Alien sits in the middle between the opposing styles of my two favorite horror films, the two films I believe represent the pinnacle of the genre. On one end is John Carpenter's Halloween, an elegantly composed film so meticulous that it has no jump scares but instead creates a deliberate and well-sustained atmosphere of unsettling discontent. You're waiting for something to jump out at you, but for the most part it never does. That film is about the inevitability of an unstoppable force. At the other pole is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film made by an equally gifted filmmaker who nevertheless has a sloppier style than Carpenter's immaculate perceptions. Yet that messiness works in Tobe Hooper's favor, allowing him to make a horror film that works, time and again, on a feeling of spontaneity. Even when you're watching it for the second, or fifth, time, it has the power to startle you because everything happens in the moment.
Alien certainly has the atmosphere and directorial sophistication of Halloween down pat. Its sets are complex while looking well-worn, with H.R. Giger's legendary monster instantly announcing itself as one of cinema's most ingeniously designed creatures. With a nuanced soundtrack and an equally delicate and haunting score, the grace and intelligence of the direction has lent itself to endless analysis over the sexual imagery of the film and the themes elicited from a creature with broadly phallic and vaginal physical characteristics, a debate that compounds when you consider the status of the franchise's heroine as perhaps the great feminist icon of popular cinema.
What so few critics do, sadly, is talk about how magnificently terrifying it is. Inevitably dated by the homages, the spoofs and the outright plagiarism, Alien nevertheless continues to hold a power over this viewer after a number of viewings, its pacing setting the mood in the first act, only to mingle with the more unpredictable action in the next acts that keep the film fresh. For as much as Giger's Xenomorph attracts attention for what it symbolizes, attention should also be paid to the simple fact that the creature's constant evolution, combined with Scott's wise decision to only show the barest glimpses of the monster, allow the monster to take on a greater psychic weight in the audience's mind instead of giving it away. Even with Spielberg's Jaws, the audience had a rough idea of the shape of the shark, if not the size. Here, it's all up to guess work, and that make it all the more scary.
Alien exists in a world where space travel has become banal. Where Star Wars kicked off a host of space opera imitators, Scott's film, working off Dan O'Bannon's script (itself a horror version of his comedic Dark Star, made by John Carpenter) presents the average Joe in space. Despite the humongous size of the Nostromo, the ship in which a crew far too small for its cavernous interior resides, the ship is a towing vessel, and its crew, with the exception of a science officer, would not seem out of place on any working class job on Earth. They bitch about paychecks, grumble over the food and worry about fixing the rundown ship. They are not presented as some facile family, but they do come off as relatable people, giving the film's upcoming fantasy a realistic foundation.
Awoken from their cryogenic sleep, the crew is surprised to find they've not returned to Earth's solar system but have been redirected after intercepting a distress signal in another part of the galaxy. Immediately, the crew voices their protest, asking if they're going to get more money and threatening to simply continue back home after a long haul. Only when Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the warrant officer, tells them that company policy dictates all ships must respond to any distress calls under threat of forfeiting payment altogether does the crew stifle their grumbles.
This first act suggests no impending doom, no sense of disquiet. Its halcyon inactivity allows Ridley Scott to probe the main areas of the Nostromo with a fluid intelligence, using each shot to establish key sections of the ship while framing them in ways that flirt with the careful compositions of 2001 while still adhering to the fast pace of commercial sci-fi like Star Wars. Scott is a notably inconsistent filmmaker, but when he's on, he has an uncanny ability to suffuse artistic mise-en-scène, even a certain amount of grace, into shots that never lose their more direct, mainstream appeal.
When the tow ship arrives in the orbit of an uninhabitable planet and a search party lands a shuttle on the barren rock in adverse conditions, the noose gently tightens around the throat, more so when the crew happens upon a massive, derelict alien ship. Jerry Goldsmith's already subtle score steps back further to let the ambient sounds of howling wind and the creaking of the decaying spaceship. Compared to the almost pedestrian spin on interstellar magnificence of the Nostromo, the alien ship is more lavish, more intricately designed and ornate, clearly the result of bioengineering compared to the obsolete industrial construction of the Nostromo. Scott's talents have never been more evident than they are when the search crew stumbles across a gigantic fossil of an alien corpse. The "space jockey" instantly changes the dynamic of the film: where the enormous derelict suggested something bizarre, this humongous corpse, frozen forever at what could be a giant cannon, one last futile gesture of defense, inspires awe and fear in equal measure. What is this thing? Are there more of him in the sector? And why does he have a gaping hole in his chest?
One of the crew finds a section in the depths of the ship filled with large, leathery eggs and, well, you know the rest. Where Alien previously existed as a realistic depiction of working class slobs in space, suddenly the film explodes into surreal, hypersexualized energy. Poor Kane (John Hurt) looks into an open ovum, gets attacked by a clawed, acidic vagina from hell, which stays on his face for a day before everything seems to return to normal. Then, a penis with a mouth bursts through his chest. So it goes.
As if the attacks weren't frightening enough, Giger's Freudian construction of the alien plays on subtle fears, most of the actually masculine, concerning rape. The "facehugger" invades Kane's mouth and, in a sense, impregnates him -- even the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), refers to the beast as "Kane's son." Later, when Ash is revealed to be with the crew solely to ensure that the company they work for can get a hold of the alien specimen for their weapons division, he attempts to kill Ripley by choking her with a rolled-up newspaper. The surviving crew finds them and literally knock off Ash's head, revealing him to be an android. And the milky substance that runs through his wires is blatantly reminiscent of semen.
This is all well and good, but the manner in which Scott never places the focus on Giger's interpretive imagery, allowing the audience to consider it on their own terms while he gets down to the business of crafting a thriller. The use of Jonesy the cat as a miscue seems dated today mainly because the "It's Only a Cat" cliché, which had existed in bare forms before but exploded after this film. Yet Scott slyly uses the cat as a means to warn the characters, who never figure out that the cat hisses when the alien is nearby because anyone who might have put two and two together subsequently met a gruesome end. The cat's hiss, in a way, becomes the alien's "theme." Elsewhere, Scott sets up the ingenious chase through the air ducts, in which the ship captain (Tom Skerritt, proving that not even faster-than-light travel and cryostasis could propel humans far enough away from '70s hair) crawls through the vents attempting to lure the alien to the airlock. We process most of the action via the rest of the crew, who monitor movement in the ducts on a scanner that shows a second dot coming at the captain impossibly fast, disappearing and re-appearing again. Veronica Cartwright had the thankless role of being the sobbing, hysterical mess, but you empathize with her terror as she watches some unknown monster closing in on her friend.
In the climax, Scott mounts a sensory overload as Ripley sets the ship to self-destruct. Klaxons blare, lights flash and steam hisses through every leaking hole in the Nostromo. It's a bewilderingly executed segment, taking the well-defined structure of the ship's interior and throwing everything into chaos. When Ripley runs back to get the cat, there's no telling how far away she is from Jones, where the alien is, and how she can get back to the escape shuttle. Naturally, she makes it, and we get one last scare when the alien guesses ahead of Ripley and stows away on the escape pod.
In those final moments, Ripley becomes a hero for the ages, even if she managed to save no one else (well, except the damn cat). One of the enduring draws of Alien is that it's nearly impossible until the end to tell who will live. Ripley immediately projects a hardline approach in the movie, lecturing the engineers on company policy, refusing to let the search crew back because Kane's condition places them all in quarantine (our first taste of Ash's ulterior motives comes from him letting them in). But that severity is often costly in the movies, and usually the most focused one ends up dying. As Roger Ebert astutely noted in his "Great Movies" entry on the film, the cast is, for the most part, skewed to middle age. The youngest two, Cartwright and Weaver, were 29 and 30, respectively. The rest vary from mid-'30s all the way into the early '50s. These are people who just want to go home: would a fresh-faced Luke Skywalker ignore a distress call? Of course not. Hell, even Han Solo wouldn't, though he'd make a big show of ignoring it before his conscience nagged at him. Even with ship ranks, there's no real leader here, no clear social strata. They have enough of a bond with each other that each death affects them on a slightly personal level, but they're distinct enough that the driving impulse is simply fear that they'll be next. Also, their separation allows them to turn on each other that much more easily.
Not until James Cameron resurrected the franchise nearly a decade later and developed the tendrils of Ripley's personality would she become a screen icon, but what Alien lacks in its protagonist's distinction, it more than makes up for with an atmosphere and a sophistication that none of the sequels could even approach. Cameron worked magic with the material but nevertheless had to wrench it almost entirely from its horror roots into more direct action territory. Scott's film lives on as the most nuanced of the four films -- let us count those Alien vs. Predator movies as some separate, not at all equal, property -- gently laying the framework for the ideas other movies would handle more explicitly, such as the third and fourth films playing with the idea of the alien's host dictating its evolutionary outcome, the brilliant anti-corporate thread involving Weyland-Yutani's constant interference with lives simply to get a weapon they could never control, the ruthlessness but also the humanity of its heroine.
Alien revolves around these topics with the same fluid tracking shots that it uses to move through the Nostromo, and as much as I admire Scott's decision to leave science fiction after this and Blade Runner after guessing he could go no farther in the genre -- and thus far, no one else has really exceeded what he did with those two films -- I do so wish he'd made more space films. Rarely have I felt a chill run down my spine so disturbingly as I have when watching the captain, just before going to his death, asking the ship supercomputer, MU-TH-UR, "What are my chances?" After a brief moment, the screen returns with its reply: "Does not compute." In the intervening decades, Scott has proven himself to be anything but a master, connecting only occasionally, and often only with alternate cuts that never even hit theaters. Yet Alien is undeniably a masterpiece, one of those films that meets neatly at the nexus of genre entertainment and artistic endeavor, and whether those who enjoy it today do so for its ambition and vision or for the simply glee of its lasting scares, they're not missing the point.
*Addendum: I wanted to work this into the review proper, but I have such love for the marketing campaign that went into this film that I feel it should be its own separate thread. Today, the film's trailer is almost universally recognized as the greatest preview of all time. In the late '70s, films still often came packaged in the old-school way that went obsessively into detail in trailers, not so much about plot -- that came later when audiences seemed to react so viscerally against being surprised that the industry catered to their wishes to basically know the movie before seeing it -- but in the endless parade of sales pitches. Watch the original Star Wars trailer and listen to a flat voice drone endlessly about "a big, sprawling space opera of rebellion and romance," speaking about a raucous adventure with all the conviction of a police officer reading aloud the traffic report in court. The Alien trailer has no voiceover, not even dialogue from the film. This is old-hat today (the Coen brothers even did a funny version to advertise A Serious Man), but the crafting of the preview solely through the diegetic sounds of the film's atmosphere -- the echoing klaxon, the hissing stem, the shrieking cat -- gradually mounting until it becomes a horror film in miniature, is savagely brilliant and deeply ahead of its time. Then, of course, there is the matter of the tagline, "In space, no one can hear you scream." I would give that tagline the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am the sort of person who hates marketing. I hate trailers that give too much away, or that contain the distillation of a great idea that excites me for a full product that doesn't deliver (oh, Watchmen trailer, how you lied to me), but every now and then someone puts some thought behind how they sell a movie, and the results can be as engaging as the final product. Alien is one of a handful to get it completely right.