Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Harry Markov
Monsters fascinates us to no end. I think that the human psyche wants to face the wild and the horrific as an obstacle to physically and mentally overcome. As we progress we conjure more and more powerful monsters, to challenge us on all fronts, to draw our monsters from the past or from the murky depths or even from radiation. Bigger is better. Cinema has a long tradition with the outer space and aliens, as the vastness of the cosmos allows us to create without any restriction. Anything could be out there and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) proves exactly that.
Alien is an iconic movie in the sense that it pushed the horror into science fiction and gave the world one of the most unforgettable movie monsters. Alien spawned sequels, a prequel and questionable crossovers (the Alien vs. Predator series). It heavily relies on building its tension and establishing realism and a claustrophobic atmosphere, but at the same time it felt too long for me, which took away from the enjoyment.
The opening scenes ran for too long without much happening. There are multiple shots of the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo as it returns from a trip with mineral ore. The camera goes on for a virtual tour of the ship, then it lingers on the crew as each member wakes up from stasis and goes on to perform regular duties. I can see why these scenes are included and realism does play a huge part in separating the movie from others in the genre at the time, but Alien runs for two whole hours and I expected a bit more action to fill the time.
At some point, the crew receives a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planetoid, the reason why the ship’s computer wakes everyone up. Acting on orders from their corporate employers, the crew lands on the planetoid, but not without damaging the ship. Here the camera constantly switches from the deathly quiet inside the ship to the raging storm on the planetoid, irritating me more than it should. The audio here creates a rather jarring shift that goes on for too long as the crew prepares for an expedition. Nothing happens.
Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) venture out to investigate the signal’s source. Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) stay behind to monitor their progress and make repairs. It’s here that the movie picks up its pace as the expedition leads to an alien ship. Kane comes to close to a vast nest filled with eggs and manages to awaken one. Out hatches the iconic facehugger and inseminates Kane’s organism with the true alien.
Ripley’s far from keen on letting Kane back on board, wanting to follow quarantine protocol, but Ash undermines her authority and lets the team back in, thus allowing the alien on board. From here on the plot considers crew survival and dealing with the alien, which hatches in a gruesome and truly memorable scene and then goes on to hunt every member one by one. A separate subplot about Ash’s special mission develops, which reveals that the company has an ulterior motive regarding this trip. As crew members die at the alien’s claws Ripley decides to blow the ship and make a hasty escape on the shuttle. Easier said than done, though, since the alien proves to be a smart predator.
Alien is not a perfect movie. I still think that it’s too long for its own good, but maybe that is my intolerance for 119 minute long pictures. The slow pacing until the chestburster appears (and the danger of the alien life becomes too great to ignore), while establishing the characters and setting (making this a smarter horror movie), killed my interest. I have to wonder how the company knew about the life force in the first place and why the ship’s computer woke the crew from stasis on the return trip and not on the initial one. I assume the ship’s route was the same, so it all seems a bit suspicious. Ash’s involvement with his special order also seems suspect and not all the way integrated into the script. It’s no wonder that Scott’s doing a prequel to highlight the alien’s origins as there are many questions regarding how anyone can learn of such a creature’s existence and not be dead already. It’s just the perfect predator.
Then again, Scott’s main objective lies within providing the perfect stage to present the alien and he succeeds. Every frame carries expectancy that something horrid will happen and when it does, it sticks to the viewer’s memory. The alien rarely makes an appearance save for a few limbs and its mouth. I found this annoying, because Giger’s designs are capable to horrify on their own without the need to resort to techniques such as casting the creature’s shadow and keeping it mostly in the dark. On the other hand, I can understand that these techniques add to the overall menace and terror. The emptiness of space coupled with the industrialized setting of the ship, the layers of shadows, the claustrophobic dimensions of the corridors, elevate the viewer’s stress levels.
The extra-terrestrial life form in Alien has become memorable, because it’s a predator from the moment it lays its eggs to the hatching of the infant to the full grown adult. While we do fear the monsters on the outside, people also fear what could grow inside of them. Alien taps into our fear of the super parasite, one which can’t be removed and will kill us. This fear is quite powerful, because the host realizes that the enemy is within and therefore running away from it is not an option. It’s the fear of our own body and immune system betraying us, becoming a host for something that kills us upon hatching.
Even when the alien grows, it is invincible as it possesses superhuman strength, agility and the reflexes we lack. The alien’s blood is corrosive acid and killing it by conventional means is a death sentence on a space ship. It’s a ghastly prospect and the reason why Alien has grown to the status of monster icon with an impressive and still growing franchise. We’ve created the scariest monster, yet, and we are not sure whether we can truly kill it once it finds us.