The story is about as basic as a story can be. The crew of the spaceship Nostromo answer a mysterious distress call, which leads them to an alien wreck on an uncharted moon. Inside the wreck lie a clutch of alien eggs. The creature which hatches from one of the eggs gets aboard their ship when they take off, and starts picking them off one by one. Apart from the unique and frankly icky way that it gets on board, the whole plot is basically indistinguishable from a 1950s B-movie like It! The Terror From Beyond Space. The script was famously stitched together from two other projects by the writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett: one called Memory about astronauts exploring an alien temple and discovering something horrid, and one about gremlins causing chaos on a World War 2 bomber which was re-written to provide the second act. (It’s also a bit like O’Bannon’s earlier script for Dark Star, in which the alien lurking in the spaceship’s air-ducts is played strictly for laughs). It could easily have ended up as a ropey Roger Corman exploitation movie, instead of which it’s now a widely acknowledged classic and has spawned a whole parade of sequels and spin-offs. The main reasons, I think, are as follows.
At least it is at the beginning. Not slow as in ‘boring’: slow as in ‘gradually building sense of dread’. This is a film that trusts its audience’s attention span. It takes a while for the crew to emerge from suspended animation and realise why the ship’s computer has awoken them. The laborious process of detaching the Nostromo from its payload and setting it down on the storm-lashed moon is shown in detail, building up a sense of the ship and the way the crew work together. The trek across the surface to the alien derelict takes ages too. By the time the scary stuff begins to happen we’re completely immersed in the world which the film has built. And that’s largely thanks to…
The Production Design.
What attracted me to Alien in the first place was its look, not its story. I’m pretty much allergic to horror movies (I’ve still never watched The Thing or The Fly or anything with zombies in, and I don’t suppose I ever will). But I’d seen some stills from Alien and was prepared to put up with a bit of gore and scariness if that was the price for looking at all this wonderful stuff for two hours.
The film draws on the work of some of the greatest SF illustrators and conceptual artists of the time, including Moebius, Chris Foss and H R Giger, who had all, like Dan O’Bannon, previously been involved with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed and loopy attempt to bring Dune to the big screen. Marshalled by ace art director Roger Christian, they do sterling work, and Ridley Scott understands this and lets his camera explore the sets – notice the way it prowls the silent corridors of the Nostromo before any of the characters appear on-screen. The script gives us very little information about the future society which launched this craft, but the sets and costumes tell us everything: we’re in a grungy, battered, industrial setting, a long way from the gleaming interiors of most previous movie starships. Similarly, the script has little to say about the alien planet or the things the crew find there: the production design throws strange images at us and lets us try to work it out for ourselves…
Much has been written about Giger’s designs for the alien itself, but it’s hard to explain just how bizarre and, well, alien they looked back in 1979. I can remember being quite seriously creeped out by a picture of the creature (which you never get a clear look at in the film). It was just a photo that had been taken as (I suppose) a costume test, with no background or lighting. It quite clearly showed a man in a rubber suit. But there was something indefinably unsettling about its elongated, eyeless, transluscent skull, and the strange spines which reached out of its back. The same aura of unease hung over the planet and the wrecked alien ship, which were also designed by Giger. The symmetries were all wrong. There was a strangely biological look to the rocks and the crashed ship, and a strangely mechanical look to the biology. For the first time, the alien stuff in a movie actually looked alien. (It was also, perhaps, the last time; Giger’s creature was still pretty scary by the time of Aliens* (1986), but by the end of that movie it had started to become familiar, and its power to shock has been lost. Nowadays you can see similar biomechanical wierdies in children’s books like Chris Riddell’s Alienography. When I dug out the picture that thirteen-year-old me had found so scary and showed it to my 10-year-old son, he said, “Awesome.” But he didn’t mean it literally.)
Just as important for the film’s feel – more so, perhaps – was the human technology; the spaceship interiors where most of the action plays out. Designed mainly by Ron Cobb (with costumes by John Mollo and Moebius) the ship has a grimy, lived in air which seemed utterly convincing in ’79, and still does, if you accept the clattering keyboards, boxy cathode-ray monitors and clunky computer graphics on the bridge (how completely, compellingly futuristic it all looked at the time!). It was, I think, one of the first movie spaceships with a ceiling, which adds greatly to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Cobb’s pre-production drawings, with their architect’s accuracy, fascinated me as a teenager because they looked so real – I loved the way that someone that someone had expended all that thought and skill and detail on an imaginary spaceship. (He gives a nice interview about the process here at The Den of Geek.)
|A Ron Cobb drawing of the Nostromo’s flight deck. There’s more of his work here.|
There is actually no attempt to make the Nostromo look like a real spacecraft . The upper decks resemble an overgrown B52, the lower ones are like some ancient, rusting tramp-steamer, and although the crew spend their long journey in freezers like the astronauts in 2001, there are no spinning sections to help explain how the ship generates its gravity. But since 1979, most spaceship interiors have looked a bit like this, and the ones which don’t feel somehow wrong…
We Care About The Characters
Again, the production design does much of the work of building the characters. All we know from the scrappy dialogue and a brief onscreen caption is that they are towing a giant refinery through interstellar space on behalf of a company called The Company, which has presumably found a way to turn a profit from towing giant refineries through interstellar space. We don’t know anything about their backgrounds, or even their first names. It’s left to the designers to provide the details of their lives: the shabby, litter-strewn communal spaces, the rumpled uniforms, covered with patches and name tags and corporate badges. Space travellers hadn’t looked like this in films before: we were used to the clean-cut military types from Star Trek or Forbidden Planet. In Alien only Ian Holm, as the science officer, retains a sort of quasi-military neatness, and we mistrust him from quite early on.
There is a Remorseless Logic…
…to the creature, at least. It’s life-cycle makes a dreadful sort of sense, and look at the way that the tail of its first, parasitic incarnation tightens around its victim’s neck when someone tries to cut it off him. It feels like behaviour that a real animal might have evolved. Actually, of course, it’s the sign of a competent writer noticing and fencing off a potential plot-hole. Perhaps when it turns out to have spaceship-eating acid for blood it’s too obviously a screenwriter’s answer to the question ‘why can’t they just shoot it?’, but whatever: it makes a change from ‘bullets just bounce off it!’
There Are No ‘Big Questions’.
Where did we come from? Where are we going? Is there life on other worlds? Is there a God? These are questions which movie SF, at its most portentous, often asks. But since it’s a pulp genre mostly concerned with mad robots and people running about in corridors, it seldom manages to answer them very well. Alien simply sidesteps all this. You want themes and subtexts, it’s got ’em, from the evils of corporatism to a whole bubbling stew of Freudian anxieties about sex and parents. The critic Andrew O’Hehir claims convincingly that it’s “a film about human loneliness amid the emptiness and amorality of creation. It’s a cynical ’70s-leftist vision of the future in which none of the problems plaguing 20th century Earth—class divisions, capitalist exploitation, the subjugation of humanity to technology—have been improved in the slightest by mankind’s forays into outer space.” But on the surface the only Big Question it troubles itself with is, “Who will get eaten next?”
Similarly, the film-makers never do that thing of upping the stakes, which is a feature of almost all big SF films (and virtually every episode of Dr Who). There is a hint that the Company would like the alien for its weapons division, but there isn’t any sense that Earth is in peril, or that the characters are fighting for the future of humanity, or of the universe. It’s a small story: perhaps the smallest story ever to be made into a big-budget SF movie, and Alien is all the better for it.
*Aliens (directed by James Cameron) is a thoroughly excellent sequel, and for my money the best of all the 1980s many action movies. The later sequels and spin-offs – Alien Resurrection, Alien vs Predator, Alien vs Abbot & Costello, etc. – all concentrate on trying to replicate the original’s slimy shocks, to less and less effect.