Few films can have had such an effect on the Sci-fi / Horror genre as Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien. It was the perfect antidote to the benign vison of aliens seen in Speilberg’s Close Encounters, or the Saturday matinee popcorn confectionary of Star Wars and the family blockbusters that came after it - the quasi-religious ‘lost tribes of Israel in search of a home’ Battlestar Galactica, the anodyne adventure of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, or Disney’s The Black Hole and Superman - The Movie. Alien may have been set in a galaxy far, far away, but it was no fairy tale in space. Rather, it was a nightmare. It eschewed the formulaic ‘Us versus Them’ scenario of Star Wars, pitting cartoon villains against lightweight leads (I may be going against the grain here, but I quite liked the Empire and wouldn’t have minded them blowing the too good rebellion off the face of Dantooine), and presented us with the ultimate ‘Us versus It’. And what an It, it was! The advertising slogan for the film (one of the best ever) said, ‘In space no one can hear you scream’. The auditorium certainly could. Nothing prepared us for this Lovecraftian-inspired horror, and nothing since has come close. The Xenomorph became an instant archetype the moment it hit our screens.
What differentiates Alien from the competition is the way it integrates the life cycle of the creature into the fabric of the film. Like all good monster movies, the trick is not to initially reveal to the audience what they’re actually dealing with, to give glimpses and suggestions only of what is really out there. To this extent, having the life cycle of the alien depicted in real time, from egg to facehugger to fully-formed Xenomorph, helps to keep us guessing.
Unconstrained by budget the way its progenitor, Edward L. Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), was (Alien is equally influenced by other great sci-fi movies of the 1950’s, namely The Thing from Another World and Forbidden Planet),
Scott creates a Freudian nightmare of a film,
where hi-tech fuses with sexual imagery
in every camera shot,
and in the alien itself, based on the biomechanoid beings of set designer H.R. Giger, has the most original horror movie creature ever realised. There was no sympathy for this ‘thing’. Like the crew of the doomed Nostromo, you wanted to blow the fucker off the ship.
Though the Nostromo, that monstrous towing vessel headed for the planetoid LV-426, shares its name with Conrad’s novel, it more closely resembles another of his works, Heart of Darkness. For this is another journey into hell, ordered by a rapacious company keen to lay its hands on the bounty of another world, only this bounty is more dangerous than any commodity known to man.
The feeling of entering into darkness, of powerful symbols on alien walls, of arousing psychosexual states and waking nightmares, is the stuff of Gothic nightmare,
and certainly the film resonates with such images. It is even bookended by references to sleep, beginning with crew waking at the start and Ripley finally falling asleep at the end.
Aside from the iconic figure of the Xenomorph, the set designs – notably the derelict alien spacecraft perched crablike on the rocky surface of LV-426, the vast, blue-hued egg chamber with its rows of eggs like vulvae, the iconic seated space jockey with the hole in his chest (stupidly given a back story reboot in Scott’s later Prometheus), and the ramshackle engine room of the Nostromo – all steaming valves and condensation – provide a fitting backdrop to the horror. The acting (so often the downfall of horror films) is top notch, too - English stalwart Ian Holm, in particular. The script may not give them too much to play with – this, is, after all, a horror film, but it is enough to flesh out even an android (in Holm’s case). These characters aren’t cannon fodder, sacrificed for thrills, but flesh and blood people, caught up in a desperate battle for survival. Holm is particularly nuanced as Ash, sent by the corporation who own the ship to capture the alien.
One of the things I love about the film is its slow start. It is not afraid to set the scene and establish the horror of what is about to happen. The sense of encroaching doom, aided by an excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith, allows Scott to immerse the viewer in the alien surroundings, take in the mundane environment of the ship, and the humdrum of the crew’s life there. You want to get off but you know you can’t. One of my favourite scenes is when Ripley accesses MOTHER (the ship’s computer) and determines that the transmission from LV-426 is not an SOS, but a warning. The landing party is already on the alien vessel, they have already seen the egg chamber – now this. Ripley is too late to get them out of there. Horror films work best when there’s no escape.
Alien gave me nightmares when I first watched it and has had a profound effect on me ever since. I couldn’t watch it for years afterwards. Five years ago, when I was researching my own horror novel, Killing Sound, I spent some time on the London Underground. I was taken down disused rail tracks where the clanking of chains, the constant dripping of water, and the rumble of passing trains made me think of the Nostromo. It was just such an environment that the alien had come from. The arched and vaulted ceilings recalled the architecture of the alien spacecraft on LV-426. I was only missing the protagonist himself. Luckily, that wasn’t long in coming. Michael Pacher’s ‘Saint Wolfgang and the Devil’ depicts an upright reptilian demon with green scales and ribbed skin. If the devil didn’t quite have the life-cycle of the Xenomorph, the horror was about equal. I wanted to create something that would live as long in the memory of the reader.
Alien had one other important influence on my writing and Killing Sound, in particular. That was the way it dealt with death – how important it was to make each one memorable and different. The attacks on the crew in the film are fabulously realised. After the alien chestbursting scene takes care of Kane, and Brett gets caught looking for his cat, at which point we realise that the alien is no longer a glove puppet, but a seven foot high monster, Captain Dallas tries to flush it out of the air vents. This is a great, great horror scene – the Xenomorph is not seen but followed on a tracking device. ‘There seems to be some kind of double image’, Lambert says. Dallas is bemused as he can’t see anything. Scott conveys our own terror in the reactions of Lambert, hysterical with fear: ‘I'm still getting two blips. I'm not sure which one is which.’ Dallas turns almost into the extended arms of the alien.
Lambert herself is paralysed with fear when she later confronts it. For those of us who shouted at the screen for her to get the hell out of the way, her death seemed to confirm all the worst traits of women in horror movies (that they are pathetic and put the lives of the men trying to save them in danger – in this instance, preventing Parker from torching the alien with his flamethrower). There is something overtly sexual about the alien tail coiling around Lambert – one of the many phallic scenes in the film (who could forget Ash deepthroating Ripley with a (porno) magazine). She is a victim of her sex. But the film confounds our expectations and presents us with another original archetype (if that’s not a pleonasm or contradiction). The fact is that it is the resourceful Ripley who survives the alien attack and succeeds where the men failed. It demonstrates that women, like men, are not all the same and gave us science fiction cinema’s first truly tough female lead.
Paul Southern 5/11/14
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