Our fear of the dark is something primal, something elemental. It hearkens back to the days when we were scraping out our existences in caves and under large trees hoping bigger predators covered in fur and claws weren’t about to leap out of the underbrush and use our intestines as a meaty spaghetti dinner. Since then we’ve learned to do things like create firearms, build sturdy housing, and put all of our information in one place so we can share, argue over, and laugh about it all day instead of doing necessary jobs. But even with the Internet and guns, the fear of the dark is, for many, still there. And it doesn’t get much darker than the depths of space, where as Alien reminds us, nobody can hear you scream. Unless you’re on a spacecraft of some kind.
The events do in fact take place on a spacecraft, the interplanetary ore hauler Nostromo, crewed by the half-past-the-future equivalent of a team of truck drivers. The captain, Dallas, receives orders from his corporate masters to set down on a planet nearby to investigate a distress signal. Despite the protestations of his crew, he sets out with his first officer Kane and navigator Lambert after they land. When they return, Kane has been… attacked. Warrant Officer Ripley, senior member of the crew with Dallas away and Kane incapacitated, orders them to remain outside for quarantine, but the science officer, Ash, lets them in anyway. What happens next has rampaged through nightmares and five more movies of varying quality.
This is where it all began for the disturbing alien creature referred to as a ‘xenomorph’ in the sequel. Strange creatures born out of space doing nasty things to human beings is nothing new in cinema. War of the Worlds and This Island Earth immediately spring to mind as examples of previous films that dealt with this sort of close encounter. Few of those films are truly frightening, coming off these days as more cheesy or quaint. Alien, however, despite thirty years of film making innovation, holds up as something disturbing to an effective degree. You may not lose all bowel control as folks tend to do when playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but you’ll probably come away from the film at least little unnerved.
“No. I don’t care what you say, I am NOT sitting in its lap.”
Part of this is due to the casting. Veterans Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto were joined with newcomer (at the time) Sigourney Weaver to play normal, working-class people who just happen to do their jobs in space. Their conversations and interactions should remind modern fans of the sort of back-and-forth seen in shows like Firefly, if a bit more subdued and quiet. It’s still a bit difficult for me to hear every line spoken in the first twenty or so of the film, as the conversations are held at a low, interpersonal tone. I have to wonder if this was intentional on the part of director Ridley Scott, drawing us as the audience closer inch by inch until things start grabbing bloody hold of the crew.
When shit does hit the fan, it does so as viscerally as possible and there’s very little time to catch one’s breath. The scenes in the latter two thirds of the film are filled with tension and uncertainty. Very wisely, we don’t get a very clear view of the xenomorph until we’re close to the end. As it crawls through the Nostromo‘s air ducts picking the crew off one by one, the brainchild of H.R. Giger shows itself to be a very intuitive, very vicious, and very perverse sort of creature. It seems to truly enjoy stalking these humans and doing unspeakable things to them. This is a major part of what makes it so fearsome. It isn’t a mindless beast lashing out in fear or hunger. This thing knows exactly what it is, what it does, and likes it.
Bilbo’s probably just missing Bag End.
There are a couple jump-scares that happen, but most of Alien‘s effectiveness comes from the fear of the unknown, the twists that new viewers may not see coming. They’re done so well and with such sincerity that even I, a repeat viewer, am still a little unnerved by what happens. This is the sign of a story well-told. No matter its age, no matter the scene of popular media around it, its beats still ring true and its characters still come to life. This, above any of the disturbing imagery or foundations of films that came after, is why I highly recommend Alien. Fire it up and see how this nightmare began.
And next time, I’ll tell you how it continued.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.