I would be willing to bet that, after nearly forty years, there aren’t many people who haven’t seen Alien, one of Ridley Scott’s most famous directorial accomplishments. Released in 1979, the film – written by Dan O’Bannon – managed to create a horrifying experience in space that made use of many of the same tropes utilized in horror films: themes about sexuality abound; there’s a monster that picks off victims one by one; there’s a final girl named Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who uses her wits to outsmart the titular alien. But O’Bannon’s script doesn’t rely on the explicit scares of H.R. Giger’s monstrous creation alone; his plot and Scott’s excellent direction set up an entire atmosphere aboard the Nostromo. Below, we’ll talk about that mood and how Alien managed to cement its classic status, as well as its effectiveness during Halloween.
What makes it a classic?
While some films require some solid thought to pinpoint exactly the reasoning behind its classic labeling, Alien needs no such brainstorming. That’s because there are so many reasons why it should be considered a classic, from Giger’s intricate and – well – alien Xenomorph creations to the sound effects and music score by Jerry Goldsmith. Still, I’ll leave those conversations for another day, because what I really want to focus on is the natural ambiance that the Nostromo‘s ship design creates thanks to Scott’s skillful direction and the limited space afforded to both cast and camera.
Space is a deeply unsettling place simply because of its sheer magnitude; the distance between stars, the relative lack of knowledge about a majority of our universe, the physics – they’re all difficult to comprehend, let alone experience. Alien, set in a future where stasis and lightspeed travel exist, ushers in that horror of bleak loneliness right away from its opening shots. The introduction is mostly quiet, and it pans across inky blackness as the credits roll while the Alien logo slowly pieces itself together. Scott gives the viewer little to look at; there’s nothing but deep space, and it truly sets the mood for those poor members of the Nostromo.
Over time, though, Alien builds its characters into full-fledged humans. While O’Bannon’s script was, at one time, notoriously devoid of character development – with the characters created in a unisex fashion without need for gender labels – the film itself doesn’t suffer from lack of personality. The opening meal after the crew wakes from stasis quickly builds character rapport, with Yaphet Kotto’s Parker becoming an early favorite while Dallas (Tom Skerritt) takes his place as captain of the ship and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) following close behind with her all-business attitude. Even the cat Jones (played by four cats) is an important character who survives Alien and returns for Aliens.
It makes sense that a cat would still be a vital member of the crew and the film. Alien, after all, encapsulates isolation and claustrophobia, and once the rest of her crew has been killed by the Xenomorph, Ripley clings dearly to Jones – even going so far as to save him while the alien stalks her and Mother threatens that the ship is going to self-destruct. He’s the only living thing left, the only thing that is not trying to actively kill her – even Mother is against her, with a mission to bring back the Xenomorph life form its top priority.
That loneliness pervades Alien, and Scott recognizes he needs to put the audience in the same situation. The finale moments of the film are chaotic, full of flashing yellow lights and strobe effects, minimizing vision and heightening claustrophobia in a way that provides more tension than even the alien can induce. The film is a classic because it doesn’t rely on the horror of its facehuggers, chestbursters, and fully-grown Xenomorphs; it slowly dwindles down the living until only Ripley and Jones are left in a vacuous space with a life force that simply will not die.
Is it good for Halloween?
You bet! As I stated before, Giger’s alien designs are incredible and have withstood the test of time, but more than that, Scott’s quiet suspense is palpable. The ship grows darker; people die in gruesome ways. Distrust builds, an early precursor of John Carpenter’s The Thing, except this time with an android named Ash (Ian Holm) full of milky-colored blood whose sole function is to ensure the alien creature is obtained for scientific research.
Alien is full of scares, and its final half hour is one of the strongest moments in the film and a good reason to add this to your Halloween viewing. And if that’s not enough for you, Sigourney Weaver’s buttcrack shows up multiple times. Sexy or scary? I’ll let you decide.