All of us have seen countless examples of those films where a group of people are trapped in some kind of isolated locale where escape is not merely unlikely, it’s impossible; an oil rig during a storm, a drifting, disabled cruise ship, or an electronically-sealed research facility. Perhaps the location itself is very remote and/or near-unreachable; an uncharted island, an isolated Arctic encampment, or maybe an underground cavern sealed by a cave-in. Inevitably, there is also someone or something here with this group, systematically stalking them, waiting for that perfect moment when one of them has been foolish enough to wander off alone to strike.
A gigantic, industrial spacecraft was that inescapable setting for one such film; the tale of what that unfortunate crew discovered on (and inadvertently brought back from) a near-lifeless world was one of the most suspense-filled, viscerally terrifying movies ever made, and one of the first (and in my opinion, the best) of the kind of films I’m describing: Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien.
Across the reaches of space, a commercial towing vessel, the Nostromo, is making its way back to Earth. The crew, traveling in cryo-stasis for the bulk of the journey, are awakened by the automated systems to investigate a distress beacon coming from a small, uninhabited planet, as per spacefaring policy. Somewhat disappointed to still be so far from home, they grudgingly adjust their course to comply.
The planet’s surface is barely habitable, and three of the crew members suit up in their EVA gear to move from their landing site to the triangulated source of the signal. What they find is incredible; a huge space craft, seeming to have crashed their some time ago; the massive body they find that they believe to be the ship’s pilot has long since fossilized in his chair. Investigating further, one of the three, Kane, finds a huge area that is covered with some kind of organic cocoons, resembling eggs. Venturing too close in his curiosity, one of them opens and some kind of life form breaks through his helmet and attaches itself to his face. Once the others return with him to the ship, they find that although it’s rendered Kane unconscious, the creature is feeding him oxygen, keeping him alive. When they attempt to surgically remove the thing, it’s discovered that it’s blood is a highly-corrosive acid, thus eliminating all hope of getting it off of Kane. However, it’s not long before the long-leggety beastie seems to extricate itself from the crewman, dying in the process. Kane, seeming fine, rejoins the crew for one last meal before they return to the sleeper pods to finish their trip home. During this fateful dinner, however, the sinister results of his encounter with the alien creature are revealed; after painful convulsions force his crew mates to hold him down to the table, a worm-like beast bursts forth from his chest cavity in a virtual explosion of blood and tissue.
Before the shocked group can react, the little monster rushes away into the bowels of the ship. The crew sets about to find the life-form and destroy it…but the parent company that owns the vessel seems to have other ideas; when these different agendas collide, the Nostromo becomes the stage for a game of secrets, betrayal, unimaginable horror, palpable suspense, and ultimately, survival.
The movie deserves every accolade it’s received in the last thirty-five years; Scott’s vision of the script by Dan O’Bannon was an inspired work. Using the art of H.R. Giger as his visual representation and dirtying up the scenery (what George Lucas called the “used future” look), he created a world of dark passages, foreboding shapes, and sinister intent. The blackened corridors of the Nostromo contrasted with the stark, brightly-lit (but still just as used and unkempt) common crew areas to make audiences feel both at home and yet lost. His pacing and choices of shots and lighting created feelings of isolation and unrelenting hopelessness, seamlessly getting the audience to swallow the futuristic setting while pulling on its darker feelings, putting us there with that crew and making us feel as they did. Sexuality was a prescient undertone of the film, with the method of attack of the beasts pushing the audience way out of their comfort zones, especially males; the facehugger’s assault was essentially oral rape; the impregnation of Kane and the “birth” of his creature was a gender reversal that would have been psychologically cringe-worthy even without the shower of gore.
The angle of corporate corruption formed an even more chilling horror alongside the already nigh-unbearable stress of the quickly growing and evolving creature that was hiding in the cavernous ship; all of these factors, including reversals of loyalties and relationships, all conspired together to form a brilliantly scary flick. The entire cast was well-rounded, each offering a different flavor to the smorgasbord of rich personalities that made the situations seem ever so real; Sigourney Weaver, as first officer Ellen Ripley, created a template that is still followed largely today for the unwilling yet determined heroine, a more empowered and intelligent version of the “final girl”. The adult creature itself was handled extremely well; you didn’t see it often, and when you did it was either very, very quickly, partially obscured in shadow, or in extreme close-up; often, it was all three of these. This, coupled with the impressively nightmare-inducing animatronic visage of the creature, gave us a very believable and fearsome antagonist. While there wasn’t a large amount of in-your-face gore, what there was proved to be harrowing, and added to the value of the film without going overboard.
It’s been often imitated (and probably will continue to be till the end of time), but never really equaled. One could draw a line from it back to the old ’50s cheapie It! The Terror From Beyond Space, and even H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains Of Madness, but in our circles, Fellow Fans, it will always stand on its own as a landmark in the history of horror films.
This classic flick floats somewhere amongst my top-ten faves, my friends. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.
Just remember; in space, no one can hear you scream…
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