Wow, what a movie.
As a boy, I watched and read very little Fantasy. It was for girls, full of unicorns and princesses, quests for jewels and other things no boy would be interested in. Until I discovered Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I lived in spaceships, slavered over the high-tech gadgetry of Tom Swift and loved to see the fall of evil scientists as their plans went awry at the hands of a too-clever teen. This was through no fault of my parents, who are both generous, open-minded people with little interest in drawing gender lines for their children, but rather because I adored Science Fiction, loved the conflict and, in my youth and naivety, had strong misconceptions about the Fantasy genre. Despite this love for Science Fiction, however, Alien, and its sequels, were never on my radar. Even as a teen, when the films first became age-appropriate for me, I was a bit of a lightweight where horror was concerned and stayed far away from anything that was remotely frightening. Blame my over-active imagination, blame the monsters under my bed, blame whatever you’d like, but I skipped out on Alien, not realizing that years later I’d discover it for the genre classic that it is.
On the surface, the main conflict and the driving force of the film is the Alien stalking the crew through the mining ship Nostromo, but digging a little lower reveals the internal conflict among the crew and the different ways that each member reacts to the circumstances. From Kane’s curiousity to Parker’s agression to Lambert’s paranoia, we can recognize a bit of our own survival instincts and self preservation tactics in each of the crew members. Undoubtedly, Ripley’s skeptcism and hard-nosed determination make her the most interesting of the bunch, but it’s often what she reveals of the others that truly makes the film shine. Humanity’s strengths and faults are laid bare aboard the Nostromo and the result is both frightening and fascinating.
The alien itself doesn’t seem vicious, necessarily, but more akin to a scared, cornered animal. The sequels might discount this theory, and the alien’s appearance and the parasitic nature of its reproduction also suggests otherwise, but Ripley stumbling across its hiding place aboard the escape vessel, trying desperately to stay hidden and preserve itself, while not exactly pulling at my heartstrings, made me question, somewhat, its motives and the nature of its actions as it hunted the human crew. Was it truly hunting them? Or simply striving, like Ripley and Co. to stay alive in a hostile environment? The mark of a truly classic horror story is to have a reprehensible villain that tickles you with just the slightest bit of an empathetic reaction. Alien succeeds here without question.
For a film that so perfectly captures the human condition, the reveal that the Science Officer, Ash, isn’t a human, but rather a cyborg sent along on the mission to ensure the securing and delivery of any items of value to the Nostromo‘s parent company, regardless of cost, seemed at first to be a bit of a hiccup in terms of emotional resonance. But, a night removed from watching the film, I’m not sure that a human in Ash’s role would have worked. The major success of the film was in the human emotions exhibited by not only the crew members, but the alien, too. The only truly objective and emotionally void character in the movie is Ash and he’s given that strength by virtue of his true origins. Even had Ash’s employers found a true sociopath to fill that role, they could never predict what would happen under dire circumstances like that which befall the Nostromo, but plant a programmable cyborg in the role and you have the perfect trigger-man for a suicide mission.
I’ve often held Jurassic Park up as an example of a film that feels ageless, despite the complexity of its setting and special effects. Alien was released 14 years prior to Jurrasic Park and ages just as well, if not better, than Spielberg’s classic. If you look at another classic Science Fiction film from the same era, Star Wars: A New Hope for instance, there’s a certain agedness to the ideas, concepts and visual design of the film, despite all of its other endless successes. One of the biggest challenges in making the new Star Wars films (besides, you know, writing a decent script…) was utilizing new technology to make a fine looking film that still managed to look like it was 30 years removed from the ‘sequels’ technologically- and design-wise. Alien, on the other hand, looks as good today as it did when first released. The alien itself is just human enough to be understood and feared, the Nostromo is claustrophobic and grimy, a character in itself, and, thanks to the non-existant use of CGI in 1979, the clever use of scale model sets, moody lighting and simple, smart art direction, Alien is a film that still convinces viewers 30+ years later. A true masterpiece in psychological horror, mood and character study. In a cinematic age where vapid heroes fill the screen and five-year-old movies are already looking a little creaky, Alien convinces utterly.