On a return course to Earth, deep-space cargo spaceship The Nostromo intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet and its small crew is awoken from hyper-sleep to investigate. However, after discovering a hive colony of large eggs, they inadvertently bring a dangerous alien lifeform aboard the ship, and the creature starts picking them off one by one…
Back in the late seventies, science fiction was all the rage. But while the genre was taking off thanks to the serialised adventures of George Lucas’ Star Wars and the nostalgic wonder of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, British auteur Ridley Scott opted for a darker, grittier approach. Pitched somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his 1977 space chiller is as much a horror as it is sci-fi (if not more so), placing emphasis on mood and atmosphere as opposed to spaceship battles or flying saucers. Unsettling, claustrophobic and nearly unparalleled in its dedication to genre realism, it’s a monster movie for those who don’t like monster movies, and a stylish, ground-breaking classic to boot.
In addition to its iconic poster and memorable “In space, no one can hear you scream” tagline, the opening title sequence essentially tells you what to expect. A stark and minimalistic encapsulation of the movie as a whole, as the spaced-out letters slowly phase-in to form the word “ALIEN”, it’s all very slow and unhurried, yet the effect is ultimately haunting and undeniably creepy. Admittedly, not a great deal actually happens during the first 30-or-so minutes and first-time viewers (particularly impatient ones) will likely find the early scenes somewhat slow. But Alien is an experience of gradually-building dread and the low-key introductory stages serve as important build-up as part of Scott’s masterclass in slow-burning tension. As a result, the later sections of the film are all the more effective, and the scares all the more real.
Undeniably, the basic story by Dan O’Bannon (who essentially expands the script he wrote for John Carpenter’s sci-fi comedy Dark Star in a serious manner) and Ron Shusett is fairly straightforward: crew finds a dangerous alien, dangerous alien stalks crew. But yet in spite of its narrative simplicity, there’s a number of underlying subtexts which continue to be analysed to this day (such as the themes of motherhood, birth and penetration), while Scott crafts a few memorable sequences. Both Dallas’ (Tom Skerritt) air shaft hunt for the creature and Brett’s (Harry Dean Stanton) sweaty search for the cat are notable for their ever-escalating tension, but John Hurt’s infamous chestburster scene remains the most iconic by some margin.
And, being a Ridley Scott picture, it also looks striking throughout. From the claustrophobia-inducing sets to the battered retro-tech to the goopy bio-mechanical feel, the production boasts an industrialised nightmare look, while surrealist designer H.R. Giger delivers one of the most recognisable screen monsters ever imagined. Yes, it’s a guy in a suit (in fact, a very large Masai tribesman named Bolaji Badejo), but it works infinitely better than any CGI nonsense. Smart enough to limit what we see, Ridley takes the Spielberg-Jaws approach, giving us only a flash here and a tail there (a full-view shot was removed from the final cut), letting our imagination do the work.
Looking back, we now know that Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley went on to become an enduringly popular heroine, but it’s easy to forget what a revolutionary surprise it was to have her survive. In all likelihood, audiences back then were probably expecting Tom Skerritt’s bearded captain to be the sole survivor. Meanwhile, Ian Holm is a stand-out as creepy science officer Ash.
Though arguably more of a horror movie than a science fiction picture, Alien remains a stylish, ground-breaking classic which continues to exert lasting influence over the sci-fi genre.