Updated: Mar 20, 2019
Directed by: #RidleyScott
The 1970s were a genre-defining decade for #horror movies. Ground-breaking movies like #TheExorcist, #TheTexasChainsawMassacre, #Halloween, #TheWickerMan and #Suspiria all debuted over the 10-year period and revolutionised the #horror-movie landscape. A new era of gritty, gore-laden slasher-type films had begun replacing the old haunted house movies of the past. The 1970s also saw the emergence of the science-fiction film as a mainstream force; thanks to the successes of the likes of #StarWars and #AClockworkOrange. And it was into this niche, in the last year of the decade, that a relatively unknown Ridley Scott released his now iconic #horror movie, #Alien.
#Alien’s story, which was a collaboration between #RonaldShusett and #DanOBannon (O’Bannon penned the original draft which he’d called ‘Star Beast’), sees the crew of the commercial spaceship, Nostromo, discover a parasitic life form after picking up a distress signal from a distant planet. The crew of seven (surely one of the greatest in #horror or sci-fi history?) comprise a mixture of new and established actors of British and American nationality.
Tom Skerritt receives top billing as Captain Dallas, and the film wastes no time trying to convince us that he’s our lead character. Of course, it’s newcomer, Sigourney Weaver who eventually takes that position, as warrant officer Ellen Ripley. Easily the strongest and most collected member of the crew, Ripley is a character that works so well because she's genuine; a strong, but not flawless, working woman. Unfortunately, female characters still tend to be either unrealistic cyborg like combatants or victims in need of rescue. We need more overall wearing, blue-collar heroines in movies and it’s more than a little depressing that after 40-years this is still a rarity. Still, Weaver here is pure perfection. Veteran actors, Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane) and Ian Holm (Ash) also star alongside Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) and Yaphet Kotto (Parker) in supporting roles.
The first thing to note is the performances, whether they come from the relatively green actors or the more established actors; from a lead role or a supporting role, are brimming with individuality. Each actor and actress in the film has imparted to their role, no matter how big or small a part they play, characteristics that set them apart from everyone else. Then there’s the dialogue – much of which was said to have been improvised by the actors themselves – which is delivered with a naturalistic flourish. Conversations over pay discrepancies and overtime feel instantly familiar and make it all the more easy to empathise with these characters and their situation.
And it’s a situation that looks bleak, even before everything kicks off. The battered and bruised, retrofitted Nostromo serves as the movie’s prime location and home to our disparate crew. Built in the image of the power stations of #SouthShields – near to where Scott had grown up – the Nostromo is a lumbering behemoth of industry. Towering jagged spires adorn the exterior, whilst dimly lit corridors and an almost #gothic aesthetic impart a haunted house atmosphere to the ship’s well-worn interiors. It was the perfect contrast to the sleek and polished look of other sci-fi films of the time. The desolate and gloomy ambience is continued in the film’s stunning, albeit rare, exterior shots on the now infamous planet of LV-426, and have helped inspire the visuals of films like #EventHorizon, #TheTerminator, and of course, Scott’s own 1982 classic, #BladeRunner.
It’s no surprise then that Ridley Scott is now considered one of the greatest visionary directors of our time––and rightly so. He’s a world builder. One of the best in the business. And with #Alien, he was able to toe the line between the old dark house-type horror films of the past and the newer, grittier #horrors which had just recently sprung up; filling a cinematic void and revolutionising the science-fiction genre in the process. He was able to do this, principally, using extraordinary set design and lighting techniques. It has been said that Ridley Scott approaches filmmaking like you might approach art. It’s certainly true that he did his own storyboards (called 'Ridleygrams', which also detailed the lighting of the scene) and at least had a hand in designing the film’s 360° sets.
This level of set design allowed Scott to play psychological tricks on his cast and also affect the atmosphere of the film. By gradually moving the walls of the set closer together as filming progressed, Scott was able to create a feeling of increasing claustrophobia which never lets up, for the audience or the cast. Moreover, using 360° sets allowed him to manipulate what the audience saw and what they didn’t. With this, he was able to transition between #horror and science-fiction and between gore and inference.
#Alien is pure #bodyhorror, through and through. And perhaps surprisingly, the film contains themes of a sexual nature. But actually, much of H.R. Giger’s original artwork (Giger was a Swiss artist whose works inspired the creature and set-piece design for the movie) is also adorned with phallic and vaginal symbolism. The biomechanical design and sexual connotations conjure unpleasant images in the mind: images of flesh and metal entwined; of THAT scene in #DemonSeed. And ultimately, it’s this sense of sexual violation that’s felt most strongly here. The alien’s entire lifecycle seems to be some twisted and horrific representation of motherhood: from the forced impregnation by the facehugger to the creature eventually birthing itself through its host’s chest. Even Lambert’s death towards the end of the movie seems to be an allegory for rape.
An interesting case in point: #MaryShelley’s #Frankenstein is (arguably) the first work of science-fiction and/or #bodyhorror to have been produced. Many subsequent works – both films and novels – owe a great debt to Shelley’s avant-garde piece––#Alien included. #Frankenstein’s ghastly and distorted portrayal of creation is the very basis of #Alien. In fact, it’s a subject Scott would later re-visit and mirror more closely in his less well-received prequels, #Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, with the introduction of the android, David (#MichaelFassbender).
It’s quite amazing that – in a decade which was such a game changer for the #horrormovie genre – #Alien has not only survived in people’s memories but that it also remains one of the standout movies of the last 40-years. I recently had the good fortune of being able to go see #Alien at my local cinema, where it was showing for one night as part of its #40thanniversary re-release. It struck me how good it still looks, how atmospheric the score still is and just how well it works as a #horrormovie experience overall: it still has the ability to make you jump, it’s still able to make you feel queasy, and there are some moments which are still bloody hard to watch. Kane’s death scene, for instance, is just as shocking and brutal as it was 40-years ago; and the sequence in which Captain Dallas hunts the creature in the air ducts retains the ability to shred nerves, even now.
For me, #Alien is about as perfect as it’s possible for a film to be. The fact that it’s still able to solicit very visceral reactions from an audience so many years later is a testament to how well put-together the film is. The alien is now one of the most recognisable creatures in cinematic history and the #Alien franchise, one of the most popular. And in my humble opinion (humble here meaning omniscient), #Alien is and forever will be, one of the greatest #horror films ever made.