Not Alone Out Here
So cold. So empty.
There is nothing to receive from the opening images of Ridley Scott’s Alien other than these primal objectives. As the endless, desolate walls of the spaceship move at a glacial pace, we are reminded. We are barren and alone, we have convinced ourselves, and we’ve only just begun. We are disconnected from our friends and our kind, so much so that years of theirs and years of ours do not show the same way on our faces. We are stricken with an endless, undefined fear, of our oblivion and our isolation. The Nostromo, despite its mechanical sounds and sheer massive size, is relatively uninhabited, and cosmically claustrophobic. If only we weren’t all alone out here. If only there was anything else.
This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of Alien, which is apt to be considered as one of the great horror movies, even though it masks itself in the science-fiction genre and its successor, Aliens, is an unapologetic action flick. And in these opening moments, the methodology which Scott employs is that of a thriller: patience, patience, strike. Sure, we meet the crew, they receive the distress call, go to discover its source, find evidence of extraterrestrial… and so on. It seems to be a basic setup, mundane for any film; and then, when an infantile alien creature bursts through the chest of Kane (John Hurt), in one of cinema’s most visceral, spine-tingling moments, we are already fifty-seven minutes in. It feels like a cheap throatpunch, but it’s all our fault, as now we are nearly halfway through the film’s runtime, and we can’t tune out now.
Surrounding Kane while an alien emerges from his abdomen are his fellow crew members, from Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Skerritt to Veronica Cartwright and Yaphet Kotto. They bicker, ponder, challenge each other, and we attach ourselves to a piece of each of them. That’s a fraction of why screenwriter Dan O’Bannon holds off on terror for so long: no one can accuse Alien of any stock characters or one- dimensional performances, even down to the xenomorph. When mission control halts operations and makes capturing the organism its priority, Ash (Ian Holm) emerges as their delegate, professing a desire to capture the creature and study it, while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) counters Ash with a pretty reasonable hell-no mindset. No wonder Ripley becomes our protagonist; we share her non-alien-desiring sentiment.
The creature’s plurality of forms, designed by H.R. Giger (a legend in his own right, and who earned an Oscar for this film), is perhaps the most delectable tool at the film’s disposal. It is both upright and wormlike, mobile and stationary with intention. Its acid oozes and melts through steel of the ship. Its screams echo and deafen the atmosphere. The creature has been celebrated long beyond its origin film, and even spawned not only its own franchise, but another in Alien vs. Predator. Schlock as it may be, its cultural significance lies in the initial terrors of the sheer sight of it.
Additionally, the creature appears to have no society, bare communicative skills, etc. Throughout the film, its role as a pure parasite only amplifies: as Ash dies after admitting his loyalty to the mission over his crew members, he cites his reasons: “I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Out here, in the corners of the universe, conscience is only a cloud, a barrier to natural instincts, to reproduction and efficiency. To survive as the alien does, you need what Ash calls “structural perfection—matched only by hostility.”
Maybe then it clicks. We’ve been watching one of the most distant, hostile films ever made in Hollywood, only for the film to tell us that’s the key. To survival in remote conditions. To success, when not alone out here. It’s a similar sentiment to Scott’s next film, Blade Runner, again considered a genre-hybrid and elusive masterpiece. In that film’s finale, the “Tears in the Rain” speech is eerily close to Ash’s; the purity and perfection of the Replicas are akin to that of the Xenomorphs. Survival, destruction, and reproduction. We should only hope that us humans keep our imperfections.
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comments on the screen by nolan lampson.