Alien is a movie that drips with fear. Literally, each frame seems to sweat. There’s steam howling out of every corner. The walls of The Nostromo ooze with what looks like slime. The characters who inhabit the ship are constantly perspiring; their hair is moist and their clothes are dank and old. There is more shadow than light, and even when the movie moves into the light there is an uneasiness that permeates the air, almost beckoning it to return to the darkness.
And then there’s the Alien itself, and it too prefers moisture to dryness. From the moment we first see it, in its embryonic stage, clustered in numerous eggs in a foreign spacecraft, it is wet. Slimy. Gooey. Later as it grows into its adult form it continues to drip, but with less goo and more saliva. We never find out if this saliva has a purpose, but after observing the way the rest of the movie bathes in its own fear, I doubt a purpose is even necessary. It’s all design. Scary design. Alien thrives not just on the suspense, or the discovery of an extraterrestrial being, but on the menace of its design.
Yes, we know that H.R. Giger is responsible for the film’s look and feel. He brings his Surrealistic approach to art and graphic design to Alien, and together with director Ridley Scott, moulds a terrifying world — and creature — that is remembered predominantly for the way it looks. There is no colour in this world. It’s all black, darker black, and some white. There’s no in between. The Alien functions and lives on the same principle. It is not concerned with right or wrong, or with addressing moral issues, or with the reason behind its insatiable need to kill. At this point I’d like to observe that the Alien is never seen feeding on its prey. It kills, and then presumably it abandons its kill and moves on to the next. It is, as far as I can tell, a murdering being, not one that kills to survive. Maybe we are meant to see a little of ourselves in it.
Getting back to the movie’s aesthetics. Giger, a Swede, imbues many of his works with horrid imagery. His form is usually skeletal, lacking any notion of flesh, organs, or skin. I encourage you to check out some of his other endeavours. You’ll find similar themes running through them. At any point, you could possibly take one of his sculptures, use it as set dressing on Alien, and have it blend in seamlessly with the backdrop. Whether this constitutes a lack of originality is irrelevant. His work is easily distinguishable, and the forms he constructs in Alien are simultaneously terrifying and hauntingly beautiful.
But of course credit must go to Scott as well, who understands more than anything that the Alien is his trump card. His ace in the hole. To overuse it would be to destroy its purpose. And so he does the smart thing: Keep it hidden from view unless extremely necessary. The result is astounding. The way Alien unfolds its terror is very much like that of Jaws. The shark in that movie, very famously, takes close to an hour to fully present itself to its frightened onlookers and to the audience. We see what it can do in the very first scene, but then we’re forced to wait and wait and wait. When the shark finally shows itself, our immediate response is “Goddamn! That thing’s huge!”. With Alien, our response is “Goddamn! That thing’s hideous! And very scary!”. It too takes a very long time to present itself; by the time it does, like Jaws, lives have already been lost.
Alien works because it is slow. It takes its time to develop its characters, its situation, and its resolution. Not once does Scott jump into a scene with a scare, or blindside his audience with wall-to-wall death. Alien is a smart movie with smart characters. Consider the way he films many of the movie’s scenes. His pacing is so deliberate, his camerawork so slow and steady that we feel as if we’re creeping along with the camera, exploring an otherwise dead space. As the movie opens, and we’re taken on a tour of The Nostromo’s insides, the camera glides through corridors and under door arches. We see nobody. We can only hear rumblings and faint clingings and clangings. I am reminded very strongly of the opening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, based on John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?”, which also serves as inspiration for this film. Both movies isolate their characters, throw in menacing creatures that thrive on concealment, and then laugh as the creatures pick off the good guys one by one. The major difference is, The Thing’s attraction is the monster; Alien’s is the atmosphere. Without it, it is nothing but The Thing drenched in Giger.
And then we have the characters. The humans who are trapped by this deadly situation. There’s the captain Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt as a man who knows his role and shuts his mouth. There’s Kane (John Hurt), the poor soul who sacrifices his life for one of cinema’s most shocking breakfast scenes. There is Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the ship’s navigator, whose primary job, apart from navigating (if she does any at all), is to cry and scream and inform everybody else that they’re all gonna die. Bill Paxton takes over for her in James Cameron’s sequel. There are the two engineers, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), who spend much of their time ensuring they get a slice of the profit (The Nostromo’s a cargo vessel). There’s the robot Ash (Ian Holm) who marvels at the perfection of the Alien and hides life-threatening secrets from the rest of the crew. And finally there’s Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver. The greatest strength of her character is her undying hatred for the Alien, right from the start. She never gives in, nor does she find any need to study it. It’s an alien. It must be destroyed. We also don’t know that she will eventually become the movie’s heroine. The way Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay gives weight to each character masks the possibility of a singular hero. Only when the numbers shrink, and we’re left with one or two, do we realise who will survive and make it for the long haul. The characters also help ground the story in a realm that resembles realism. These are not teenage adventurer’s seeking gold, reward, or love. These are aged adults on a mission, and they know danger when they see it.
The story is essentially about a hidden monster jumping out and scaring people. It’s not revolutionary. Take any horror movie about a mass killer torturing and chasing innocent victims, and you’ll get something similar to Alien. Heck, even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a blueprint for this movie. But no other executes this retread of a story with so much oozy texture and frightful flavour. Scott and Giger have created a mood. A sense of time and place. They’ve created claustrophobia and genuine fear. The entire ship is a container of fear. To escape, one must fight the fear and prove his or her worth, save the cat, and kill a deadly alien.