This week I’m pleased to present a very timely guest post from another of Moody’s Survivors, Jonathan Wood, who talks about one of his (and my) favourite films – Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 classic, ALIEN. I’m sure there are very few people who’ve yet to see the film, but if you’re one of them, please be warned: spoilers ahead.
ALIEN was a movie that terrified me as a teenager. And when I say terrified, I really do mean it. After watching the film I think I slept with the light on for about three or four days after, such was the profound effect it had on me. ALIEN has also influenced my own work with it’s principal themes of claustrophobia, surprise, and the steady build up of terror in a story which is all the more terrifying for what we don’t see.
I was four years old when ALIEN was released at the cinema. My parents saw it on the big screen. They recalled the terror of the ALIEN itself, which remarkably only appears fleetingly throughout the film, hunting the crew of the labyrinthine industrial towing ship Nostromo. No-one had ever seen anything quite as unique and hideous as Giger’s creation: a complex organism with a highly accelerated life cycle. Did anyone really expect what was coming when John Hurt was attacked by a hand sized parasite inside that derelict alien spacecraft? The disgust of that scene at the dinner table and the almost obscene birth of the alien. Apparently, even the actors were in the dark regarding that scene, with only Hurt himself privy to what was coming. Scott captured their genuine shock and disgust as events unfolded.
Scott’s film works on a number of different levels. Here we have an industrial crew, not tough soldiers, and aside from a rather clumsy looking industrial flamethrower, no weapons nor any tactical know-how with which to deal with the unknown menace creeping around their huge ship. There’s also definite tension between the characters on the ship, even before the alien makes it onboard: an under-stated irritation, not visible but just there, rather like an office full of workers who don’t really get along. This tension increases as the film progresses and the stakes get higher. The characters and performances are excellent: the impatient and disillusioned Captain Dallas; the curious yet cold Kane; the prickly Ellen Ripley; the cynical and hysterical Lambert; our two lazy and rather sleazy grease monkeys Brett and Parker; and last but not least, the aloof and wonderfully creepy science officer, Ash. From the off, the crew only refer to each other by their last names, adding an impersonal vibe and perhaps an indication of office politics in a near future where deep space travel is considered as normal as taking a bus into town.
We’re also hit with a number of surprises in ALIEN, experiencing them at the same time as the crew with no forewarning. The small organism which unceremoniously erupts from John Hurt’s chest grows to nearly seven feet tall in a matter of hours. We only discover this when the hapless Brett (and his baseball cap!) is the first to be ambushed by the fully grown alien. We also get the sucker punch of Captain Dallas’ demise. Wonderfully played by Tom Skerritt, he’s the only one who seems able to command any respect. He galvanizes his crew, then meets his demise surprisingly early on at the hands of the alien in the air ducts. We discover that Ash is an android with an ulterior motive, working for the science division of the Corporation that employs them. And finally, we witness the emergence of female Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as the unexpected soul survivor, battling to escape the clutches of a stealthy, hostile and clearly intelligent creature. The character of Ripley went on to become almost as iconic as the alien itself through the film’s sequels: a tough, yet damaged female lead, suspicious of all human authority.
All of the above elements are cleverly utilised by Scott. This is a thinking man’s monster movie and not another action-splattered, by-the-numbers sci-fi yarn. No one had ever seen anything like Giger’s outlandish and utterly horrifying creation before: it was alien in every sense of the word. Add to that a series of intelligent and interesting sub-plots, characterization and performances from actors at the top of their game, breathtaking sets and a space craft which, to all intents and purposes, is a huge haunted house floating in space. A place where “No-one can hear you scream”
Scott pulled all these elements together expertly, giving the film an almost choking atmosphere which, for me, permeates throughout the film even before the alien arrives. There’s something decidedly creepy about the Nostromo itself as we’re taken on a panoramic tour before the crew is roused from hyper-sleep. Deserted corridors, machines spluttering into life, draughts and breezes… a feeling of foreboding lingering around every corner.
You also felt that Scott got his futurism just right too. He created a futuristic atmosphere, and yet retained a sense of technological limitation, which made it believable. Here was a future where we were not yet ready to beam ourselves to Mars, but we had cracked long haul space travel, at least for industrial purposes. The detail put into the set designs by Scott and his team were exemplary, with inspiration from Giger’s visionary art and sculpture. Giger himself worked on the set design for seven months.
ALIEN truly is a master class in science fiction horror and has aged incredibly well given it was made over thirty years ago. Much imitated, but never bettered in my opinion, it remains a massive influence on me in the weaving of slow burning, claustrophobic horror stories with little reliance on gore, violence or explosions. Since first sitting down with a VHS recording of this film and being both spellbound and terrified for two hours, Giger’s alien always has and probably always will be… just behind me!