Today’s choice of movie might be a little obvious, especially if you happened to listen to my guest appearance on the Wrong Opinions About Movies podcast today. Even if you haven’t, it was also probably obvious that I was going to write about this movie sooner or later. Figured it out yet?
Yeah, I’m talking about Alien. It’s finally time to write about the third of the four movies that terrified me as a child. I’ve written about Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Exorcist will be happening soon enough.
Alien – USA, 1979. Dir. Ridley Scott. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto.
It’s actually kind of hard for me to write about Alien. If you listened to the podcast, you may have noticed me get a little rambly as I was talking about it. I do that sometimes. So how do I approach this? Do I write a review? Do I try to explain why I think this movie is just about perfect? Do I attempt to articulate why exactly I find it so terrifying, even now after I’ve seen it at least a dozen times?
It’s not about the gore. There isn’t even all that much gore to speak of. The infamous chest burster scene. The glimpses of Parker and Lambert at the end. The screaming…
Was there ever a tagline so ominous? And so appropriate?
In space no one can hear you scream.
I don’t really want to rehash everything I’ve already said in the podcast (WHICH IS A LOT, go listen if you don’t believe me!) so instead I just want post some of the things I think of when I watch this movie.
And hey, if you’re curious about my writing process, this is basically it. I take notes, I write out thoughts, and then I form it into a coherent (sometimes) whole. What you’re getting here is the middle part between the note taking and the coherent whole. Welcome to my brain! (I’m sorry).
Things to think about with Alien:
It fulfills so many of the classic horror movie tropes. Even if it is a sci fi, horror film, it doesn’t alienate the mainstream audience. It is accessible.
Why is the movie scary:
– It’s claustrophobic. It’s dark. Rather than playing with shadow, it plays with light. Alien is such a dark film, there isn’t enough light for shadows to be cast. Instead we often see characters in silhouette. Light is interrupted. – A character will stand in silhouette, or enter in front of the light source. i.e. Kane’s hand interrupting the light beam over the eggs.
-The light is always coming from somewhere else – the other room, inside the egg, etc.
Or in the scenes that happen in the living quarters, the space is so evenly lit that there are no shadows at all. There is also so much negative space. i.e. when Dallas is moving through the air vents, all but the very center of the frame is blackness.
The design of the ships is unnerving.
-The Nostromo is hulking, massive, gothic.
-The alien ship is organic but unfamiliar. It’s been compared to a fallopian tube for a good reason – it looks like one. They enter through the vaginal opening. They are intruding, penetrating.
-Some words that come to mind: biomechanical, claustrophobic, confined, dread, menace.
There are so many “What the Shit?” moments.
These are things we are not familiar with. It’s disconcerting to be so far away from everything we know. And in that sense I feel like the set design which is so very 70’s actually helps rather than hinders. Because we have absolutely nothing familiar to grasp on to, we’re continually off balance. It adds to the tension rather than takes us out of the film. Sure, there may be a brief acknowledgement that the computer screen is archaic, but once we have that moment we quickly move on.
The pacing of this film is brilliant. It’s so deliberate and sets us up so well. Something is always happening or is about to happening. It never relents. The sound design is also brilliant. There’s screeching metal, howling winds, pounding heartbeats. It reminds of something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story.
The haunted house comparisons – Alien is often called a “haunted house movie in space” – make perfect sense.
The Alien design is classic. The close ups of it’s head, that secondary mouth protruding (phallic imagery? Arousal?), that thing was designed to kill you, all it wants is to kill you, and there is nothing you can do stop it. The movement of the alien is completely effective and threatening. The way it slowly unfurls to reveal itself as massive, deadly.
Who are these people? As characters, we get to know them so quickly. Brett follows Parker, Parker causes shit. Lambert and Ripley are prone to cat fights. Ash is kind of a humorless dick. Dallas is trying to be the leader but mostly just seems tired, bored of their antics, and while able to remain calm in a crisis… maybe not the best choice to defend them from a monster bent on destroying them. From the beginning it is Ripley with the clear head. Ripley as the final girl, one of my favorite characters ever.
The film is so dark, the cinematography so tight, that anything could come sneaking up behind us at any moment. And we know early on that Ridley Scott is not necessarily going to give us any warning when something horrific is about to occur. That chest burst scene? Sure, we know something is up but we don’t expect it to be what it is. The first time you saw this film? Did you know that was about to happen right then? Or did you sit there with your mouth hanging open thinking to yourself, Holy Shit, did that just happen? Did I just see that??
I think one of the best examples of how this film works though is in the sequence with Brett as he tries to catch Jonesy, the intrepid cat who has possibly the best chance of survival (a comparison to Newt, the little girl from Aliens, I think can be made here – both are small creatures able to hide in spaces the large Aliens are unlikely to venture).
In this scene Brett, splits from Ripley and Parker as they search for the alien that they still think is about the same size as Jonesy the cat. The alien straight from Kane’s chest.
Brett movies through the crowded hold, the space is filled with equipment and there are so many blind corners it’s impossible to tell what could be hiding in there. We have this tense scene as Brett tries to find Jonesy, a false scare as Jonesy jumps out and runs away, and the ominous discovery of the alien’s shedded skin.
Then Brett follows Jonesy into the second room. Whatever this room is, it looks like a dungeon. The chains hang and swing from the ceiling, the water drips on his face. It’s gone quiet. It’s dark. We know Jonesy is in there. We’re taking a breath but we know, we just know, that something is about to happen. There have been to many false scares at this point. We’ve seen that skin. We want Brett to run but we know he won’t. We know he doesn’t really have any reason to yet. The knowledge we have is not anything he is privy to. We can’t look away.
And we are not disappointed.
It’s also deeply pessimistic. In a future where deep space travel is not only possible but common, we are still dirty, selfish creatures. As a society we have clearly not evolved at all. Ash, the science officer and toady of their employer known only as “the company,” is immediately set at odds with Ripley and the rest of the crew. Dallas gets on with him alright but that’s only because Dallas is, albeit naively, also committed to “the company.” Not that we should question Dallas’s loyalty to his crew, I’m not saying that. But he is trying to balance a fine line between obligation and responsibility to the company on one hand, and practicality and the responsibility for the lives of his crew on the other.
Why is Alien so scary? Alien reminds us of our childhood fears of the boogeyman in the closet, the monster under the bed. It’s that feeling you get in your gut when you’re walking through a dark, unfamiliar space – that you are not alone, that there is something waiting in the shadows. Alien exploits our nightmares, our primal fears.
When I watch Alien, I know what’s going to happen, I know when things are going to jump out at me, I know when people are going to die. Despite all that, every time I watch it I am at the edge of my seat. When the credits roll, my heart is still pounding. Even as I know exactly what to expect, Alien remains as effective as it’s always been.