Ah yes, the “favorite” film. A hallowed position in any film buff’s mind, defining one’s favorite film is difficult, and somewhat impossible. No film is perfect, it’s a simple fact. But when one rates a film on any sort of scale, we have to forgive certain flaws and take the movie as a whole into consideration, and when choosing a favorite, it becomes more complicated than that. For many, their favorite movie is one that affected them and how they view films on a deeper-than-surface level, oftentimes a film seen when you were younger and just beginning to explore film in general is when we stumble across one that really hits all the right notes for us. Though many films are among my favorites, and picking one to raise above the rest is nigh-impossible, I’ve always held Ridley Scott’s Alien in the highest regard as a film that really pushed some boundaries for me personally. I came really close to picking Ghostbusters (1984) or Nausicaä (1984), and truth be told I could probably easily jump ship to either one of those films as the favorite of favorites, but I feel that Alien speaks slightly stronger and more subtly than the other two. A hard call, to be sure, but there it is.
When I was younger, Kenner came out with a line of Aliens (1986) action figures, namely marines and various made-up xenomorphs (that’s the name of the titular alien species in the movies, for those who may not be familiar) that never existed in any of the films, but made neat action figures. Naturally, I didn’t much care for the marines, who were there in my opinion only to be devoured by aliens, who were far cooler. Having never seen any of the films at this point, I decided that I wanted to see where these awesome things came from, and watched the original Alien on VHS. Now, I was young enough to still be playing with action figures (playing, mind you, I still collect the damn things), but I suppose my parents figured I was old enough to handle Alien in all its R-rated glory.
Even though Alien is a fairly slow movie (especially the first third or so of the movie), having grown up on Star Wars (1977) I was all about spaceships and mysterious planets. The opening, with its crawling introduction of the title put off some friends of mine when I tried to show it to them several years later, but the long, exploratory shots of empty space, the exterior and interior of the ship, and the almost silent awakening of the crew from their hibernation are all an amazing way to build a quiet, calm atmosphere that is shattered later. The crew itself is fairly likeable group of people just trying to get by, and, upon waking to discover that their ship has gone on a lengthy detour to investigate a signal from a strange planet, they grudgingly follow procedure and check it out; after all, they need their paycheck. It’s worth noting that at this point in the film, I (and others, I’m sure) simply assume that the protagonist is likely the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), but as it turns out the film shifts focus to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), namely because the xenomorph has a nasty habit of doing horrible things to its victims and then making them disappear, but I’ll get to that later.
A rather difficult landing places them on the planet designated “LV-426,” and after finding a bizarre ship and crawling around inside it, happen upon a large batch of eggs. At this point, Kane (John Hurt) decides to examine one of them, and summarily ends up with a spider-like facehugger attached to him. The build-up to this point is fantastic, as this slow exploration suddenly ends in a violent outburst. Despite Ripley’s protests, Kane is brought onto the ship and into the medical bay, where all attempts to remove the facehugger end in failure due to it’s acidic blood that threatens to eat through the hull of the ship. After a few hours, Kane wakes up and everyone assumes he’s fine, and they all sit down to a nice post-planetary-exploration dinner. The following scene happens.
Though I knew of facehuggers and chestbusters (their names are rather self-explanatory), I had yet to see a realistic depiction of the proceedings. Watching John Hurt writhe about as his ribs crack and a blood-splattered alien fetus works its way out is a bit removed from plastic toys (Incidentally, the actors didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in that scene, so when Veronica Cartwright freaks out, she’s really freaking out. This is also the scene that, during screenings, people were physically ill and some left the auditorium they were so shaken. That, my friends, is a horror movie.) The remaining crew set out to find the missing creature, armed with what they think is an appropriate arsenal for a creature roughly the size of a cat. They are proven terribly wrong when Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), while looking for the ship’s cat Jones, finds said creature, and can only stare in shock as it does what it was made to do.
With the threat of the ship’s eighth passenger fully realized, Dallas sets out with flamethrower in hand to try and finally put an end to the xenomorph. As he crawls through the ship’s ducts, in almost complete darkness, the crew attempts to relay it’s location to him over his headset, in what is still my favorite scene in the movie, because it scared the crap out of me the first time I saw it. I want it to scare the crap out of you, too, so here it is.
This is what makes this film so effective at its scares, is the tension prior to a sudden action. The terror of the crew is the terror of the unknown, they have no idea what they’re facing, and as H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” From this point on, the film kicks into a sort of fearful escape mode, and I’m going to avoid running you through the last chunk of the film or so and just say that this is where it picks up and doesn’t really slow down again until the last scene of the film, where it returns once more to a slow boil. Even in scenes that don’t necessarily involve the typical tropes of panicked people running for their lives, Ridley Scott manages to keep the pressure going through some creative plot devices that help the film keep its teeth through to the end.
Alien is, despite its science fiction setting, a horror movie through and through. In addition to the obvious surface horror of having a monstrous being chasing you through a ship’s corridors, it’s also hard to ignore the presence of what is often called “body horror,” that is, horror that involves something foreign taking over and somehow violating or destroying the body. David Cronenberg is especially know for this with films like The Fly (1986) and Videodrome (1983) being prime examples, and plenty of newer films by other directors use this to great effect such as Cabin Fever (2002) and Slither (2006). The idea that something is inside you that is malevolent appeals to a sort of primal fear. There are also, of course, obvious parallels to pregnancy in the violent birth of the chestburster, and there are plenty of sexual references in the design of the Alien creatures as well, which makes them all the more disturbing.
This is not surprising given the designs are from the infamous artist H.R. Giger, and if you’ve ever looked through the man’s work, it’s chock full of imagery that is sexual in nature but at the same time horrific in its unnaturalness. I would be inclined to say that a great deal of the effectiveness of the Alien franchise in general owes itself to the designs of Giger, if only because his work gave the film the “otherworldliness” that makes it work so well.
More than anything, Alien a masterful display of tension and pacing, so much so that certain scenes that revealed much about the xenomorph life-cycle were chopped for pacing, a decision that more or less works out in the series favor as they wouldn’t have meshed with James Cameron’s later, more action-oriented sequel Aliens (1986). Rather than simply leaving the film to what could be a cheesy “monster movie”, Ridley Scott pushes it above that with a carefully crafted cadence that is supported by some excellent performances from the cast, especially Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver. If you haven’t seen it already, then you should post-haste, and if you haven’t, I recommend an always-warranted re-watch, especially if you can get your hands on the amazing Blu-Ray HD transfer, which really makes the film look better than it ever has.
Alien was one of the few films that first scared me, and really gave me a taste for horror that I still enjoy today. Though now horror films rarely give me a fright anymore, probably because I’m older and jaded now, and Alien doesn’t make me frightened of a darkened hallway like it did when I first saw it as a child, it still retains a formidable presence in my mind, and set a bar for what a horror movie could be, and what film should aspire to be; that is to say, unforgettable.