This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
Urgent, unpredictable and deeply unsettling, Alien is our pick for day twenty-nine…
The visionary ambition of Ridley Scott’s first entry in the Alien franchise is breathtaking. Much subtler than its successors, Alien has retained its realist qualities, even as technological advances have somewhat dated its effects, by virtue of a less is more attitude behind the scenes. Scott’s determination that audiences would believe in the true existence his ‘man in a rubber suit’ inspired him to restrict the Xenomorph to the shadows, where it continues to terrify to this day. Covenant, take note: the alien appears here for just four minutes.
Having begun life as graduate’s desire to mine terror from extraterrestrials, Alien grew rapidly from its lowly aspirations in the wake of the barnstorming success of George Lucas’ Star Wars. A newfound studio interest in science fiction bumped the film up to top priority as the only outer-space pitch on 20th Century Fox’s desk. When Scott came on board, with the grandiose ideas that would later explode out of Blade Runner, Alien’s budged was doubled and an aesthetic masterpiece was born.
The story itself is relatively straightforward – amalgamated from the likes of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World – but exquisitely paced. The year is 2122 and the seven-membered crew of the commercial space craft Nostromo are hibernating whilst on route home to Earth. When the ship’s computer, Mother, registers a transmission from a nearby moon, the team are awoken and obliged by company policy to investigate. A smart and resonant theme of the film is a dread of commercialised take over at the expense of ‘expendable’ human life.
Whilst there are neat performances here from Ian Holm and Harry Dean Stanton, the best remembered of the Nostromo crew are Sigourney Weaver, whose Warrant Officer Ripley is a rightful icon of cinema, and John Hurt. It is Hurt’s Executive Officer Kane who descends to LV-426; he who discovers the eggs of a hitherto unknown species; and he who finds himself the unwilling host of a deadly threat. What modern viewers are not waiting for the film’s iconic ‘chestbuster’ scene?
There’s always been brilliant breadth to Scott’s world-building cinematic approach and it’s on full display in Alien. Aided in one scene by the replacement of actors on set with Scott’s own children, the alien ship and moon of the film have an impressive scale and expansive reach; designed in extreme contrast to the claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo as the titular monster attacks. Realism is drawn from the employment of organic matter – sheep intestines feature horribly – and deployment of a rustic, grungy visual quality. The Nostromo seems believably lived in, whilst the sonorous thrums and creeks and drips of the ship do to heighten the film’s cloying intensity.
Twists and turns litter Dan O’Bannon’s insufferably tense script but it is in the film’s moments of supposed quiet that things begin to feel particularly nasty. Cinematographer Derek Vanlint swaddles Scott’s action in dark hues, all blues and greens, whilst abrasive lighting flickers with the violent intent of a night club to distress wide viewing eyes. Handheld camerawork here seems to preempt the later rise of cinema’s found footage phenomenon, whilst scratches beneath Jerry Goldsmith’s ethereal score reveal a succession of tonal shifts. Alien opens as a mystery and segues through thriller territory to conclude like a war film. That this is sci-fi horror proves largely incidental.
A foray into Predator lore did the Alien franchise no justice in 2004 but the series had already lost is spark. Those who wish to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of fear and race for survival should start here and end with its immediate sequel.