It has been forty years, and this gut-curdling landmark of two different genres turns the idea, “in space, no one can hear you scream,” into a real sense of despair. Even if it is highly problematic and hasn’t aged as well as it could have, the film that made Ridley Scott famous makes you feel as hopeless about the inky blackness of the beyond as being jettisoned out of a spaceship’s garbage chute. But what exactly is it about Alien that still makes it so intriguingly bleak even today? Especially enough to warrant an entire franchise? Let’s take a dive in…
First, there’s the character of Ash, the one who appears to be human just like the rest of the crew, one who blends right in with their lack of real humanity. But upon his first sign of bleeding white blood, the realization hits: he’s a machine. That shot of his white blood bead dripping before he attacks Ellen Ripley is contrasted right away with a shot of blood dripping from Ellen’s nose, ensuring that you feel empty from how machine can imitate flesh to the extent that it even captures our lack of humanity. That emptiness is enhanced through the sound design, as wispy winds on Xenomorph Prime increase the feel of emptiness, so you then know what inhumane humans sound like.
Thus, it doesn’t matter how good the skin tones of the human characters are, as the amusement park thrills that hit when the Xenomorph does proves how similar the isolated nature of people really is. They may look different with their own distinct hairstyles, but the seven crew members are truly the same person birthed by the same self-run motherboard. Appropriately fitting, they call their ship “Mother,” and the set design carries the womb imagery throughout. Even if Ridley Scott didn’t command enough control over the elements in the background, he still maintains it with the people in the foreground by intentionally making their personalities blend together.
Yet that’s also where the horrifying space opera’s greatest flaw lies: there’s no character development anywhere in this spaceship of technology stuck in the 1970s. That includes the literally taken “save the cat” trope done, it does nothing to influence Ellen’s growth from the trial of escaping the self-destructing USCSS Nostromo. Even if she does start standing up for herself more as she’s slowly given more attention, the fact that you can’t really tell the characters’ personalities apart makes you notice less the attempted character study and more the scientific inaccuracies. (Why is there gravity in the USCSS Nostromo?!)
Since the characters are so weak, that means the message is nonexistent. It begins with the boring buildup to the big discovery, which is so because nothing of motivation makes you give a hoot about the characters. Their motivation is so pointless and unrealistic in fact, that it even normalizes the pornography industry by placing magazine foldouts in the background. This seems like an element of character information to show how lustful they are, but there was no reason for Ripley to get almost naked toward the end besides further appeal to men in the wrong way. As for the Xenomorph, why does he want to kill everyone? I’d like for him to have a personality too!
Instead, the design of the monster is there simply to look as gross as possible, and it succeeds at that. The face-hugger is made to trigger fears of bugs with the way it drops from above and moves when touched, which is still nothing compared to the terrifying acid it bleeds, all elements that will turn virtually everybody uneasy! It’s disgusting common fears like this that force you to later hold your breath whenever they must look for the cat, as it reminds you of that one time you were walking in a dark room wondering what kind of giant spider or cockroach could be under your next step.
Heck, you can almost hear your heart racing whenever the Xenomorph gets close, as subtle hints of familiar paranoia beats are present in Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score. The obvious table model ship landing and stupid-looking puppet chestburster are forgivable, for the music is the core element to this motion picture’s might; each scene becomes unsettling to the nth degree, particularly the entrance inside the empty ship before the seven crew members wake up. Even in the film’s scariest scene when Ash tries to murder Ellen with a magazine, the use of background noise and music combined triggers your gag reflex.
Alien is not something you’re supposed to feel comfortable watching, it’s something that wants to scare you with how humans are barely even human after all, how they truly deserve to be killed by their own curiosity to explore and discover new life. With that said, the greatest flaws of this legendary feature film just may be the secret to its success, if the astronauts in this cautionary tale can’t change even when trying to rescue a cat, then odds are we won’t be able to either, and will also walk ourselves into death by scorpions, wasps, earwigs, parasites, maggots, or other creepy crawlies that will rot you from the inside-out.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!