“I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out. I’m not proud.” – Stephen King
Alien is probably one of Ridley Scott’s most acclaimed films. It sits alongside Blade Runner in his filmography as a bombastic science-fiction master piece, I still see Blade Runner as his ‘magnum opus’ however. Alien spawned a franchise vacuum that was filled by a wide variety of acclaimed directors. James Cameron, David Fincher and that other guy. Over the next few weeks I’ll be taking a hammer and chisel to the Alien Anthology from Alien to Aliens to Alien 3 to that other one. I might even squeeze in something on Prometheus, though I haven’t seen it enough times to essay it up. Maybe when it’s release I’ll throw myself at it.
Today, I’d like to focus on the most primitive of human emotions. A pre-mammalian biological artefact nestled right in the recesses of our brains. Fear. Probably both the worst and most stimulating emotion that the body has to offer. Alien is a science-fiction horror thoroughbred, and when I first saw it… it was the day I became a man.
Not literally of course. That would be ridiculous. But I did wet myself a couple of times. But there’s three aspects of science-fiction horror, a triad of elements. There’s some shared horror texture with the wider Gothic genre, and you’re more than welcome to investigate it further if you want. This is just me being me. Applying some basic understandings of science-fiction horror to a little film.
Terror is the tension and the delay of ‘horror’. It’s the patient game, and arguably what constitutes most of the meat of a good horror film. It gives structure and added meaning; setting the tone and atmosphere for a film can do wonders for whatever it wants to show you. Alien excels at introducing us to ‘horror’. Even from the beginning shot we have a long, drawn out look at space. The introduction of the Nostromo shows the underbelly of the ship, similar to the opening to A New Hope actually. Except when we enter the ship, we’re shown a claustrophobic, tight and steel environment. There’s a sense of lifelessness within the ship, and the tight corners already have us on the edge of our seats, counting down to that jump scare.
“Anybody tell you you look dead?” Parker’s foreshadowing right at the beginning is, in my opinion, actually slightly humorous. Back when the film was advertised as the brainwave sci-fi horror amalgamation, to hear the word ‘dead’ in the first few minutes should have us thinking that the film is jumping the gun. It makes perfect sense, however, to establish something in the film. Death is going to fuck up everything.
Long shots of the ship, sweeps through corridors and focused looks on tense characters all amp up the tension and the wretched terror throughout the film. We don’t even see any form of the xenomorph until a good way into the film, and it’s worth it. Because of all that build-up, we are able to have our climax of absolute wretched horror. The score by Goldsmith helps tremendously to set the mood too. Cosmic opera at times during shots of the ship, timid little beats during corridors sweeps. Perfect to fit the environment, and the environment is absolutely crucial to aiding the feat of storytelling.
The unfamiliar, smoke laden LV-426 paints a smokey maze of a planet. Here, the crew encounter the nasties. The use of smoke to obscure our perception is pretty common or Ridley Scott. He did the same thing with Blade Runner, probably more so. The use of smoke in the urban setting was to create a sense of disconnection between people, of a docile mass yet disconnected individuality. The consumerism commentary takes a proper hammer and sickle to the film’s environment, except I don’t see Alien as that political. There is an obvious Vietnam allegory underneath its xenomorphic sheet, but I really don’t see it as really saying as much as Blade Runner. Although it’s Blade Runner after all.
But the smoke helps obscure the alien environment, and to think this was barely a decade after America went to the goddamn moon. The imagery of planets, of worlds beyond worlds, it was all new to everyone. The likes of Star Wars promised adventure and excitement and E.T showed visitors as cutesy and cuddly. Alien and Blade Runner were Scott’s anti-thesis to the sci-fi idealism boom. For too long had mankind longed for the future, now it was time to create raw fear. The smoke, the environment, the ambiguity of some characters (and the particular reveal of Ash) all tunnel us towards an inevitable spiral of terror. Eventually, however, terror gives way to horror.
Horror is the explicit flavour of fear. It’s when we are literally horrified, disgusted, repulsed or shocked by the content on display. Alien has a lot of climaxes to its paces of terror. The chestbursting aliens, the final action scenes and even the ship crash at the beginning. It’s a film about elevated terror that eventually cripples us with absolute horror. It’s actually fairly conventional for a horror film, I think the cleverness comes with the science-fiction twist.
As said before, the idealistic future boom was tiding over and Scott slammed it back. Suddenly the future wasn’t all bright and lollipops, and Scott was able to shove 1984 and Philip K. Dick right into his projects. Alien even has a corporation that is fine with the killings of its crew, as long as it’s for the greater good of bringing the xenomorph home. These things, certainly to the audience at the time, are absolutely horrifying. How can such a massive body of economic wealth not care about its empl- well it was fresh at the time.
Horror is explicit, that doesn’t necessarily means it’s dumb for it. Some of the engagement and twisted enjoyment with The Thing, for example, is seeing the creature adapt and mutate and slaughter its way through the crew. The ambiguous finale has been picked apart, as we may be faced with an alien that is now utterly human. Ridley Scott would visit uncanny humanity with a film that was released on the same day with Blade Runner. In fact, all roads lead to Blade Runner.
I think this is the genius of Alien, its allusions. It doesn’t go full retard (we never go full retard) like the ‘other one’, and the ‘ones that seriously didn’t happen‘. It has the right formula that a horror film needs, with a sci-fi skin to glaze some of the thematics together. It’s easy to see how the beginning’s tension leads to the first few skirmishes of horror, and the terror escalates quicker and quicker, ramping up past every horrifying moments. There’s lulls in the tension to allow for the audience to catch their breathes and the story beats, but it’s all in one massive effort to get us towards the finale.
Speaking as a 17 year old who saw Alien when he was fairly young, you have no idea just how scared I was. This was during a storm of nightmares, I think everybody has that weird time in their youth. I had my dreams of snakes, dragons, Napoleon (I would though wouldn’t I) and soon Alien gave birth to a new sort of nightmare. Night terrors, ones that made me scream to wake myself up. I was tortured by my sub-conscious for some time, and I wondered for a while if it was entirely possible that I was doing harm by watching Alien. I soon realized, however, that this was simply my way of personifying my fears.
There’s some modern critiques of horror that say it’s exclusively about the audience seeking dark, disgusting messes in order to ‘purge’ their own dark side away. It uses some Freudian theory as a basic template, seeing our ‘id’ (the childlike, impulse driven side) as the darkly underling of our sub-conscious as trying to orchestrate this need to watch horror. Maybe it purges it away, maybe it washes its control away temporarily. Something like that. But there is something to horror that has us coming back, and there’s something to my earlier nightmares which gives me a sense of glee. Monsters are terrifying, disgusting but (above all) they are often gross. That is a part of life.
I remember taking part in sex education lessons when I was younger and watching a live birth. I vomited for about a week. Throughout my entire life I’ve come close to gore and utter revolting imagery thanks to video-games, comic books and films like Alien. Seeing these presentations has desensitized me. I felt an odd numbness watching the photos of the body of Gaddafi being paraded around the news networks; probably because I had just done watching Inside Nature’s Giants (possibly one of the greatest nature documentaries of all time).
Alien captures the sense of utter grossness perfectly. Some of the scenes back in the day would have likely driven physical sickness. I felt physically sick too when I first saw it, likely due to me being so young. But the gross factor gives us some kind of entry level to life. I hate to get philosophical often but I fundamentally believe that your childhood, your innocence and your feeling of ‘immortality’ drips away as death creeps into your life. Death of relatives, death of characters on television and even reading about the scientific process of death. Death is a simple fact of life and the minute you introduce it to a child’s life… utter confusion occurs. We’re psychologically trained to reject it from an early age; mortality is a fact that we can’t comprehend. I fully believe that the fruits of culture have managed to dilute death down to something more bitesize and that is an incredible thing.
For an entire populace to be now ready to enter into adulthood, to recognize their mortality, is incredible. I also believe that death makes life worth living anyhow, and I don’t really care about religious squabbles about the process of it. Go away. Alien is probably one of the most important films of my childhood because, and I’ve been sitting on this for a while now, it absolutely ruptured my world. I was so scared, so caught in nightmares and torment simply because I was grossed out by the disgusting depiction of death. I was too young for it, and I just the impatient path of learning about mortality. I happily say today that I wouldn’t be the man I am today without seeing the film so young, and I see that as a completely positive thing.