Alien (1979) Review: A Masterclass in Horror and Tension Still Terrifies Nearly 40 Years On (Alien Day Pt 2)

By Jack Mansfield

(Spoilers for Alien, but, it has been out for nearly forty years so it’s on you really)

(EDIT: apologies for it being nearly a whole month since Alien Day, but I’m finally free to get writing things I’m more interested in now!)

After a short ten-minute break in the proceedings, we returned to the screen to watch Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), the film that kicked off the whole Alien franchise, and is still undeniably the best. Going from watching Prometheus (2012) on the big screen to Alien made me feel like we had gone back in time forty years, as the classic 20th Century Fox logo played out and the opening credits began to roll. I had seen Alien before a few times: on TV, on a laptop, in a rather uncomfortable lecture hall at university, but the film is clearly meant to be experienced rather than simply seen. I have not felt tension and fear like seeing Alien on the big screen for a long time, if not ever. The film is 38 years old this year, but still holds up as one of the greatest sci-fi and horror films of all time.

Alien introduces us to the seven-man crew of the towing vessel Nostromo as they wake up from stasis and soon find themselves answering an eerie unknown signal from a nearby planetoid. The crew travel to investigate and, when Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by a facehugger, the crew are soon thrust into unimaginable danger. Kane soon wakes up with the facehugger nowhere in sight, but, in possibly one of the most iconic scenes from a horror film ever made, the terrifying xenomorph erupts from Kane’s chest, much to the surprise of the other crew mates (I’ll come back to this scene in a bit as it would be unjust to only mention it in passing). From that point on, the film portrays a deadly game of cat and mouse between the xenomorph and the survivors, and creates some of the most tense, most exciting cinema to date.

A lot of this is down to director Ridley Scott and his vision throughout the film; this palpable tension that we experience as an audience is a product of a variety of aspects fitting together perfectly. A gentle opening scene that pans across the Nostromo and lands on the crew in stasis both lulls the audience into a false sense of security but also still manages to feel tense at the same time. Extreme close-ups of the crew as they encounter danger help to heighten the intensely claustrophobic atmosphere. The fact that the xenomorph only has four minutes of screen time keeps the audience on their toes, never entirely sure when it will rear its head again. Of course, having seen it before, I knew about the scares, but you can never be prepared for Alien‘s terrors, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

Another key aspect of the film is the stellar soundtrack composed by Jerry Goldsmith (who had previously worked on films such as The Omen (1975) and Planet of the Apes (1968)). Although Goldsmith only composed 36 minutes of music, its sporadic use only emphasises the importance of the score. Possibly the best part of the score is the music for the main titles, with brief piercings from the brass cutting through dissonant, high-pitched tremolo strings, all helping to create the desired tense atmosphere as the opening credits roll over a shot of a planet.

But the main focus of Alien and one of the driving forces behind the horror is the crew’s descent from happiness to fear to despair. When we first meet the crew, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the others are all upbeat and friendly; it helps that all of the protagonists are charismatic in their own right, and that the relationship between them is already established before we meet them. The audience is able to care about the crew (much more than the scientist crew of Prometheus, possibly because the crew of the Nostromo simply feel more human.)

There is something very primal about the horror in Alien. The idea of the human body being violated in such gruesome manners is grotesque, and this still holds up today, seen particularly in Kane’s arc. From the facehugger latching on to Kane’s face, impregnating him with an alien while at the same time keeping him in a coma, to the same alien bursting out of his chest in the middle of what seemed to be a calm scene, the imagery is entirely unsettling. In fact, the whole chest-burster scene is crafted perfectly; from the complete calm of the dinner, to the crew in shock as Kane writhes in pain on the table. Of course, I knew the scene was coming, but no matter how many times I see it, it will always unsettle me to some degree.

Alien is quite possibly one of the greatest science fiction-horror films of all time. As we come closer to the 40th anniversary of its release, I felt very lucky to be able to go and see it on the big screen. I believe that there are some films that everyone should see at least once in their lifetimes, and Alien is undoubtedly one of them.

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