“In space, no one can hear you scream”. So reads the tagline, showing at once the state of terror and isolation that permeates the film.
In the middle of the universe, the cargo starship Nostromo receives what seems to be an SOS from an unknown planet. The crew – five men, two women, and a cat – investigates an abandoned alien spacecraft. But an indestructible alien soon starts to kill the astronauts one by one.
Directed by Ridley Scott (only at his second movie and already at the peak of his career: his next film would be another sci-fi milestone, Blade Runner), Alien is more than a simple horror flick.
Both straightforward and layered, it offers the viewer multiple interpretations, along with a ride into a space house of horrors.
An A-list B-movie
Even if it is an A-list production, Alien is at its core a B-movie. It gathers influences from ‘50s sci-fi horror and suspense literature as well.
The one-by-one killing spree at the hands of an invisible murderer – and the progressive isolation deriving from it – mirrors Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.
In science fiction, Scott saw a chance to showcase the visual prowess he mastered as a commercial director. When he signed for the project though, references shifted to ‘60s-‘70s thrillers and horrors. He knew that he had to push terror closer to the viewer to scare him the most, like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did.
This mix-up inevitably started a lineage (Carpenter‘s The Thing is a similar operation), as its innovations breathed new life into the genre.
Truckers from outer space
For instance, screenwriters Walter Hill and David Giler made the astronauts “truckers in space” the viewer could easily identify with, as Roger Ebert noted.
Social commentary quickly joined in. Inspired by the ‘70s Corporate Thriller subgenre (Giler co-wrote conspiracy flick The Parallax View), the two added a paranoia element to the already suspenseful story.
In their fight for survival, the now class-divided astronauts also have to keep an eye on the omnipotent Company that hired them. Their tightness, however nervous, makes it harder for the viewer to guess who will survive.
The girl who knew how to fight
The outcome, at the time, was quite surprising. The hero/damsel-in-distress dynamic is turned over since the one who manages to take charge of the situation is a girl.
Played by Sigourney Weaver, in a debut role, the heroine took a step forward from the Final Girl trope developing in the ’70s. The girl didn’t merely survive but knew how to fight, a stereotypically masculine virtue.
After her, it was easier for other women to stand out in scenes high on tension pieces, which previously targeted a predominantly male audience.
A design that came from within
The movie twists sexuality, pregnancy, and birth into monstrosity. The very design of the alien anatomy manifests distressing Eros-Thanatos innuendos. The aim is clear: to hit the most sensitive part of the viewers’ unconscious. To twist their own physical instincts until they fear them. It’s the quintessence of the Body Horror subgenre.
The mastermind behind this imagery is neo-surrealist painter H. R. Giger. The resulting biomechanical design is unique because it comes from within, from Giger’s innermost nightmares.
After all, Conrad’s quote: “We live, as we dream – alone” was supposed to open the movie.
As a result of this loneliness, the fact that “in space, no one can hear you scream” becomes also a matter of how meaningless human sorrow is, in comparison to the immensity of the universe.
It is a Cosmic Horror leitmotif. It makes this cocktail of claustrophobia and agoraphobia somewhat metaphysical.
Fear is in the eye of the beholder
Interestingly enough though, the monster itself is rarely seen. In Dan O’ Bannon’s earliest draft of the screenplay, the alien was downright abstract, since it served as an embodiment of the Id.
Like in Spielberg’s Jaws and Hitchcock‘s Psycho, the full figure of the killer is saved for last. Meanwhile, it’s left up to the viewer to complete what the screen only hints at.
The old adage says “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”. The same goes for fear.