Written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Directed by Ridley Scott
It can be hard to see the original Alien movie separate from the bloated franchise it has become in the ensuing four decades. The last entry into the series, Alien: Covenant, is so different that it might as well be set in a brand-new universe and considered a reboot of the entire premise. Before viewing the original Alien, it is recommended that you try and purge all thoughts of what came later and approach the picture as a singular one-and-done experience. By not watching the movie as part of an ongoing series, which at the time it was made, no sequel plans were in the works, it heightens the horror of the overall story.
The commercial space freighter Nostromo is headed back to Earth following a lucrative mission to harvest tons of minerals. The seven-member crew is awakened from their cryosleep by a distress signal & per company policy, they are obligated to investigate anything like that. Using the smaller exploration craft, the crew lands on a brutal and rocky planet, taking damage. While some crew work to make repairs, a trio set out to find the signal’s origin. They discover an alien spacecraft, apparently crashlanded. Kane (John Hurt) descends into the ship’s belly and finds a room populated with leathery eggs. Upon investigating one of the eggs, a creature launches out, affixing itself to his face.
Ash (Ian Holm), the Science officer, finds that any attempt to remove the face-hugging alien will strangulate Kane. They lock him up in the infirmary to see what happens next. Surprisingly, Kane is okay, and the creature detaches and dies. But all is not what it seems, and an innocuous dinner before returning to cryosleep sets off a series of horrific events that will set Warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) down a nightmarish path confronting one of the deadliest organisms the galaxy has ever seen.
Alien is, first and foremost, a significant benchmark in production design. It owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s those extra touches that make Alien its own thing. Ron Cobb was responsible for designing the human environments, and it’s a beautifully layered mess of tech cobbled together, stacked on top of each other. The only space in the Nostromo that remains “pure” is the sterile interior of Mother, the ship’s artificial intelligence, womb-like and covered with shiny lights, a complete contrast from the rest of the vessel. The exterior of the Nostromo looks like an oil rig mixed with Gothic cathedral-like architecture. From the opening scene, you feel like you watching a haunted manor floating through space. So before we encounter the alien, the audience is in a space that evokes classic horror tropes.
What can I say about H.R. Giger that hundreds of magazine articles, dozens of books & DVD special features haven’t said at this point. His design for the alien and the vessel on which it’s discovered are some of the best pieces of film production design we’ve ever had. The psycho-sexual elements of Giger’s work are extraordinarily self-evident, and it adds to the terror caused by this creature. When you combine the designs with the monster’s life cycle, you have a perfectly squeamish, get under your skin horror. The alien is a sexual threat not just to women but men as well. A man can experience the pain of childbirth, balancing the scales with women.
Alien is very much a movie about working-class people struggling in a soul-crushing capitalist system while confronting reproduction’s horrors. From the start of the film, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) point out the disparity in shares they are set to receive from the Company. They are primarily jovial about negotiations, but tensions with the Company grow through interactions with Ash. The entire impetus for the Nostromo crew landing on the planet are the contractual protocols that obligate the team to investigate. It’s implied later by crew members that the Company was probably looking for something like this alien for its weapons division, a detail used by James Cameron and others in the sequels. The crew of the Nostromo is very much expendable against the needs of the faceless megacorporation.
During this viewing of Alien, probably in double-digits at this point, I noted how little we see the full-grown alien. We get two extremely quickly glimpses in the first couple of deaths, and it’s not until the end of the second act that we get more than a brief flash, still seen in parts and not a whole, though. It is not until the very final sequence as Ripley faces down the creature do we finally see its full form. It was a sage choice to not give the audience a complete picture of what they were dealing with. You add to that the similarity in design between the innards of the Nostromo and the biomechanical nature of the alien’s body, and it feels like the creature is always present, camouflage amongst the pipes and walls.
Alien is a benchmark in the horror-science fiction subgenre. Similarly, John Carpenter laid out a template for slasher pictures in Halloween, so did Ridley Scott with Alien. John Carpenter’s own film The Thing owes a debt to what Ridley Scott did here, both in isolating your protagonists and introducing an alien threat beyond their understanding. I will always hold to my opinion that Alien is the best in the series, that other films are anything from good to horrendous, but they can’t beat the feeling of the unknown that Ridley Scott’s original evokes. I suspect we will continue to see Alien films added to the franchise as long as the film industry exists, but I have little expectation they can top the first.