Andrew Mason writes on the timelessness – and horror – of Ridley Scott’s Alien.
‘In space no one can hear you scream.’ This famous tagline, engraved in pop culture history, perfectly encapsulates fear and horror in a single line. Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien ushered in a new age for the sci-fi horror genre by exploiting the fear of the unknown and the horrors of the neverending chasm of space. In space no one can hear you scream; the same however does not go for the audience.
The film follows the Nostromo, a commercial towing vehicle trudging back to Earth as it intercepts an SOS signal from a nearby planet, leaving the crew obligated to investigate. After a harsh landing, some crew members leave the ship to explore the area. They discover a hive colony of an unknown creature as the ship’s computer deciphers the message to be a warning, not a distress call. When one of the eggs is disturbed, the crew do not know the danger they have awoken until it’s too late.
In the late 1970’s, the sci-fi genre had exploded in popularity with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind giving audiences the cosmic escapism they craved. In stark contrast, Alien effectively created a new sub-genre of sci-fi known as sci-fi horror. So, what is it about Alien that, even over forty years later, still leaves audiences on the edge of their seats and their hands covering their eyes? The opening shot sets the scene for what’s to come, showing a vast ship in a lonely interstellar space. Vulnerable in the endless abyss of space, their ship is both a stronghold and a prison. Due to the film’s cosmic setting, there’s a palpable feeling of claustrophobia throughout as it presents the idea of space as a limitless new extension of human paranoia. Two of mankind’s primal fears are the unknown and the dark, both of which loom over the film in its long shadowy shots of the vast nothingness; it’s bound to make anyone’s skin crawl. Ridley Scott knew that the only thing more terrifying than the alien itself was the shadow in which it hides. Like Jaws, the Xenomorph shares a kinship with the titular shark and Ridley Scott uses its absence to induce tension and paranoia before revealing its design. The movie is cleverly edited in that we never have a clear image of what the alien actually looks like until the very last shots of the movie, giving the audience one final scare.
In the movie, the Xenomorph is described as “a perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” The Xenomorph’s design is, in my opinion, perfect. Its design is what allowed it to stand the test of time in the cultural zeitgeist. Homaged, parodied, imitated, built upon, but – arguably – never bettered. H.R. Geiger, who designed the creature, expertly crafted it to be part -dragon, part-machine and part-sexual nightmare, allowing it to stand out from anything Hollywood had seen at that time and to this day. The reptilian or insectile design carves its way into your mind and doesn’t allow you to escape it.
Finally, one of the film’s greatest strengths lies in its pacing. It’s calculating. It’s patient. It allows silence. The tensions constrict the audience to an unbearable extent, ultimately climaxing as the Xenomorph picks off the crew one by one as it haunts the corridors. Space has long been a concept whose mystique has piqued the curiosity of those observing its astral plane, but after spending two hours trapped in its confines along with its inhabitants, I’m grateful to have my feet standing firmly here on earth.