It’s impossible to celebrate the 80th birthday of Ridley Scott without discussing his magnum opus – a movie that has transcended cinema and extended its tentacles beyond popular culture. Alien is a film that was largely and wholeheartedly ahead of its time. You need look only at the uncommon heroine – Ellen Ripley – to understand this.
From the opening scene of the film, Scott achieves many things. The most fascinating, however, is how he establishes a queasiness and fear in the audience while also maintaining a palpable sense of intrigue through the set design alone.
Why Alien works so well as a sci-fi thriller is because Scott abandoned the spectacular aesthetic of sci-fi cinema that so often halts narrative progression to fetishise special effects. You need look no further than the shot of the USS Enterprise at the start of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the final reveal of the mothership in Close Encounters or any incarnation of the Death Star in STAR WARS to understand this point.
Scott’s brilliance in directing Alien derives from the fact that he, so happily, established a new form of science-fiction grammar. In fact, this visual grammar would later be echoed and mimicked in films such as The Matrix and Red Planet.
Instead of being outside, and exploring the world, as sci-fi often wants us to do, we’re largely stuck inside the rundown, twisted corridors of a ship. That immediately works as a way of Scott installing a fear and uneasiness in the audience that is quite poetic and revolutionary.
In the same year of shooting, John Carpanter’s panaglide opening of Halloween and the steadicam of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining had become cinematic norms. Scott’s camera, though, rarely stayed static, always sliding away from what it reveals as if appalled. Yet also sliding in a slithering way that the alien is renowned to do. Quickly, tension escalates despite this being only a handful of minutes into the film.
How fear is built, though, largely derives from the camera prowling around the empty spaces of the Nostromo ship – a battered, truly ugly spacecraft. Unlike the aforementioned Death Star or USS Enterprise. It drifts around these corridors in hesitant glides, unsure of what’s around the corner. The point of view wobbles and shakes slightly, rejecting an otherwise smooth trajectory. In fact, Scott’s camera is always wobbling in this film. It’s an almost meta way of mimicking the fear and nervousness in the characters and transmitting that to the audience in an organic manner.
The emblematic architecture lends itself beautifully to Scott’s camera. The corridor, the duct and the tunnel. In sci-fi, corridors are typically pristine, lavish and shiny. Once again, just a quick glance at Star Wars or Star Trek reinforces this. But Scott, much like with his ever-moving camera, rejected the era and genre’s cinematic formula and, instead, opted for a murky look to manipulate the camera around.
He demanded that the set be built from scrap electrical equipment and dismantled aircraft, his demands adhered to by the set design team and eventually studio. It is a typical Ridley Scott set, though: busy, layered, lit-low and gleaming with information. The closer to the aliens we get, the more baroque and organic the interiors become.
Scott constantly made the most of budgetary limitations, enhancing the sheer craftsmanship of practical effects. This gives the film a truly organic feel, which ripples in its atmosphere and ambience.
Rather than build an enormous ship, they developed a model. To make it look big, Scott used his two sons and a friend to make the actors in suits look small. This, essentially, achieved two things: one, as aforementioned, it gives the illusion of the model looking enormous, but it also emphasises how far out of depth these characters are in a world they do not understand. It emphasises that they have gone from predators in their own world, to tantalising prey for the ungodly creatures prowling around. A real testament to Scott’s economic visual storytelling.
The film constantly goes from loud, deafening sounds to utter silence, with characters staring pensively into space. An uneasy feeling is established because the characters look troubled, yet they cannot contextualise or vocalise why they feel that way. Scott worked in tandem with the legendary Jerry Goldsmith to work the crescendo of sound around these seemingly baffling cuts.
In the chest-bursting scene, Scott and Goldsmith do something interesting. The soundtrack rises from 55 beats per minute, to 110. This mimics the anxiety and fear of the characters, of their heartbeat. In a meta way, the soundtrack rises to a climax in tandem with the audience and characters which achieves this effective kind of emotional contagion and bliss. Much like the thumping of a heart, yes, but it could also mirror the creature wriggling and struggling to burst out of Kane’s chest.
28 minutes into the film, we get this gorgeous shot of the back of a helmet. It could simply have just been the back of the helmet, but Scott designed it to look entirely different. It has scales and looks eerily similar to the iconic design of the alien. Thus, for a brief moment, the audience’s hearts tighten, especially since the score is vibrating with quite an atmospheric sound. From that moment onwards, if we weren’t already, we as the audience live in constant fear throughout the entirety of Alien. Because, as the film goes on to establish, any character could be picked off at any moment. Silence, as per Scott’s subverting of the sci-fi grammar, equals the sheer opposite of restlessness: it is the precise moment where the audience gather in the palm of his hand as his fingers proceed to crush us.
What’s impressive about Scott’s direction of Alien, though, is he does not fetishise the creature and endeavour to reveal the thing in all its glory. In fact, he rarely reveals the alien. Instead, he shows us these scattered glimpses of all the stages of the alien. From the egg, to the face-hugger, and eventually the main thing. It represents the fast and brutal lifecycle of the creature, but we only get jarring, disconnected snapshots of these developmental stages. The gaps that remain ensure that it ensnares the audience in terrified speculation. Scott carefully constructed a tactic where the most important thing is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw. It’s like a sort of horrific afterburn. Most science-fiction of this time would revel in the creature, yet Scott thought it fitting to let it breathe & cause havoc from afar.
Scott’s first storyboard of the final form of the Alien saw the creature retain no eyes, thus no form of facial recognition. Despite the studio’s reluctance to keep it without eyes, Scott’s mind and H.R Giger’s creation essentially won them over. Scott wanted the creature to have no eyes because, one can only assume, it abolishes the idea of mutual recognition or a look that could be returned. It emphasises the heartlessness and cold-blooded nature of the creature. It is fearless. And I think that’s why it has sustained the test of time and engrained itself within pop culture. We cannot mock this creature. Whichever way you look at it, it is an ungodly creation and utterly terrifying. We’re on the 6th instalment of this franchise, yet we still know very little about this creature. That’s a testament to what Scott established as a blueprint.
One can infer that Scott never had an idea of showing this creature in its final form for long periods of time. The focus was always on how brutal its developmental stage is. Renowned for his artful mind and in-depth storyboarding, Scott actually drew inspiration for the creature from the Francis Bacon triptych titled: “three studies for figures at the base of crucifixion.” This, ultimately, reveals that Scott’s mindset was always in projecting the developmental stages of Bacon’s panel in his own film. Rather than fetishising a final form, Scott tantalisingly plays with the growth of the creature. It is here where Scott subverts the grammar of sci-fi.
Dallas’ death is a fine example of this. As the ducts are sealed behind him, the apertures close like the diaphragm of the camera. Another stellar nugget of gorgeous set design that emphasises the claustrophobia of the picture. He’s trapped in the mechanism of a camera that pulls focus elsewhere, yet never on him. In his last moments, he is hemmed into this entirely enclosing frame. Scott corners him, much like he corners his audience into witnessing sheer fear. In those tubes, we don’t know which way is up or down, backwards or forwards. Lambert screams that the alien is coming at Dallas, but Dallas sees nothing except the last flash… a shocking glimpse of the creature. His blip then disappears from the sensors; and, again, Scott seemingly focuses more on a glimpse and idea of the alien, keeping the audience in a constant state of uneasiness.
Here’s the thing about science-fiction, though. One of the things we remember most are worlds, languages, characters of different intergalactic races. Therefore, the typical grammar of sci-fi is one that utilises its characters’ dialogue to help build the world. What does that say about Alien, then, a film that largely restricts its moments of dialogue & removes a pre-established hierarchy between characters?
When the crew finally interact, about 10 minutes into the film, it is a cacophony of overlapping dialogue that ensues. This ensures an establishing of chaos beyond the fear of the unknown. It plays toward an instability in this crew and is a viable nod toward them being picked off one by one as the film grows in runtime. After all, this chaotic clashing of sounds indicates that any chance of the crew working together is null.
One of my favourite components of Scott’s direction is that, despite being set inside a ship, no hierarchies are established, no real chain of command. What this does is forces the audience to fear for every character equally, since everyone’s importance is on a level platform. They could all be collateral damage, no-one has a pass to the final act. That fear, that tightening tension, is largely derived from Scott’s insistence on there being very little military and hierarchal talk. Just take a look at Brett and Parker, two resentful coworkers that resist orders, defying authority in every muttered syllable and every painfully slow gesture. They have no respect for Dallas’ office, for one. No respect for “mother’s” instructions despite the set design dictating that this be the most regal and authoritative area of the otherwise downtrodden Nostromo.
Ridley Scott’s masterful direction of Alien remains one of the finest pieces of the craft in the history of cinema. Not only did he create a masterpiece, he also redefined the language and grammar of science-fiction on screen. One of the greatest achievements in organic, practical effects and a testament to the genius of the man’s mind.