Directed by Ridley Scott (1979)
by Sandy DeVito
A few weeks ago I was spending an evening with some friends and we were discussing what movie we should watch. We all had decided it should be some kind of horror film as autumn was just around the corner (and now it's here!), and someone asked me what my favorite horror film is. I'm known among friends as someone who has a taste for such things, and my answer was, without hesitation, "Alien." The reaction was a positive one, but one person said, in an argument I've heard before: "That's not a horror film." I proceeded to name a few other favorites (Fright Night, Rosemary's Baby, etc.) and we all moved on with the conversation, without really revisiting Alien or the obviously dissenting opinions. But it's kind of been nagging me ever since, because I really, truly believe Alien to be the purest kind of horror film, in fact, the best horror film of all time. And I feel a desire to defend that view.
I'd already been planning on doing my own 31 Days of Halloween (one Halloween/horror movie review for every day of the month) on my Letterboxd as far back as the beginning of the year when I made my account there, and I've been working on the list as far back as July. Alien has always been my choice for day one, firstly because it's my favorite movie (and the only one out of my top four that I've not yet written a review for), secondly because of that bone-deep certainty in me of its horror credentials. The definition of a horror film, in the broadest sense, is "a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience's primal fears." One could certainly argue here that there's a necessary subjectivity in examing what we each personally find scary; one person is afraid of small spaces, another afraid of heights. But I believe there are objective fears for our kind: fear that goes beyond the personal and must inevitably be shared among all of us, for their prospects are equally horrifying to us due to our common humanity. The horror films that examine these objective human fears successfully are those which represent this genre. They include, but are not limited to, madness, extreme suffering, the loss of a loved one, the supernatural, and perhaps the truest characteristic of these, the unknown. Much is still unknown to us as a species; is there any innate meaning in existence? What happens to our consciousness when we die? And, of course, is there anything or anyone else out there in the darkness of airless space, and if so, what are they like, and what would their intentions be towards us? Alien has its own answer to this third question, and the answer is fear.
The film opens on a spaceship called Nostromo, which we learn is carrying mineral ore back to earth after an excavation trip. Its crew is under stasis, a kind of hibernation, to better stand the long journey back to Earth, but in the opening scene, they are awakened from their slumber by the ship's computer, nicknamed MOTHER. Our group is working class; Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), and two Engineers, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). As they wake up, we see them chatting and arguing about their wages over coffee and space food, the ship's cat, Jones, nearby. They may be removed to another time and place in our near future, but they are unmistakably human, with the same cares and needs as us. They realize that MOTHER woke them up when the ship started recieving a strange transmission from a nearby dwarf planet. They argue over whether or not they should answer it; Ash reminds them that to ignore it is in direct violation of their terms of contract. The crew reluctantly agrees to follow the signal to its origin.
But when they reach the planetoid, they discover no humans, but strange vistas of some ancient alien race. Here we get to see the first bits of surrealist designer H.R. Giger's twisted sensibilities - his work combines living anatomy with the mechanical, creating an aesthetic that invokes both physical pain and sexuality. Giger is beloved for his utterly singular visions (and if you want more on him, I recommend the documentary Dark Star), but nowhere else do they shine in their horror as utterly as they do in this film. His sensibility perfectly fits the horrifying designs of a race totally removed from ours - and we, like the crew, start to wonder if this was a terrible mistake. They soon find that indeed it was, when the crew members that head inland find a group of strange, huge eggs (ever infamous from the poster, one of which bursts and its inhabitant, a scorpion-esque larvae known as the face-hugger to this movie's fans, burns through Kane's helmet with acid and latches onto his face. And so we find that this isn't a science fiction tale in anything other than its setting, one that could easily be interchanged with any decrepit graveyard, derelict mansion, or shadowed moor. This is a narrative rooted in primal fear, and its goal is to elicit horror from us, its poor, unfortunate audience.
The design of the aliens themselves (now usually referred to as a Xenomorph) is human only in its ability to stand on two appendages; its form is both insectoid and amphibian with the strange mechanics of Giger's form. The filmmakers were careful to give Giger creative control over the aliens while enlisting seperate designers for the human ship, and this makes our sense of horror and confusion towards it stronger as we feel a mixture of revulsion and fascination (Giger was quoted as saying he wanted their design to be "beautiful and graceful", even). The chest-burster scene is one of the most disturbing in all of cinematic history for the sheer bewilderment it invokes: "What the fuck is even happening?", we think, until it becomes all too clear. As if the hugger itself wasn't grotesque enough, the alien is even more nightmarish in its singular desire for survival. And nowhere else are we safe in this narrative: as if the alien itself weren't frightening enough, we must also somehow grapple with the sudden revelation that Ash is not only in actuality an android with insides that are milk-white and spaghetti-like wiring, but that he was included in the mission to ensure that the alien creature was safely transported back to his employers, with no concern for the humans aboard the ship. The scene where he expresses his admiration for the creature, even, is chilling in its lack of human empathy. This invokes the fear we all share of betrayal from those we percieve to be benevolent, and in an environment as unforgiving as deep space, the betrayal of a comrade who was an important link to your own survival brings you that much closer to the abyss.
There are so many other scenes that incite horror in this film - Dallas crammed into a tight chute with the creature gaining on him, the cold replies of the MOTHER computer when Ripley tries to go to it for answers, the acidic blood of the face-hugger eating through the ship's interior, Brett finding the exoskeleton of the alien only to meet its impossibly huge new form face-to-face, everything leading up to Ripley's final battle with it and her discovery of its hiding place on the rescue shuttle. The feeling of being hunted by a creature whose defenses are far advanced and whose instinct is more utterly ruthless - and the adjoining horror of knowing you and your fellow beings are responsible for this nightmare. Soon after the crew lands on the planetoid, Ripley discovers that the transmission they initially took to be a distress signal is actually a warning signal. At some point, someone sent out a warning to save future space travellers from stumbling upon the monstrosities there. But by the time she discovers this, it's too late.
The end is ambiguous (and of course, there's a whole franchise of Alien films that were spawned after this one, the most successful of these being Aliens - much more of a by-the-book action film than the original, and a great example of the differences in tone that define how seperate they are as genre entries), leaving Ripley in stasis with the only other remaining crew member, cat Jones, after she jettisoned the alien out into space. But we know that these creatures are survivors above all else - much like Ripley herself - and therefore it's unlikely they will go down so easily. The horror exists in perpetuity. The unknown continues. And therefore so does fear. Every time I watch this, my soul is filled with fucking dread. It's that dread that removes this from the realm of science fiction - it's that deep negative emotion reaction that makes this the purest kind of horror there is.
P.S. The masterful flourish of not knowing who will survive for most of the film punctuates the narrative greatness of Ripley all the more in this story. But it's a testament to how great films can be when given the space to have female protagonists, hidden or overt. The greatest movie ever has a female protagonist, ha!