For the next 50 Mondays we are going to be looking back at 50 science fictions that I love or maybe have missed. To start us off I thought it would be apt to look back at one of the best ever and one of my favourite ever films, Ridley Scott’s Alien.
I have always loved 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it has always felt too sterile for me. Alien opened up a world where if you were not a scientist that the world would be dirty and grimy. The storyline is a simple one, a haunted house film on a spaceship. The lone stalker killing off the innocent victims one by one. Where 2001 was space in its most sterile yet experimental way and Star Wars as the first true Space Opera, Alien is the industrial horror film.
An important point to remember was that although Ridley Scott had directed hundreds of advertisements. Alien was only his second film after “The Duellists”. Scott has proven since his work is at his best when he does not have to be too involved or have a poor script. When the script is good, Scott can just wield his camera and vision to make the most beautiful looking films.
When looking back at Alien, it is astonishing to realise how beautiful it looks. Although the film is “truckers in space” and has a very industrial look. It looks like nothing we had seen before. Of course, there have been many copycats with the plot and feel since, but none have been able to get near its level since. Not even the very similar Underwater that was released this year could come to the same level of Alien.
One of the reasons for this is the pacing Scott and Terry Rawlings were able to conjure up. In Alien, we get a good amount of time with the characters. It is not just 15 minutes with them and then trouble starts. We learn about everyone’s personality, more importantly, we begin to truly care about them. If we do not care about them then their fates really do not hit as well as they should. The level of trust in the cast and story to be able to allow so much time of the film with the cast before they are knocked off is a rarity in cinema. It is no fluke that the greatest films in our history, build up their characters are the ones that we remember most of all.
From the opening shots, we see how large the ship is, travelling through corridors and rooms, empty but still somehow ominous. For first time viewers, you would have to imagine something to happen right away. But no, we are to wait and wait. We see our crew, we see their dynamics with each other. The engineers and mechanics, similar to modern-day feel underpaid and undervalued. The medical officer is distant from others, not really joining in the jovial nature with some of the crew.
The nervous navigator who will effectively become the audience the two in charge in Dallas and Kane who just try to keep the peace and want their journey to finish so they can get home to their family and finally Ripley, the forthright Warrant Officer who is quite plainly being streamlined to captain her own ship down the line. We get all of this in the opening 20 minutes, again it cannot be understated how rare this is in films, especially horror or science fiction. Usually, we will get the same level of detail with around 3 of the crew. Not all seven, keeping the cast numbers low is another plus towards the film.
Unlike the sequels where the story means we have to lose so many of the characters before we get to know them properly, here we know and feel for every one of the Nostromo crew. Also, the crew is not all of these generically beautiful young characters. There is a mix of ages amongst the cast with Cartwright and Weaver being the youngest of the crew.
Also, the crew’s deaths make more sense than in most films of its ilk and something even Scott himself struggled with when he made Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Do the characters mostly fall to their fates one by one? Yes, but and this is important but. The reasons are put in there instead of just randomly on their own/ With it being too intrigued or thinking the “beast” is still tiny or out of trying to lead by example those who perish do so with reason and in a horror science fiction film reasoning for actions is so important to keep the audience with you.
One aspect that makes Alien a classic, much like The Thing, is that it was exceptionally cast. We have already spoken about Sigourney Weaver, but a lot has to be said about the rest of the cast. Everyone is perfectly placed in their roles and supposedly thanks to Scott’s multiple page backstories of each character we feel as if these characters could exist, they are real people. We most likely know a version of every one of that crew and without their performances, that would be lost to us.
What helps Alien so much in making the film so terrifying is how little we see the face hugger and the xenomorph. Until the xenomorph attacks Parker and Lambert we see the alien in one or two-second portions and not until the very final portion of the film do we see the alien in full. This level of suspense is so important to make Alien what it is. The claustrophobic nature of the corridors added with the darkness and alarm lights fills the audience with as much suspense as possible. It is the old trick of thinking you are seeing more than what you are. This is where I sometimes feel indifferent to some aspects of Aliens, we see them too much and do too much. Cameron took the mystique of the xenomorph away by having so many. But truthfully these are different styles of films and you cannot really compare.
It is often forgotten that Alien won Best Visual Effects at the Oscars and it should be noted how unique the world was that Giger and company created. Yes, Giger’s work would not have been as unique if Jodorowsky’s Dune had been made due to his links with one of the planets from the film. While everything in the ship is gorgeous to look at, the aliens and everything in the ship is beautifully off-putting. You feel you are seeing something you shouldn’t at all times. You are unsettled, even now the beige and greys in that world make you want these characters to leave as soon as they can. But we already know it is too late.
Considering the budget (even for 1979) it is remarkable that Scott and his team were able to create what they did. Alien is a film that will stick with you for a while and it is without a doubt one of the best science fictions of all time.