The crew of the Nostromo are awakened early from hyper-sleep to answer a distress call from a seemingly abandoned planet. While investigating on the ground, they discover an alien craft, seemingly lifeless. Yet one of their number is attacked and brought back to the ship, complete with unwanted guest.
Alien is one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made and if you’ve never seen it, erm… why? It’s influence is huge. That it can be accurately described as near-perfect is astonishing given the scope of it’s ambition.
The Nostromo is essentially a huge tug-boat, dragging an even larger refinery. Inside the camera moves slowly around the quiet vessel, languishing in the design. Finally stopping at a panel that bursts into life, processing what we later learn to be a distress call. The fascinating thing about The Nostromo is it looks old and well used. A working, grimy industrial ship. I suppose to most people at the time, the clean regimented Federation ships of Star Trek would be the typical sci-fi notion of space travel and this couldn’t be a starker contrast.
Throughout the film, the sets boast huge lonely cavernous storage areas, dark and full of feasible equipment that looks like someone has it there for a reason, though a long forgotten one judging by the rust. Aesthetically I don’t think there is a better realised film. There is an almost Victorian look to it, including lots of steam, in keeping with that industrial mood. That old fashioned look means it should never date, right down to computer panels with CRT monitors, basic text readouts and “clack-clack” operating noises. This is a machine age where flat screens and holograms will always be unwelcome.
Soon the crew awaken from their hyper sleep. A dishevelled bunch, ranks are observed, but not formally. As it is a working class ship, this is a small working class crew and even Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) has the weary look of someone who is simply doing his job. That must have struck a chord with audiences in the economically rough ’70s. In keeping with which, the relations between the crew are typical of any factory. The engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are always arguing with the others about money and one step away from calling their union and going on strike! Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) similarly pisses everyone off by waving a rule book around all the time, though in retrospect maybe they should have listened. A “told you so” wet dream for any Health & Safety official!
While investigating the call that caused them to be awoken early, Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronical Cartwright) discover the alien vessel and the dead pilot. As with everything else, a lot of work has gone into this to make it look like it could work without actually showing us how or why. Soon Kane finds eggs and is attacked.
And so begins the intricately detailed lifecycle of the greatest monster ever to stalk cinema. This thing is an invasion in more ways then one. Importantly it is as alien to the crew as it is to us. These working class people expect to find gooey bugs in their factory as much as we don’t.
The Alien was created in the mind of bio-mechanical genius H. R. Giger and it has specific stages in its process to match the machinelike environment it attacks. It’s the most effective monster because that process is sexual, attacking the human psyche at a base level. The Facehugger stage is mating with -perhaps raping even- Kane and the result is flippantly called “Kane’s Son” by science officer Ash (Ian Holm), who seems a little too fascinated by the creature that the others are happy to destroy.
If this all sounds a bit deep and Freudian, well the birth scene is a notorious horror classic. The resultant creature then haunts the ship and it’s scary as hell. Each set-piece picking off the crew one by one is different to the last, dripping with metaphor and tension. And what a magnificent beast it is too, brilliantly photographed. Strobe lighting, slow movements, more steam; we never see the creature in full, but all the shots combine in our imagination. Ridley Scott directs the whole thing with an almost priapic confidence and he throws everything in to grace his creature with as much terror as he can muster.
The director’s cut includes a scene of Ripley finding past victims cocooned against a wall. Though hardly explored this is the next stage in the creatures cycle. Even on first viewings it’s obvious the Alien has a purpose beyond a bogey man in fancy dress. We’ve just been dropped down the food chain and that gives the story a lasting fear. Ripley going back for the cat is a human weakness this ruthlessly efficient thing would never do and such a small act just emphasises that it is better than us. That’s scarily one of the most important elements in any horror. Superiority. The victims don’t even have a moral high ground; they’re extinct.
All things considered, there’s a lot could of gone wrong. The film is so rich without a single cliche (even the black guy doesn’t die first! And picking the survivor when you first see the crew is impossible) it almost seems a waste to pace it as a simple haunted house story. But that’s the sort of ambition that is lacking in todays cinema. This is possibly Scott’s masterpiece.