31 Days of Hell: Alien

35 years later, Alien stands the test of time as one of the best sci-fi horror films ever. 

"Decades from now, some lesser
prequel will destroy the luster
of this scene. Let's get outta here!"
With the recent release of the survival horror videogame Alien Isolation as well as an impending 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray of Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror monument Alien, it’s important to remember why Alien transcends its B horror origins into the heights of eclectic cinema.  More than a grand launch pad for one of the most indelible science fiction film franchises and inarguably the greatest action film heroine to ever grace the silver screen, Alien is at once big screen entertainment as well as a transcendent work of art.  This is more than just another monster movie or stereotypical serial killer thriller.  Alien preys realistically on man’s primordial fears of the intruder, the trespasser who will violate you before leaving you for dead in a dark alleyway.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Alien also plays on our fears of infectious disease, corporatist chicanery and, in the vast, eternal void of deep space, how completely and utterly alone we are in our terror.  In the old dark house with a serial killer running amok inside, Alien’s commercial starship Nostromo in the deep of space provides no exit.

After the mixed theatrical reception of John Carpenter’s failed science fiction comedy Dark Star, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon concluded ‘if I can’t make them laugh, then maybe I’ll scare the hell out of them!’.  Thus began Alien, whose stowaway roots can be traced back to It! The Terror from Beyond Outer Space with one exception: O’Bannon’s creature would rape and impregnate its human victims.  If the Freudian symbolic thread pumping through Alien’s veins didn’t stop there, fresh from art school director Ridley Scott and Swiss psychosexual surrealist H.R. Giger would take this notion as far as they possibly could.  Not only would this creature be found in a derelict spacecraft with overtly vaginal entranceways, the creature itself would have both a phallic head as well as a secondary mouth for a tongue.  All in all, Alien is so deeply entrenched in austere yet sexually suggestive visual design as symbolism that you could tell the tale in near total silence. 

"Dude. How many times do we
have to tell ya? Stop with the
Taco Bell!!!"
Moderation is also key to Alien’s solidarity, preferring subtle buildup to an explosive payoff over immediately overwhelming the viewer in sensory overload.  Take for instance the opening title sequence of the film, in which the credits designed by famed logo artist Saul Bass (Psycho) slowly unfold as the camera pans across the dark side of a planet.  The minimalism of this particular sequence is also tantamount to its magnitude, using very little in the way of sound and vistas to suggest something epic.  Following the titles are the elongated, snakelike crawls through the half-awake interior of the spaceship Nostromo, furthering the creep established by the credits.  Some of the most suspenseful sequences in Alien are achieved by letting characters wander far too long for both the plot and flow of the picture.  To some, these sequences may stultify the film’s pacing, but in context, the tension is almost unbearable. 

Anchoring down all of this horror is Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, the voice of reason and one human in the universe brave enough to take on evil incarnate standing on her own two feet.  As with the film’s expressionist aesthetic, Ripley’s strength of character comes from subtlety.  When Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) return to the Nostromo with crew member Kane unconscious with a parasitic organism attached to his face, notice Ripley’s unyielding to their pleas to board the ship.  Later still, after two members have been slain by the creature with the remaining members brainstorming on how to flush the creature out of the ship, Ripley fearlessly volunteers to penetrate the dreaded airducts where the creature may be lurking.  Though Dallas ultimately intervenes on this decision, it’s telling in these few moments just how stoic and fearless Ripley really is.  Even after an android attempts to take Ripley’s life to protect the creature on company orders, Ripley is quick to restore power to the droid to find out what it knows about the creature’s weaknesses.  Whenever modern heroines tend to take the reins of a thriller and bring control to a chaotic situation, cinephiles inevitably almost always point to Ripley in Alien.

"Give me back my cookies!!!"
While on the surface Alien might be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre set in deep space, you could make the argument it is also the ultimate feminist horror film.  In one of the climactic scenes of the film, Ripley lets her guard down and disrobes to her tank top and undies.  As she undresses, a sharp inhuman hand claws out of the ductwork, letting her (and us) know the game’s not over yet.  Petrified, half naked and vulnerable, Ripley gathers her wits, what little resources she can muster and engages the unearthly beast.  The outside world and universe beyond can be a threatening, dangerous place to move around in, and everyone is afraid of the invasion of their home and violation of their personal space.  Worse still, after all is said and done, the assailant may simply kill you when he’s through.  Alien shines a light on those fears and reminds us that however paralyzing they may be, we can also face and vanquish them.

-Andrew Kotwicki

Buy the 35th Anniversary Edition here.