The Alien franchise has become something of a monster – the first movie, released in 1979, was such a huge success that it spawned a further four more films – each worse than the last, up to the recent and frankly misjudged Prometheus – a comic book series on top of this, a handful of video games, and some truly dreadful spin-offs with the Predator movies. Its a franchise constantly parodied and referenced in pop-culture and with so much sheer brand exposure, it’s easy to forget just how good the series was at the start. Alien is not just one of the best horror movies of all time, it’s also simply one of the best movies of all time. The franchise, for all its flaws, was born from the sheer strength and imagination of this one movie. Ridley Scott’s incredible science-fiction masterpiece stands as a case of cinematic perfection, with all the separate elements – from cast to cinematography, plot to pacing, design to direction – coming together with such passion and unity, that the final result is really something to behold.The plot is very simple – the crew of commercial towing ship the Nostromo are awoken early from hypersleep by a mysterious SOS signal coming from a nearby planet. Tied by company contracts, the crew are forced to inspect the call, and come across a derelict alien ship filled with strange eggs. Something unpleasant attaches itself to one of the crew, and without realising what they’re carrying, the group set off home – bringing with them a hostile and aggressive alien lifeform which slowly begins to pick its way through the ship’s occupants. Further complications arise when the creature proves impossible to kill, and some of crew may know more about the situation than they’re letting on…Though Ridley Scott has become somewhat hit or miss recently, he began his career as a fantastic visual director, and Alien, purely on an aesthetic design and cinematography level, is a great example of this. The film looks amazing. Scott has an artist’s eye for composition and each shot is framed beautifully; you could hang stills on your wall. Lighting is incredible throughout the movie and used to great effect – dark and backlit to keep things hidden, painfully bright at times, erratic and crazed towards the climax – the sheer intensity of mood the movie manages to generate just through the lighting is hugely impressive. This is Scott’s purest movie and, putting Blade Runner aside, his best directed. Set-design is extremely impressive throughout – the industrial, worn down working class-look of the Nostromo really adds a sense of gritty realism to the movie; previous science-fiction films, such as Kubrick’s 2001, tended to be very bright, very clean and very white. Scott rejects this in Alien, portraying a realistic, gritty view of the future – a future where signs are held onto walls by duct-tape – and whilst the used and broken future is something of a cinematic standard now, it was Alien that inspired the trend, and Alien that it did best.The human world of the Nostromo is contrasted by the brilliant derelict ship – all curves and ribbed walls, strangely organic and very very alien – audiences at the time had never seen anything like this and the designer, H. R. Giger deserves a lot of praise for his work here, as do artists Foss and Giraud, all of whom came to the project on the recommendation of writer Dan O Bannon, after Jodorowsky’s Dune fell through. Alien is a beautiful movie with great cinematography and set design, as well as a truly eerie soundtrack from Jerry Goldsmith, which captures both an operatic sense of space wonder and a disturbing, David Lynch-like level of horror. What’s most striking about the soundtrack is how little you notice it, but it realy does raise the atmosphere. On the whole, Alien is a great example of taking a B-movie (monster kills people in space) but treating it with the respect of an A-feature. In the wrong hands this could have been a forgettable flick, yet everyone involved was at the top of their game, working with so much passion to create a truly unforgettable cinematic experience. There’s a real sense of poetry to Alien, something which all of the sequels, including Aliens, are lacking. Scott was trying to do something a little bolder here.Its important to note that though Alien inspired most of the science-fiction movies which followed – at least in terms of their looks – it really shouldn’t be counted as science-fiction. In terms of atmosphere, tone and themes, Alien is a horror movie – Scott rejected science-fiction classics when crafting the film, stating that he wanted to make ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in space,’ and that attitude is really clear when watching the movie. Alien is one of the best designed scary movies of all time. It’s incredibly tense; one of the best paced movies ever – working with a slow, atmospheric first hour, the film racks up the horror, rendering the characters’ situation increasingly hopeless before cranking up to a terrifying and intense climax. Every scare is perfectly timed, and each is greater than the last. You could study the movie as an exercise in generating tension, it’s that well put together.The film works like a spiral staircase, getting narrower towards the top until the pressure becomes almost unbearable, and stands with The Shining, [Rec] and The Blair Witch Project as one of the best horror movies in terms of narrative structure. It is also a horror movie in the true definition of the word – the focus here is on the things which can’t be unseen, the grotesque, the physically disgusting sickening horror which sticks in the mind for hours afterwards, and very few movies can claim to be this powerful. The pacing is unbelievable; Alien is a slow burn and very measured in its editing, which really makes it all the more effective. It’s rare for a horror movie to have this much patience – take for example, the scene in which Harry Dean Stanton goes to find Jones the cat; Scott spends almost a full minute on a close up of Stanton washing his face, allowing the tension to rack up and making things almost unbearable for the audience, who know the alien is about to attack. The crew feel like mice being stalked by a snake, and nowhere in the movie feels safe; the audience is never sure where the alien is or when it’s going to attack, and trying to scan the piping, wires and walls for the creature is maddening. Rarely has space and screen been used so effectively. Alien is a surprising movie and very tight; every scene raises the stakes and makes the situation worse, and every scene shows the audience something they’ve never seen before. The setting helps the horror too; the labyrinthine corridors of the Nostromo are used to great effect and stand with the Overlook Hotel as one of the horror genre’s greatest settings – the dark lighting, wirey walls and masses of piping mean that the alien could be hiding anywhere; characters and audience are on constant alert. The ship is also contradictory, both huge in scale yet tight and claustrophobic, with the space setting working like the snow in The Shining by rendering escape utterly impossible. The alien’s acid blood also works as a great narrative trap, as the crew cannot hurt the creature without fear of damaging the ship.On top of tense pacing and atmospheric dread, the film gets most of its horror from its central monster. The alien, designed by H. R. Giger, stands as the greatest cinematic creature of all time. The sheer imagination of the design is stunning; there’s never been anything like the alien before or since and audiences at the time was horrified. Working with the idea of parasites, the way the alien gets onto the ship is inspired and terrifying, body-horror at its best, and the fact the alien is constantly growing and changing means that audiences are never entirely sure what they’re looking at. Sure, the creature has been bastardized – from the sequel onwards, which stripped the alien of its mystery and turned it into a bug – but it still remains striking in its original form. Utterly mysterious, it’s difficult to get a grip on, and H.R Giger’s fascination with sex really helps the design. It’s initial form – the face-hugger, works as a vagina with a penis attached; it’s main form, with the long, eyeless shaft and dripping, extending mouth, is hugely phallic – this is a nightmare rape-monster, something from the subconscious, something people don’t want to see or deal with. The alien is beautiful in a way, and designed to be sexual in a horrific, unpleasant fashion which makes audiences really uncomfortable.The film plays into almost Freudian levels of uncomfortable sex issues and this is where it generates most of its horror. Alien is about rape; the way the creature impregnates its hosts by violently forcing something down their throats, the mid-movie attack on Ripley with a magazine, the character towards the climax who is literally raped to death off screen – Alien uses sex fears to drive its horrors home. It’s a film about bodily intrusion and violation, about rape and birth and heavy on sexual imagery. Giger’s designs are heavily sexualised for example; the ship’s computer is fittingly called ‘Mother,’ the alien is referred to as its host’s son – the movie is full of distressing sex and birth related ideas. Interesting, the first three movies of the Alien franchise work with this and stand as a kind of life ark – the first movie is about birth, the second about family, and the third about death. Admittedly this theory collapses with Alien: Resurrection but it’s hard to see that movie and everything released afterwards as canon.Alien is also unique for its hero. Movies at the time did not have female protagonists, and Ripley stands as an inspiration. Ripley paved the way for Lara Croft, Sarah Connor, Xena, Buffy Summers, The Bride, Clarice Starling. In Alien, Ripley’s sex is never called upon or questioned – in fact, all the of the movie’s characters were written as asexual, to be played by either man or woman, and the lack of sex politics here is hugely refreshing. It helps that Ripley is one of the greatest cinematic characters, and so well played by Sigourney Weaver. Her first performance in the role, Weaver comes across as tough, frightened but resourceful and proactive at the same time, a woman thrust into a hopeless situation and doing everything in her power to survive. Essentially, at this point in the franchise, Weaver plays the character scene for scene and its a great performance, considerably more human and less aggressive than in Aliens, though it’s from the sequel onwards however that she really makes the role iconic, standing as one of cinema’s female greats, before finishing things off with a dark and world-weary performance in the third film which really caps the character. The rest of the cast are amazing too; all of the characters are very well written and come across as believable, which helps sell the horror of the situation. Veronica Cartwright serves as the audience, representing their fears and questions, Yaphet Kotto is on edge and tough with a hint of fear, Ian Holm is unsettling and uncanny, Tom Skerritt resourceful and brave, Harry Dean Stanton world-weary and John Hurt gets one of the best scenes in all of cinema. Alien has a great roster of character actors all giving 110% in their performances; everyone is committed, and this makes all the difference. What’s surprising re-watching Alien is how well-drawn all the characters actually are, and how much of an actor’s movie it is. Ridley purposefully hired a team of brilliant actors so that he could focus on the visuals and not their performance, and it really works with this movie. Watching the interchanging power dynamics within the group – Dallas, to Parker, to Ripley – is fascinating and believable. Unlike Aliens, which deals in broad caricatures, Alien takes its time to develop its crew, which makes their deaths more shocking too.Alien is a truly stunning horror movie – brilliantly directed, with great cinematography, set and creature design, characters, actors – it’s not hard to see how such an imaginative and intense film spawned such a vast franchise. But re-watching all the Alien movies, it becomes clear that the original is in a different league to those that followed. Ridley Scott and his crew were trying to do something far deeper and darker here, and Aliens takes the series down a very different path. Aliens is a great movie too, but it’s dated in comparison to the original, which seems to get better with each viewing. A horror movie for adults; there’s a coldness and indifference to Alien, a sense that not only are we not alone in the universe, we don’t really matter to the universe at all.
This post is the start of a retrospective feature on all the Alien movies. Expect to see my thoughts on Aliens (a movie I loved as a kid which I no longer feel holds up quite as well, though there’s a lot to love), Alien 3 (which is a mess, but seems to have aged better than it had any right to, and contains moments of brilliance) and maybe Alien: Resurrection (the irredeemably awful one).