Why I Love… #46: Alien

46Year: 1979

Director: Ridley Scott

Stars: Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Ian Holm (Ash), John Hurt (Kane), Yaphet Kotto (Parker), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett).

Genre: Science Fiction / Horror

I recently had the pleasure of introducing a couple that I know to the film Alien. For whatever ridiculous reason, they’d never seen it. Following a good meal we sat down, dimmed the lights and hit play. It may just have been me, but there seemed a sense of reverence about it, as though we were sharing something special, something to be appreciated and absorbed. Of course, we were. Because Alien is a phenomenal film. A virtuoso achievement. A symphony. And other hyperbolic statements too.

…except in this case it’s not hyperbole. Alien deserves all of the celebratory windbagging it has earned over the last 30-plus years. It stands up to scrutiny and repeat viewings. It’s also been the subject of many more paragraphs than these few, so is there really anything I can add?

And yet… I want to talk about it. I want the discussion to continue. So looking to the title of this series I suppose the way forward is to make it personal. Why do I love Alien?

I suppose it goes right back to my first encounter. I was ten years old, and staying at a friend’s house. It was around or soon after the release of Alien3 and the existence of the franchise was on the peripherals of my awareness. The TV had shown me teaser trailers and magazines had replicated posters for me. I knew what Sigourney Weaver looked like with a shaved head. And, of course, I’d seen the alien itself – the xenomorph as it had come to be known. It seemed like a dragon breathed from memory. An imprint from a distant dream. Something horrible and new that I had somehow always known. To paraphrase Ripley in Alien3, it had somehow already been in my life so long I couldn’t remember anything else. There is still no other monster like it in film.

Anyway, I was staying with this friend, and their parents were out. And Alien was on the TV. It was a small, boxy, portable set, receiving intermittent, drizzly signal through a fragile aerial. As such the film came through like a poorly received transmission from another place. It came as if from deep space. Not a film but an intercepted broadcast. Something we had inexplicably caught. Through the grain and static, Ridley Scott’s efforts to convey a sense of drab realism had produced a beautifully workmanlike aesthetic. This was different to other sci-fi movies. This felt serious. It felt… mean.

It was captivating. Whatever else we had planned didn’t happen. The evening became about Alien. I wasn’t terrified, but I was enthralled. Ian Holm’s character Ash speaks reverently of the alien entity as a ‘perfect organism’, and really that’s how I would describe this film. The execution is astonishing. Alien creeps under your skin, as though a facehugger has gotten to you already before the credits began and you can’t remember it. So Ridley Scott’s film takes you through a transformation.

The Nostromo is a character in itself, introduced before any of the humans locked within it. Scott’s camera lurks and idles gracefully down corridors, and so a sense of waiting in instilled. In the audience we feel as though we are being prepared for something. Just what seems, at this stage, strangely intangible. That the crew intercept a distress signal and follow it is the first domino falling. We feel instinctively that they’re doomed.

These crew members read as real people. They share testy working relationships and the resentments of class divides. They’re not a wholly likeable bunch, and yet we sympathise with them. Because these ‘truckers in space’ are simply doing their jobs. They do not deserve the fate in store for them. Alien revealed to me the merciless nature of chaos. Chaos doesn’t care who you are. There are no special privileges. Alien threw out the comforting notion that there is anything that can save you other than your own ability to save yourself. In space, no one can hear you scream, least of all our notions of God. At the age of ten, that’s as frightening as H.R. Giger’s Freudian killing machine.

Alien feels like a cruel, chilling manifesto. It is this, in part, that raises it up. Comparing it to its sequels is largely redundant. Each in the series has a different intent and each belong to different genres. The xenomoroph menace is all but obliterated in James Cameron’s Aliens where they’re mere cannon fodder for gung-ho marines. Alien3 makes a further move, from bravura action spectacle to elegiac drama, sombre and mythic (recalling Theseus and the Minotaur). Finally, Alien Resurrection is a black comedy of entertaining if hugely misguided proportions. But, for me, Alien stands above them all. A sort of philosophical horror film.

It helps that it is assembled out of searing set pieces of increasing tension and suspense. Brett’s lone search for runaway cat Jones is almost unbearably drawn out. The truth about Ash is as genuinely unsettling as anything else here, not least his method of trying to silence Ripley. When, finally, she becomes the lone survivor, her torturous journey to the escape pod – all blaring sirens and billowing steam – mirrors her barely contained panic. As her world disintegrates around her, Ripley must keep her wits to survive. And of course, the horror staple; a fake ending before the real final confrontation. Ripley sings to herself to keep her nerve. In the audience we daren’t make a sound.

Every aspect of the filmmaking process is mined by Scott here. The design work is, of course, impeccable. Some of the best the genre has to offer. An evocative score and a shrewd, atmospheric sound design (always horror’s secret weapon) enhance the stylish visuals whilst the small cast are all excellent. They are the ones that sell what is, really, a preposterous idea. Alien is the best B movie ever made. It takes a cheap-thrill-seeking haunted-house-in-space story and distills it into something fierce and frightening, cold and calculated.

I think watching Alien on that fuzzy TV screen all those years ago made me mature in my thinking. Not just about film, but about the world and how I perceived it. I transformed a little, watching Alien. Innocence lost? Maybe. But unlike poor Kane, my transformation was not a fatal one, merely part of an ongoing journey. Perhaps that’s part of why I love it. Alien is a snapshot of a moment when I changed. A blood splattered polaroid. It feels oddly timeless with its mix of futuristic space travel and blocky, retro tech. A place to be visited – and revisited – from endless perspectives. Now, on Blu Ray, it looks divine. We’ve come a long way since that boxy little TV set, but Alien is still a special nasty little time capsule. One that I never grow tired of.

Anyone for dinner and a movie…?

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