Of the creature terrorizing the crew, Ash (played with haunting stoicism by Ian Holm) says, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” This is how I would describe Ridley Scott’s Alien as a film. The embryo in his mind was a monster movie on the order of Jaws, The Thing from Another World (1951), or It! The Terror from Beyond Space, from which Scott takes his major plot beats. This is how the movie seems so recognizable from afar. Up close, it’ll bite your face off. Alien is so brutal on a subliminal level that even its many imitators fail to grasp how hostile it is to our idea of ourselves when you take all its symbols into account. When the alarm blares and the steam skulks in, the structure of the film holds up this Freudian nightmare thing, and the film fills itself with subtext that’s enough to make us reexamine our place in the whole universe. The Alien knows nothing of happy endings or of a character’s right to a timely and cinematic death. It dismembers your senses because the young Scott wants it to (he storyboarded this movie himself). He escalates a creature feature into a celestial moving painting, and then a fever dream of tension, sound, and fear. Few films match up.
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley offers the genre a leading lady and that’s not something it was used to. B-movies liked to keep them around – and the really talky ones like Howard Hawks’ The Thing loved to put them at the center of a lot of verbal conflict (so did Star Wars), from which Scott’s quibbling crew gets a lot of their spunky dynamic. But it’s so different to have a lady in the lead of this kind of movie that it could be said to upset the balance of its universe, so much that it’s where all the horror comes from. It’s in comparison to Ripley herself that all the images acquire their power: she turns a monster into a cosmic rapist because of how we fear for her, she distorts the crew dynamic around her aloof idea of romance, and causes even simple interactions to have new depth. Even in comparison to Giger’s designs and Derek Vanlint’s exquisite cinematography, Weaver is the element that makes Alien so powerful. She's too butch to tell us her story; Vanlint/Scott favor extreme close-ups and reflective surfaces to keep us focused on the story of her sweat and her eyes.
She’s third-in-command of a mining vessel on its way back to earth. The onboard computer, called Mother, wakes the crew from cryosleep to answer the distress beacon of a ship stranded on the surface of a planet. The sinewy interior of the Derelict stretches around them like the hollowed-out ribcage of an Andalusian dog. In an inner sanctum, Kane (John Hurt) wades through ovular little landmarks, like totems on a foggy shore. When he gets close, the leather skin peels back to reveal the first of art designer H.R. Giger’s sundry horrors: a fleshy spider, like two hands sewn together, with an incestuous tail and moist, vaginal mouth. The monster inserts itself orally onto Kane. The team, including Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit), carries him funereally to the outer hatch of their ship, the Nostromo, and requests permission to board. In Ripley’s founding act of characterization, she exercises protocol to refuse them re-entry. The two men invite the horror on board; the way the alien hatches out of Kane during dinner, in a scene with no music and only the raw reactions of the actors dealing with the weirdness, is a nightmare cinema still hasn’t woken up from.
Giger knew what scares us. He gave us back the alligator in the retention pond, the mother spider in the shed, the snake in our shoe. In the safety of our home, these things were emotional colonizers, and like them this creature is alien in the way things are when you’re a little kid. Joseph Conrad (author of the dark post-colonial novel, “The Nostromo”) is probably giggling in his grave because he knew all along that the scariest things are the ones that remind us of ourselves.
The future Scott implants with this creature is not idyllic like Roddenberry’s Star Trek or touristy like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a grunge-noir maze of beige panels and CRT monitors and steam. The Alien’s blood is a corrosive acid, meaning it would cost them the ship to shoot it (assuming they could find it). That detail makes the ship close in on them like a submarine; Scott is always using details of biology to create tension and isolation and fear. It costs them more than their own lives to bring it aboard in the first place: its first act is to make the male crewmen its breeding stock. This monster gets inside you, and I mean in the mental sense: it dissembles you. Being killed by it seems like a better fate than being desired by it. The scariest scene may be one that occurs purely through sound. The Alien slips its tail behind Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and snarls suggestively into her trembling face. Cartwright has a way of breaking down vulnerability for us: her eyes always look like she’s about to cry; doing so has a kind of unwanted sexiness that’s unique to her. Scott weaponizes that. As Ripley runs down a corridor, she hears horrible animal grunting and Lambert’s painful screams. We know by the sounds, and by Ripley’s reaction to the corpse, whose bloody legs have been unclothed and broken, that the Alien raped her. Scott takes Giger’s visual fetishes and activates them in the story. By bringing sex into it, he makes us afraid of the alien not only on our ship but in our psychology.
When Ripley cries desperately for affirmation, the name of the computer becomes a Freudian plea (“MOTHER!”). There’s a strangulation scene: Ripley, surrounded by pornography, is being suffocated by a man with a rolled-up magazine, his eyes rabid. He’s a robot and that makes it so much worse: he’s the drive to hurt each other that comes out of us even in a replication of humanity. He’s us with fewer subroutines. Only Ripley’s concrete affirmatives hope to mask all this spiritual terror. She combats her own desire to be attracted to the captain, but this barely appears in the film, as though the art design were embarrassing that kind of plot out of being in the movie in the first place, as though anyone falling in love would be too much to take in a world where the monster is a soulless voyeur that kills with oral sex.
One encounter particularly remains burned into my mind. Ripley sees the creature, but doesn’t scream. She doesn’t run. She buckles into a suit and to the sound of her own breathing looks at him swathed in steam. And she sings, “You Are My Lucky Star.” We remember when Gene Kelly sang it to Debbie Reynolds, and Scott’s sinister sexuality nests in our minds. Do you know what cuckoos do? They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds; their babies push out their siblings and starve the rest. Singin’ in the Rain is the nest that song used to live in inside my mind and Alien is its cuckoo. I can’t hear it the same way. The set design elevates the scene with light and sweat. The Alien is missing the beaming, gleaming eyes that should have belonged to a lover, to Dallas, to Debbie Reynolds, to anyone. Ripley’s locked fates with a creature, not of pure evil, but of pure appetite, of insatiable foreignism. There’s no escape for her, even if she survives.
The prosthetic effects by Carlo Rambaldi (who would go on to make the puppet in E.T.) have only improved with age. It’s not because they still look realistic, but because they don’t need realism to creep us out. The Alien now looks like a guy in a suit; so does the space vampire in It! The Terror from Beyond Space. The difference is that seeing that it’s a rubber suit activates the subtext in Alien. It takes the disenfranchisement even further to see the fakeness, as it does for the dog-suited man with his head between another man’s legs in The Shining. It’s less realistic than if it was rendered in slick CGI and this makes it more monstrous because we can see ourselves in it. The viewer should have the right not to be called out on our own voyeurism. There’s an element of Alien that feels like we’re being stalked by ourselves.
A deleted scene completes that illusion. Since it was cut for pacing reasons that I agree with, I don't necessarily suggest viewing the director’s cut with the scene included, but I suggest that you watch the scene so that the mythology is a complete picture in your head. In it, Ripley discovers her crew, still alive, their bodies being painfully transmuted into more eggs (in the theatrical cut, we just assume that they died, as horror movie victims do). This not only completes the body horror but the biology behind Scott’s purpose in this movie: the Alien is made entirely of us. James Cameron gave the universe a sigh of relief by creating the Queen to lay the eggs: she conveniently allows us to dismiss the ideology behind the horror and amuse ourselves with being attacked by a monster we’re not responsible for. But Scott wasn’t going for convenient. He tore Ripley apart to make her kill the crew herself, and he tore us apart to imagine being condensed to our leather skin and finger bones and vaginas. Remember that compartment full of eggs, the room that Aliens would like you to think is just a nest? That’s the crew of the Derelict, melted down to their parts, waiting to consume curious people on a dead planet.
All of this stuff in Alien that’s about our image and not just our safety has secretly inspired a lot of modern body horror: from Under the Skin to Audition to Enemy. It’s the element of dissociation – introducing a gender problem, victimizing us to our own psychology – that allows Alien to be more than a slasher film. Almost none of its influence can be seen in Friday the 13th, for instance.
The one thing that does seem to carry over to the lesser aspects of the genre is that Alien increased the popularity of the “false scare,” as when the orange tabby cat jumps out at them while they’re looking for the monster. Normally, I’m against false scares. It works in Alien because the monster rarely jumps out at you in this movie (he only does it one time, in the airduct, in the scene that fans have christened the “Happy Birthday!” scene because of the Alien’s outstretched arms; in keeping with the subtext I prefer to call it the “Come to Daddy” scene). The cat can’t deflate tension because they know that the monster is around and that the space is still dangerously confined; the false scare doesn’t deflate anything, as it does in a movie where people don’t know if something is there at all.
Unlike most slasher villains, this one has the power to be universal: it doesn’t seem like one aberrant junkie or a vengeful spirit but a truth of us. We can see ourselves in it. It has the same anger as the machines we make in our image, the same drives as those of us who lose control and hurt each other, and the same symbols as our ancient tribes used to carve into their walls. Scott takes a simple formula – the ads called it “Jaws in space” – and he unearths from it the reason we make slashers in the first place. People have talked about the phallic implications of Michael Myers’ knife. Well here’s a monster that is a living castration ritual, a rape fantasy, an inhibition engine. Its intentions may not be pure but Ash was right that its iconography is. The sequels kept looking for a way to advance the plot without touching the symbol: James Cameron looked for an action movie hiding in there, David Fincher for a revelation, Jean-Pierre Jeunet for a fetish. Scott’s prequels have tried to make prequels to his images rather than to his story; he’s tried to recapture what dismembered our conscience and not just our attention. He’s never quite found it. That’s probably because he has to make connections and write lore, squeeze a plot in there and not be too derivative. Alien is the film that took someone else’s bone structure and built more biology on it; it made a nest in a genre and starved the rest of them out. Scott has autopsied it: he’s found increasingly messy ways to assess what’s in it. But he’s never made it live again.
Image is a screenshot from the film.