In 1979, a seemingly typical science-fiction film mixed with the horror genre debuted in theatres. Yet the film would feature the most iconic and original movie monster of the 20th Century. Ridley Scott’s Alien would jump-start the career of director Ridley Scott, as well as actress Sigourney Weaver. It was also the starting point for a four-movie tetralogy, two crossover films, a spinoff film and sequel, and various tie-in comics and merchandise. It certainly is astonishing that so much material could be birthed from a low-budget sci-fi movie. But given that Ridley Scott’s Alien is a masterpiece of horror, it is very fitting.
Masterpiece is a loaded term that I am uncomfortable of throwing casually to numerous films. Alien is not a cerebral masterpiece like Blade Runner. It is a masterpiece of horror and science fiction. Horror is a genre that is often more literal than cerebral. People die and the horror is whether or not one character or the next is going to be the victim of the monster. Scott has cited Texas Chainsaw Massacre as an influence of Alien. But Alien is a film that is far more than just an excuse to watch caricatures be brutally murdered by a monster.
Alien began from the mind of Dan O’Bannon who wanted to create a science-fiction monster film that avoided the trappings of becoming pure pulp. O’Bannon’s script would pass through producers David Giler and Walter Hill. The two were unimpressed by the dialogue and heavily re-wrote the script, leading to a battle over writing credit when the film was about to be released. Giler and Hill similar to O’Bannon wanted Alien to be a film far more than just a pulp genre movie. Luckily the producers came across two people who saved Alien from becoming just a generic popcorn thriller. First and most importantly was director Ridley Scott. Scott had directed his first feature film, The Duellists, a period drama of two military officers carrying a deadly vendetta against each other throughout the Napoleonic era. While the film was greatly admired by critics, it lacked a mass appeal. Scott wanted to direct a film that would have mass appeal yet also be creatively stimulating for himself. He found such an opportunity in the Alien screenplay which he wanted to treat with a certain degree of realism as was possible for a science-fiction film.
Scott also tapped a brilliant mind to create the Alien creature. Surreal artist HR Giger designed the alien creature. The design of the Alien by Giger is crucial in making the monster be one of the most terrifying creatures created for cinema. The lack of eyes on the Alien alone, makes the creature be wholly terrifying as there is something automatically unsettling about a creature whose features do not share the commonalities of most species. There is a saying that an eye is a window into the soul. A creature that lacks eyes implicitly feels soulless and lacking in the empathy of most other creatures. Giger’s monster furthermore has a body that feels wholly unnatural and equally ferocious. Everything about Giger’s design of the Alien Xenomorph is unsettling and truly unnerving. It embodies the dual-meaning of the word “alien” of the creature not being of Earth, and being so markedly different from what is normal. Scott also takes a page from Steven Spielberg in Jaws and recognizes that the less screen-time devoted to seeing the alien is better as it allows the dread to build up of this horrid monster. The film works because time is spent building up the dread of the alien coming around to kill.
But beyond the beautiful design and production values are naturalistic performances that help guide audiences into this Alien-world. The characters of Alien have been described as space truck-drivers, and that certainly seems apt. The characters of Alien feel whole-heartedly normal; that is not an insult, it is a sincere compliment. George Lucas’ Star Wars, had characters inhabit a world of spaceships, laser swords and magic. But the technology of Star Wars was unreliable, with characters describing the ships they flew as “junk”. The characters of Alien feel like blue-collar workers just trying to make their paycheck. So many amusing moments involve Parker and Brett complaining to Ripley about being eligible for a bonus, or characters pining for better food. We never learn too much about these characters, and one could even argue that they are caricatures given that we learn so little about them. But this shorthand form of character development is crucial as these characters feel immediately familiar. We do not learn too much about Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but we do not need to know that much about her. She is an officer of the mining ship, the Nostromo, and is one who strictly obeys protocol. She is brave, but she is not immune from fear as many modern heroic characters.
This intrepid cast of ordinary people helps to emphasize how awful, terrifying and unprepared they are to face this horrific alien creature. Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert screams in terror as an audience-surrogate reflecting the fear we feel as people are being brutally murdered by this creature. While Aliens has characters consumed with hubris that they can handle the threat, the crew of Nostromo share no delusions. Immediately Lambert screams that they should abandon the ship once people begin to die. Characters hold flamethrowers like clueless amateurs and feel the genuine terror that they do not know what to do when facing off against this horrid enemy. Because these people feel real, their deaths also feel much more impactful as these people are much more than the ordinary slasher-fodder of horror movies.
Coupling with the excellent performances and a magnificently designed monster is a level of mystery. The first half of Alien is full of the same mysteries and questions that define Scott’s return to his universe in Prometheus. The crew of the Nostromo receive a strange distress call from an alien species. The crew see’s a strange spacecraft and a bizarre giant creature that has been dubbed by fans as “the space jockey”. As John Hurt’s Kane observes that there is a strange reaction when he crosses a mist near the alien eggs. All these mysteries simply go unanswered. There is never an explanation of the fate of the space jockey, nor of his relation to the alien species. Like the horror of HP Lovecraft, we have ordinary people encounter the dark and dreadful unknown that mankind will never understand. As the mysteries go unanswered and people begin to die it adds to a dreadful theme of nihilism. Ultimately Alien offers no reassurances to it’s audiences. Ripley survives her encounter with death personified, but there is no sense of triumph in her final monologue. The crew of the Nostromo was deemed expendable by “the Company”. Human life is ultimately trivial when compared to the potential of the “perfect organism” Ripley meets. The true horror of Alien is that there are no answers to the mysteries, that the society the characters inhabit considers their lives trivial. The most one can hope for is to survive in a cold universe.
Alien is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word. It is not a cerebral masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece of suspense and horror. It succeeds because you care about the characters and you are wholly gripped by the looming threat of this terrifying creature.