Alien at 40 – A Space Nightmare

There’s a unique experience when visiting an old classic. Without question, iconic films help not only to shape how future films will be made but in doing so they become revered masterpieces with pristine reputations. But when you go back to watch those iconic films, it’s as if you’ve been transported to a time before the rave reviews, the behind the scenes docs, or the copycats and homages. There’s only the movie and the essence of what it represented upon release, without the hype.

In Alien, Ridley Scott crafted a chilling slasher (more on that later), a film meant to frighten audiences and make you wary of what’s hiding in the shadows while you’re on the way to your car in the parking lot. While Scott desperately wanted to make a film that honored the legacy of space films such as Star Wars (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), it’s unlikely he imagined a world where his film will spawn a franchise of it’s own and an everlasting influence on pop culture. If we separate that legacy from the film itself, what we’re left with is a breathless thriller with a minimalist approach, but is there much beyond that? Does there even need to be?

The film is set in the year 2122, on the space station Nostromo. In a moment that would unintentionally inspire countless retreads, the station’s crew is prematurely awakened before their return to earth due a distress signal that the ship has picked up. The ship’s captain, Dallas (Tom Skeritt), believes it’s the crew’s duty to investigate the distress signal, in case a rescue mission is needed. However, the crew is reluctant, chief among them the outspoken Parker (Yaphet Kotto) who’s pissed that the crew doesn’t even know what they’re going to be paid. I’m team Yaphet.

Most already know what follows here – a deserted moon where the distress signal originated from, a field of eggs, and the emergence of an instantly recognizable movie monster. Despite some musings of film scholars about the subtext of sex in the film’s themes (if there are any defined themes here), Alien is intentionally simplistic and what it does well is it’s an expertly produced slasher.

Think of it as a high class slasher if you will, but it has all the traditional hallmarks (sans a butcher knife). The film is populated by a group of charismatic, but somewhat undefined group of would-be victims, with much of the characterization going towards the character who will be the Final Girl. They are trapped with their killer in one location, largely due to their own stupidity. These genre cliches aren’t meant to come off as overly negative, but rather to more appropriately frame Alien as the crowd-thrilling piece of genre fare it was intended to be upon release. It wasn’t trying to be one of the greatest films ever made, it just wanted to scare an audience that were becoming a little too comfortable with space features.

In doing so, Ridley upended the warmth and wonder established by Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He put the fear back into space, and did so behind a remarkable production. The film’s biggest strengths are it’s score and it’s practical effects. When film buffs bemoan the over reliance on CGI in modern movies, this film is likely the strongest example for their yearning for more practical effects. The alien, or Xenomorph, is scary because it looks real. It looks like a living organism and not a combination of pixels made to look cool. When the characters are in it’s presence, there’s a believability to their predicament that can’t be replacated by a computer. I mean, you wouldn’t turn Michael Myers into a CGI character.

It’s the level of realism within this lavish production that elevates the entire story. Consider the scene in which an Android whose head is detached from his body, but is able to carry a conversation; it actually looks like a decapitated droid that is still able to speak. This is a preposterous story that is grounded by the sheer skill of the craftsmanship and brought to life by a stern and deliberate cast.

The standout, of course, being Sigourney Weaver in her star-making turn as Ellen Ripley. To be fair, the screenplay stacks the deck in Sigourney’s favor; she’s easily the smartest person in the entire film, so it’s easy for the audience to side with her. But Weaver’s steely resolve helped illuminate Ripley’s resourcefulness in the face of the ultimate killing machine. The film’s best character is an easy to understand amalgamation of smart story choices, a representation of the film as a whole. Perhaps that’s why the franchise has struggled to remain enthralling with each increasingly convoluted installment. Ridley Scott was at his best when he avoided the mythology and just told a simple story about survival and Yaphet Kotto getting screwed over on his paycheck.

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