; actively going against the horror norm of vulnerable women being attacked by male monsters. These concepts mixed with expert production made clear that genre films could transcend their target audience and gain universal acclaim.
When compared to The Thing, another sci-fi isolation horror released in 1983, Alien has undoubtedly withstood the test of time much more successfully in almost every department. Recent films such as Life (2017) have attempted to emulate it but fallen short, despite the aid of CGI, due to weaker narratives. Alien was a perfect storm of elements that came together to produce a film so close to perfection, that, at least here on Earth, you can still hear people scream 40 years on.
Image credit to BagoGames (Flickr) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagogames/34370791300