‘In space, no one can hear you scream. Aboard the Nostromo, everybody can potentially hear you scream. I don’t think it matters who hears what when you are being choked by a space spider and penetrated by the second surprise mouth of a perfect organism.’
I will preface this wee article by stating that this is going to be heavily opinionated and rather subjective, but try as we might, aren’t all film discussions subjective? Isn’t art, aesthetic and taste a matter of personal preference? One person’s Apocalypse Now is another’s Heaven’s Gate, and so on and so forth. So, with that in mind, I would like to posit that Ridley Scott’s horror in science-fiction pyjamas is one of the greatest films ever to be made, or at least more worthy of the iMDB top spot than The Shawshank Redemption, a fine film but number one? Seriously? Maybe I’m just too pessimistic to think an uplifting story should be labelled as the greatest film of all time, but I guess we all crawl through a life-long poop-shute, metaphorically speaking. So, why is Alien more worthy of this rather innocuous title?
Firstly, H.R. Giger’s Freudian imagery has not escaped anybody, and adds to the horrific, psycho-sexual undertones of the xenomorphic movie. Take the face-hugger, for example, as it encapsulates both arachnid features as well as that of the snake, simultaneously evoking two major and common phobias in one acidic swoop. Not only that, but this sexual deviant of a creature is both male and female, evoking both genitalia as it latches onto an unsuspecting John Hurt, smothering his face and forcing a phallus down his face-hole, thus consummating their grotesque marriage, all the while choking the poor bloke as well. Kinky.
One may argue that the second interior mouth of the xenomorph also conjures phallic symbolism, yet after studying psychology for three long years; if you search hard enough, isn’t everything a dong? The idea behind this is the act of puncturing, and the fact that this second mouth is slightly phallic in shape, as some Freudian psychologists may attribute to swords or aeroplanes. I instead buy into more the notion that all of these things are designed to perform a task as well as they possibly could: an aeroplane is more aerodynamic if is it not a large cube, a sword is long and thin and pointy because massive pizza cutters are not built for stabbing, and the extending mouth of the xenomorph is just another inclusion to an already deadly arsenal. When sharp claws, razor tail, acidic blood and hermaphroditic minions fail, extend an interior mouth penis to dispatch your prey! There comes a time when people are clutching at straws (or dicks) and seeing sexual imagery everywhere, regardless of the purpose an instrument or object.
Nonetheless, Giger’s design as brought to life by the practical effects team still offer up horrifying imagery even today. The xenomorph as an icon alone is enough to keep this franchise going fairly strong regardless of some criticism levelled at the origins examined within the prequel films. The xenomorph is as much as a star of the series as Ripley is. On the matter of effects and design, for the most part, the film has dated extremely well, better in fact than some of the action and horror films of the early 2000’s as CG started to become prominent regardless of its baby-steps stage. In fact, the original The Thing remains more horrific than it’s sequel/prequel as it employs practically rather than heavy CG. There was of course, no choice, but it stands as a testament to the importance of Ridley Scott’s modern direction as he employs practical effects to then be complimented by subtle CG, rather than relying heavily on a computer generated abundance. Of course, the film is a product of the time, and some moments of practical effects are amusing in retrospect – the baby Xenomorph’s penguin sprint from John Hurt’s blood and noodle-soaked corpse is called to mind – yet were effective and innovative at the time of release. Much of the rest however, dates extremely well. The first close-up of the Xenomorph’s snarling grin stands the test and time and them some, followed by a pragmatic amount of on-screen time that builds suspense and elevates the construction of impending threat.
Moreover, Giger’s design is utterly unique, employing his creative talent and offering innovative perspective purely for Scott’s amalgamating genre movie. Not only has Alien spawned a massive franchise of sequels and prequels later on, it has benefitted the genre as a whole and influenced other great hard sci-fi horrors the likes of Life, Sunshine and Pandorum and games like Deadspace, but still remains one of a kind regardless of the strong mimicry. So too is it the initial feature that has been followed by several video games, graphic novels, books and cross-over stories belonging to the same or alternate universe. This is not to say first is always best, as a hipster might argue their favourite band has changed and that the earlier albums are ‘real’, as we all know Aliens is one of few sequels like Terminator 2: Judgement Day that somehow doesn’t suck, in fact building upon its precursor, but it is to say that without Alien, there is no Aliens. Coincidentally, without Alien, there is no Alien: Resurrection, so that might be a moot point.
The story also benefits in its simplicity, allowing the masterfully crafted and claustrophobic set to breath as its crew react accordingly to being stalked by the ‘perfect organism’. There is (or least there was) also unexplained and mysterious moments that add layers to the tight-quarter horror film – there is no real universe-building, instead snippets of information are dropped in here or there through a brief text-screen or a passing moment of dialogue. So too was there a level of intrigue regarding the nature and origin of the large space jockey and the alien eggs, and for over three decades these lingering mysteries were left to audience imagination. As a stand-alone movie, these aspects took a back seat and let suspense and slow-burning terror take the wheel, only to be in the forefront of the more philosophical origin story of Prometheus. Say what you will about Prometheus, or even Alien: Covenant, but these prequels shed new light on the otherwise dark and unforgiving areas of the Nostromo.
Running time is also a major factor in my argument, with Alien clocking in just under the two-hour mark. Though 90 minutes has been the standard running time for a feature, films of late have been running over into bum-numbing durations, and they aren’t typically better for it. Though Tarantino has the freedom to run over as much as possible for saving a dying Miramax as a thank you from Weinstein, other filmmakers are also being extended the same olive branch and are being allowed to run up to three hours in many blockbuster cases. Quality over quantity, I would argue, is important here, and these longer, gruelling lengths should be reserved for epics like The Lord of the Rings. It’s as if filmmakers are equating long quantity to epic quantity, but in many cases result in films that are epically awful. Ridley Scott’s Alien, though half an hour over the ideal length, makes every use of its time to build suspense and develop the tight atmosphere needed to maximise the terror to hand without outstaying its welcome.
Though I feel Covenant was a fine film, it does lift aspects from Alien in a similar way to how The Force Awakens lifted from A New Hope, only not as heavily or overtly. The crew, for example, are always going to be this mismatched, diverse group of people from all backgrounds and differing personalities. They are a simulacra (or copy) of the original crew, though are not given nearly enough screen time to warrant us giving much of a damn about. Conversely, Alien brings its crew in slowly and waits for the opportune moment to finally reveal the horror lurking on LV-426, enough time to understand the dynamic of the crew and their initial concerns with monetary gain as Mother awakens them from cryo early to investigate a mysterious transmission. Though late 70s tokenism, audiences still love the humorous nature of chief engineer Parker, are still pleasantly surprised that Weaver’s Ripley (almost silent until this point) takes the reigns following John Hurt’s heart-burning death to become sole survivor and heroine of the franchise, and appreciate the inclusion of acting greats Ian Holm and John Hurt. That we still empathise with the Nostromo crew now stalked by a killer newborn is a true testament to the film; nigh on four decades have passed for us to witness their interrupted sweet dreams and blissful ignorance turned sour time and time again.
Truly, the most important thing is that it, personally, nearly impossible to fault this film. With innovative practical effects, stunning direction, visuals and set design, brilliant and human characters and performances, a memorable piercing main theme and atmospheric sound design that immerses the audience into the bowels of the Nostromo, an iconic movie monster (now with added lore), a surprise hero, some questions left unanwered, a narrative that doesn’t beat about the xenomorph bush and a blending of genres done to perfection, Alien deserves all the credit it has come to deserve following a mixed critical reception.
10/10, you must be mad? Maybe I am, and maybe I am.
The Film Fanatic