Overview: A crew of space miners unknowingly allow a discourteous and inhuman passenger aboard their towing ship. Twentieth Century Fox; 1979; Rated R; 117 Minutes.
Nostromo: As is the case with so many science-fiction masterpieces, the key to appreciating Alien begins with an investigation of the ship. The standard of the time (Star Trek, Star Wars, Close Encounters) dictated that vehicles of space travel be exhibitions of futurism, technological advancement, progress. Ridley Scott famously contended with his design team on every aspect of this movie to prevent his movie from accepting this standard. The Nostromo is not built in the direction of predictive imagination, but rooted in the historical, the familiar. Long corridors of sweating pipes and dull gray metal. It is an industrial haunting — steam, gears, cluttered construction and clanking noises. The ship is blue collar, grass roots, a vessel made of backyard scrap metal borrowing the science of space flight from Weyland-Yutani with high interest rates. In this sense the ship supplies an element of implied classist struggle, which in turn lends believability to Ripley’s necessary working class toughness as it is utilized against her hunter.
Xenomorph: Inspired by the painting “Necronom IV,” Scott and his team turned to surrealist artist H. R. Giger to design all stages of the antagonist’s life and other planetary elements. Scott’s insistence that Giger build the design for the adult alien from the painting (rather than starting fresh, as Giger suggested) preserved so many layers of quality in this movie. There is a not-quite-subtle sexuality in the design – the phallic skull shape, the vaginal implications of the dripping extra mouth – that supplements the rape threat posed to the human characters by the alien’s life cycle. The fear established by the film goes beyond that of being physically ripped apart or hunted in a hopeless game of death. The characters (and viewers) also have to deal with the threat of being mortally objectified, sexually used and left to waste. And then there’s the functional operation of the alien, a stealth uncanny to its size and killing potential. The alien is Michael Myers of Halloween and the shark from Jaws rolled into one nightmare killer. The construction of the ship allows the alien to hunt, stalk, hide, and haunt; the abilities of the creature and the complexity of the ship work to create palpable tension. The stress of the alien’s absence is every bit as overwhelming as the horror of its presence. The alien’s flawless biological construction (Giger’s design is meant to sexually represent a “perfect being”) allows viewers to chase a philosophical thread of thought that colors the horror of the film a darker shade than black. As crew members fall and Ripley fights for her life, the inclusion of Jones the cat creates a long, humbling evolutionary scale, one in which Ripley is far closer to the feline than the killer. This suggests a terrifying logical conclusion to the scientific theory responsible for our biological existence. If one wanted to pursue the story through that scope (and Scott himself later would when he filmed Prometheus), the perfection of the creature might also provide a testimony toward a potentially malicious divine creator capable of and seeking the perfect killing machine. There is no direction to hide from the horror of this movie.
The Best of All Things: Alien is a difficult film to describe and an impossible film to categorize. Classic science fiction. A slasher flick. A haunted house story. A monster movie. A viral horror film. What’s astounding is that Alien might be the best all of these categories.
Grade: A +