Weekend Film Recommendation: Alien

Closing out the October fright-fest, this week’s movie recommendation is Ridley Scott’s wildly successful maiden voyage of one of the best haunted house franchises in movie history. It’s Alien (1979).

The opening shot lingers on a wide open expanse of space. Instead of being a place of tranquil comfort, though, Scott’s outer space is an empty and soulless oblivion. Piercing that massive expanse is the clunky Nostromo, a cargo ship staffed by seven weary crew-members on a return trip home. During their journey, they are roused from ‘hyper-sleep’ to respond to a distress signal emitted from a mysterious source along their route. Exhausted by travel and labor, the crew struggles to see why the distress call should be their responsibility. Over the objections of the engineers Brett and Parker (played by Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, respectively), Dallas the captain (played by Tom Skerritt) insists on the Nostromo responding to the call.

Upon reaching the source of the signal, the crew finds a strange, possibly alien spaceship. The exploration party brings back to the Nostromo an unexpected package with unknown properties. In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, the nature of that package becomes clear while the crew sits down to eat together. Unbeknownst to the crew-members, in bringing the package aboard they also set loose a hostile alien with acid for blood, an appetite for humans, and a mean, mean temper. From that scene onward, the eponymous alien hides in the ventilation pipes and steam-filled corridors of the Nostromo, growing in form at each appearance while it hunts the crew-members – the most resilient of which is the impressive Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in her career-making role.

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When the characters wake from their groggy slumber at the start of the film, unenthused about either the job they currently have or the one to which they’ve been newly assigned, there’s a prevailing sense of gloom and diffidence permeating the mood. The pacing is deliberate, slow, and unnerving. Then, after the initial set-up is out of the way and the battle against the alien begins, it’s a long haul of tension, anxiety, and fear from about 45 minutes in right through to the very end. Unlike many horror films of similar ilk, Alien doesn’t bother with wacky offbeat comic relief to control the film’s pacing. Instead, Scott is merciless in giving the audience no reprieve whatsoever from the suspense.

Although the budget in Alien was ultimately sizeable, the project certainly did not begin life that way. Much of the film was shot on a shoestring, and it shows in the final product: the tricks Scott uses to elicit a gasp and build tension are basic and require little more than a well-placed shadow and camera. The performances are air-tight, as well. But the suspense of the film is not so much attributable to the action of the film as its concept: one of the defining features of the Alien franchise is the fear and uncertainty about who’s on the good guys’ team.

That ‘evil within’ theme runs throughout the film and operates at multiple levels: there’s the obvious fact that the alien is inhabiting the very ship that’s supposed to protect the passengers from the danger outside; there’s the suspicion surrounding one of the crew members, who isn’t letting on all he knows; there’s the more visceral nature of the alien’s gestation inside the chest cavities of its victims; and finally, in a story arc that is elaborated upon in much greater detail in later films, there’s the duplicitous motives of the corporation for which the characters work. At every turn, Alien raises suspicions about precisely that which ought to be providing a sense of security. Surely the spaceship is safe? If not that, then surely the crew is all on the same page? If not that, then maybe we can expect to be secure in our own bodies? If not that, then at least we can hope the nefariousness extends no further than the ship? On all counts, we’re wrong.

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As haunted house films go, Alien is about as good as it gets. Notwithstanding some dated monitor displays and odd noises emanating from the computers, you barely notice that it’s already a quarter century old. Some of the scare tactics are just timeless, it seems.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.