Bitten by a radioactive moon-worm and overwhelmed by fear? You might just be in a sci-fi horror movie. Still, it might not be one of the all-time greats. How come certain sci-fi horror movies are classics while others are not? Some success can simply involve good scares. Ridley Scott’s Alien takes us aboard the troubled Nostromo spacecraft, which is burdened by an accidental alien (Bolaji Badejo) infestation of one. How does it happen? While looking at a bunch of eggs, crewmember Kane (John Hurt) gets attacked by a face-hugging creature. Freaky! Then, when trying to remove the creature from his face, the crew discovers that the creature bleeds acid that can melt through layers of metal. Ouch! With just these few angles, you’re already halfway to a decent sci-fi horror flick, right?
Upon first viewing, you probably won’t even know what’ll happen next. The creature appears to actually die, and Kane seems to be recovering, perhaps enough to be interviewed in front of cameras. However, then you have the infamous chest-burster scene, which continues the gross-out elements of the movie in a spectacular way. It also helps that this scene was not a cliché at the time. In fact, that’s why future gross-out scenes can succeed as well.
Putting Alien aside ever so briefly, consider also George A. Romero’s Creepshow, where a swarm of cockroaches bursts out of Upson Pratt’s (E. G. Marshall) greedy neck. Impactful, right? Well, it also wasn’t yet a huge on-screen cliché and was delivered in a way that made it work. Of course, most great movies also have themes, even morals. Alien is no exception. In fact, it’s impactful enough that some have debated whether it should have overpowered Star Wars.
The Nostromo is Corporate Greed in Space
The Nostromo’s a commercial vessel and most people are only on board for the money (especially Yaphet Kotto’s character, Parker). What does the Nostromo ultimately do? It ends up representing corporate indifference to human life, death, and suffering. It also suggests that, in their futuristic universe, you still don’t know who to trust. Someone who’s been seen around the ship, who you are supposed to trust, may just stab you in the back. As the crew ends up fending off an alien, someone in their midst is revealed as a threat as well: Ash (Ian Holm). The implication is that, yes, maybe we can eject an alien from our spaceship and getaway in an escape pod, but can we trust people in general? It’s sort of a classic sci-fi angle, but Alien avoids making it appear clichéd.
How “Alien” Feeds Suspense
In many ways, Alien benefits from our awareness that it’s a sci-fi suspense flick. When the audience saw it the first time, they didn’t know what to expect. So many things could happen in a quiet, seemingly uninhabited area on the ship. What if a raging meteor shower space storm hits (a sci-fi mainstay), destroying the medical lab and much of the ship? These thoughts can all occur before, during, and after the xenomorph shows up.
Also, as the crew of the Nostromo gets picked off, Ripley seems increasingly defenseless. Other than her own wits, what does Ripley have? Jones the cat might try to scare the alien away with his bio-luminescent eyes. Mother is just an A.I. voice, apparently not able to shed a single drop of xenomorph blood. Heading towards the unknown is basically always a good thing for a horror movie, and also for sci-fi in general. It’s clear they aren’t going anywhere for a while, other than probably to an early death.
Ripley, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), and the rest come across as ordinary people under extraordinary distress. They end up debating loyalty to their duties vs. loyalty to each other vs. selfishness. There is also limited time and scarce resources to formulate a plan to take out the invader, and they never seem confident in a clean-cut resolution. Ripley begins to push against the corrupt company she works for in an effort to get out alive, too. In other words, this ordeal has implications about real-life institutions failing to protect us during a disaster or even playing an active role in making them happen.
With that in mind, can you trust the company that puts you into cryo-sleep? Ripley awakens in the morning as the movie begins, but they’re all expendable on the ship, which is a brilliant insight into the corporation’s ruthless brain. Aliens may be a brilliant “Act Two” of the franchise, but Alien laid the brilliant groundwork for many people’s favorite sequel. As one who puzzles over the world, this movie helps put things in perspective.
What are your thoughts on the original Alien? Scream at us in the space of the comment section!