by Steve Habrat
Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien is a film that truly understands how showing very little can scare us beyond belief. Taking place aboard the claustrophobic spaceship Nostromo, Scott terrorizes his audience by leaving basically no place for the crew to run, no place to barricade themselves in to wait out the sudden attacks by this slimy creature, and no weapon that can banish the beast to the fiery depths of Hell. While on the outside Scott has made a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow hallways and futuristic gunmetal wires, it is what Scott is doing on the inside that really gets under the viewers skin. Scott has made a film in which he reverses the sexual roles within the film. We don’t have some macho male hero to root for in Alien, one who resembles a bodybuilder with a buzz cut. Instead we have Sigourney Weaver’s feminist hero Ripley, a tough and stone-faced chick who finds herself being the last one standing against a goopy phallic creature that burst forth from a man’s chest.
Alien follows the crew aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, who are currently hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to good old Earth. The crew soon discovers what they believe to be a distress call from a nearby planetoid, causing them to take a detour to check out what exactly is the signal is. When they land on the craggy, windy, and gloomy planetoid, Captain Dallas (Played by Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (Played by John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Played by Veronica Cartwright) discover a strange ship that contains several bizarre eggs. One egg breaks open and the organism inside attaches to the face of Kane. On board the Nostromo, Warrant Officer Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Played by Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Played by Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Played by Yaphet Kotto) fear allowing Kane back on the ship, but Ash is excited about the discover of this new alien life form. As they begin attempting to dissect the organism, they realize they are dealing with something extremely dangerous. Without warning, a new life form bursts from Kane’s chest, fleeing into the ship and rapidly growing to a gigantic size. As the crew is bumped off one by one by the hungry creature, they have to quickly figure out how to get this bloodthirsty alien off their ship and make it home alive.
Perhaps my favorite trait that Alien possesses is the way Scott blends the alien in with the Nostromo itself. I always found it so eerie the way the alien would suddenly pop out, having been in plain sight but we the viewer oblivious to the fact that it was right in front of us. It gives Alien the feel that this twisting labyrinth of a ship is coming alive and claiming victims one by one. My two favorite sequences have to be when Captain Dallas faces the alien in a tight space, the alien’s arms shooting out of the darkness but appearing almost like a tangle of wires and hardware until we see its gaping jaw as it goes in for a penetrating kill. My other favorite scene is when Ripley is in the escape pod in the final minutes of the film, the alien crouched in the fetal position inside a darkened crevice. The creature’s phallic head resembling part of the ship until it suddenly moves and roars at Ripley. Talk about a neat effect!
The alien itself, conceived by artist H.R. Giger, ranks as one of the most iconic movie monsters in the long history of the genre. Show a picture of it to anyone and they can instantly identify what the creature is. The beast, which is kept mostly in the shadows throughout Alien, is a true marvel, one that is a skin crawling vision while also having a faint phallic look to it. The creature grows more horrifying with each small reveal that Scott places strategically throughout the runtime of Alien, revealing the entire beast at the climax but blasting it with strobe lights, a blue glow, and blurred camera angles to keep some layer of mystery to it. Scott doesn’t simply use the alien to scare us, but applies it as a thought provoking monster that is used to make comments on the male fear of childbirth (as a baby, it is flesh colored and vaguely erect, burst forth in a shower of gore fro Kane’s chest) and used to make a comment on the battle between the sexes. At the end, the empowered Ripley strips down to just her underwear and an ill fitting t-shirt as the phallic alien, with a stinger that resembles an erect penis shooting from its mouth, bears down on her. It’s a classic sequence that is both memorable for its events and the underlying subject matter, suggesting attempted rape and penetration.
Any discussion of Alien would not be complete without praising the work of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the empowered, no nonsense heroine who finds herself being the last woman standing in the battle between the crew and the alien. She is unrepressed and liberated, finding herself in charge of the ship in the wake of the deaths of the two men who ranked above her. Yet even from the first time she is introduced to us, she overshadows the men, all who seem slightly weak and unable to protect themselves from this monster bearing down on them. One male victim just stares in horror and disbelief as it shoots its erect stinger out of its mouth at the wide-eyed pile of flesh. Yet Ripley never falls apart, instead owning every scene she is in, even when she is placed next to Cartwright’s Lambert, who is reduced to shrieks and tears when the alien closes in. She is one tough broad and she is proud of it. Looking at the time in which Alien was made, released in 1979, right in the midst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ripley stands for tough and uncompromising feminism, looking this phallic monstrosity in the face and refusing to back down from it. She was a far throw from the female cliché that ran rampant in mainstream horror films at the time, the ones who ran away from the monster, the caricatures that Lambert appears to represent.
Alien is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking exercise in horror. It is an industrial mash-up of futuristic science fiction and dramatic slasher horror. Much has been made about the sexual undertones, many critics pointing out male fear of rape and penetration, the most recognizable being the fear of childbirth with the show stopping chest burst sequence, a scene that is glaringly obvious. Each and every scene has an epic gusto that tears right through it, yet each scene works in synch with the next, culminating in a strobe-like burst of seething feminism. The cut-off feeling, soggy claustrophobia, and lack of a thorough explanation of the alien all make Alien a classic among the science-fiction horror genre. Alien ultimately turns out to be B-movie material approached with an A-list touch and an extreme confidence in itself. This is an intelligent must-see horror masterpiece from the heyday of the genre.
Alien is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.