“Alien” is a true classic of both the sci-fi and horror genres. At its core, it is a “haunted house” / “stalk & slash” horror film set aboard a spaceship sometime in the future. As a structure, this is perfect. By design, a spaceship is claustrophobic, with plenty of scope for dark corners, and most importantly it is isolated.
The Nostromo is a refinery vessel, transporting its cargo back to Earth from the planet it was mined on. Due to the long journey, the crew are in hypersleep. The crew is awoken from hypersleep early to respond to what they assume is a distress call, coming from an uninhabited planet. When they land to investigate, they find an enormous space vessel, clearly not of human origin. Within is a gigantic, fossilised “pilot”, who clearly died a violent death. In a chamber beneath the pilots chair, they stumble upon a huge cache of “eggs”, one of which opens up and an organism attaches itself to the face of one of the humans.
Once back on board the Nostromo, the creature eventually dies, but it has left behind a surprise. It has impregnated the crew member with a 2nd alien, which announces its existence in a truly shocking moment. From then on, it is a race to survive, and kill the alien. But can all the crew be trusted?
Now, the plot isn’t overly complex, yet it works perfectly. The crew are all depicted as regular, working men & women. They bitch about their pay, complain about being woken up early. And they clearly have lives outside of the film. As characters, they are a rarity for a Hollywood movie, in that they come across as real people, who we care about, rather than just simplistic cyphers.
Now, Alien made the Hollywood careers for a few of it’s personnel. Obviously, Sigourney Weaver became a huge star off the back of her performance as Warrant Officer Ripley (the films “Final Girl”). Throughout the film, she is shown to be strong, capable, and intelligent. Again this was somewhat of a deviation from the norm. Director Ridley Scott became a major player after the success of Alien, eventually returning to the franchise over 30 years later with Prometheus. And writer Dan O’Bannon began a long and fruitful career as a screenwriter (and later director in his own right).
Of course, we can’t talk about Alien without mentioning the creature itself. Designed by noted Swiss artist H.R. Geiger, the Alien is a slick, smooth, being, full of sexual overtones (the secondary mouth which extends from the penis like head, for example). The Alien has an incredibly “real” quality to it, despite really just being a man in a “rubber suit”. And it stands out as wholly organic against the films relentlessly industrial and practical sets. No shiny chrome and curvy white plastics here. The Nostromo looks like it was designed by an industrial designer tasked with creating a functional space vessel suited to long term travel.
Ultimately, Alien spawned a franchise which has now spanned some 40 years. Its direct sequel, Aliens, set a benchmark for sci fi action which has yet to be paralleled, although the quality of the remaining entries is somewhat less stellar. But Alien remains the franchises best entry. Real characters, in a tense situation, with little chance of survival or rescue is hardly the most original set up. But Alien carries it off with aplomb. And let’s be thankful that they didn’t stick to the scripts original title of “Star Beast”…