Alien (dir. Ridley Scott): unique sci-fi/horror film with much to say about human society

Ridley Scott, “Alien” (1979)

In the wake of news that Ridley Scott has started work on “Prometheus”, the movie prologue to “Alien”, it’s timely to revisit the movie that started the whole series and made Sigourney Weaver a star. The idea of mixing science fiction with horror was not new in 1979 when the film was released and some of the ideas in “Alien” can be traced to various sources including a story in the British TV science fiction show Doctor Who “The Ark in Space”, broadcast a few years before “Alien”, in which an alien lays larvae in human hosts asleep in capsules in a space ship. What Scott brought to “Alien” that makes it stand out from its influences and from other science fiction / horror films before and after is its use of atmosphere, backgrounds, characters and plot to create a fusion of haunted-house horror, slasher flick and a survival film. The alien’s life-cycle becomes a central part of the film’s horror and this together with the alien (played by Bolaji Bodejo) itself have come to embody human fears and misunderstandings about sexuality, pregnancy and birth.

In the distant future a company cargo space transporter, the Nostromo, is bringing a refinery and various minerals back to Earth when it intercepts an apparent SOS from a spaceship on a distant alien planet. The crew of seven is awakened from deep sleep and on discovering the signal, land on the planet to investigate its source and provide assistance. The signal is traced to a crashed alien ship and the crew, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt), sends out a rescue team. One of the team, Kane (John Hurt) is injured during the search, and is brought back to the Nostromo. Too late his crew-mates discover he has been infected by an alien parasite which has deposited a larva in him; the larva emerges in spectacularly erect fashion in the communal dining-room – it always has to be a dining-room for the yuck factor – and zooms off to hide in the Nostromo’s various labyrinthine networks, holding bays and other nooks and crannies. From then on, the movie is a mixture of hide-and-seek / cat-and-mouse game as prey becomes hunter and the hunters become prey, and along the way audiences learn more about the true nature of the SOS signal and how the crew’s employer exploited them and put their lives in danger by not advising them of the true nature of the rescue mission.

The seven actors who make up the crew had considerable experience in theatre, film, television and other forms of drama when they were cast, and their performances as ordinary technical service personnel with all their concerns about pay, work conditions and treatment by their employer are good if perhaps not exceptional. Weaver as Ellen Ripley the unimaginative stickler for rules and regulations and Ian Holm as the Nostromo’s overly detached science officer Ash who harbours a secret deliver the stand-out performances with Yaphet Kotto as the would-be hero mechanic and Harry Dean Stanton as his laconic partner not far behind. Perhaps the best scene with respect to acting is Weaver’s scene where she confronts the alien directly and fights to control her emotions as she draws the creature towards her so as to position it for blasting into space via decompression: it’s equal parts cool-headed heroism, an unyielding will to survive and the fear and horror of violent death all feeding off one another.

The Nostromo should receive an acting credit as well: its labyrinth-like interiors in which the alien hides provide major opportunities for the simple plot to advance and the alien to bump off individual crew members. The colours of the Nostromo’s interiors are dark and shadowy which give the film’s early scenes a moody, suspenseful, almost film-noir atmosphere. Flashing lights, bursts of smoke and siren sounds in its narrow corridors in the film’s later scenes build up tension towards the climax in which Weaver’s character Ripley will meet the alien. Probably the only criticism to be made about the sets is that the ones that feature computer technology were becoming dated even at the time of the film’s initial release. Film crews, even ones with great imaginations, can only look so far into the future and guess at what technologies might be popular.

Where “Alien” really excels is in its careful detailing of the alien planet’s landscapes, the crashed ship’s strange, organic shapes and interiors, and the alien’s sexually suggestive appearance based on artwork by Swiss artist H R Giger who had a cult reputation in the 1970s. The very alien-ness of the film’s early scenes, in which the rescue team investigate the crashed ship, helps to set the mood of dread and mystery for the action to come. Once the alien is out and about and has got rid of a few victims, the tension starts to ratchet up steadily and the noir-like mood gradually disappears to be replaced by a new atmosphere of competitive, urgent struggle as Ripley decides to blow up the Nostromo and sets its self-destruct mechanisms in place.

The film makes insinuations about the future society that provides the context for the nightmarish scenario the crew find themselves in: for a company to be able to send large cargo ships into the far reaches of space to ferry ores, it must be extremely rich and must hold considerable political as well as economic power. The company also has a large human workforce, so large that a few missing, even killed deliberately, barely make a dint on the company’s occupational safety records. It prefers to keep valuable knowledge and secrets in a robot that lacks an inbuilt system or database of ethics, forces humans to follow company orders and spies on them as well. One would think a company that rich and powerful should be able to build cargo ships that are entirely self-operating and need no humans, not even in emergency situations where lateral thinking is required. Perhaps this company operates on thin profit margins that don’t allow it to continuously update its operations but manages with a mixture of old and new technologies. In such ships, humans are needed in much the same way as pilots are needed on airbuses and jumbo jets, mainly to land such vehicles and set them up for take-off, and to perform other jobs as the company requires. The fact that Ripley and the other crew members address company headquarters staff collectively as “Mother” suggests the company plays a nanny-state role in its employees’ lives – among other things, it might provide housing for them and their families, schools and teachers to educate their children, and doctors and nurses to monitor their health and determine their fitness for company employment – in a way viewers would find highly intrusive and hard to understand. The company literally has the power of life and death over its workers.

Science in such a society becomes nothing more than a weapon or a mechanism which the company uses to enrich itself and its owners, and to expand its power. No wonder that the company sees value in obtaining the monster – thus its directive to Ash to preserve the monster’s life at any cost – to the extent that it would sacrifice the Nostromo’s crew. Ash admires the monster for its “purity”, meaning its lack of self-awareness that would require possessing some sort of moral code, a sense of right and wrong. The monster exists to survive and replicate itself in aggressive ways and the company wants to know what motivates this kind of behaviour in the monster. Anyone familiar with the way movie science fiction works can easily figure out what this might lead to: insane fascistic fantasies about creating hierarchies of human-alien hybrid soldiers and worker drones to colonise the universe. The mysteries of human sexuality and reproduction become an elaborate if mechanised form of mass factory production of the kind Aldous Huxley wrote about in “Brave New World” in which human embryos were customised by chemical and/or cellular manipulation to fit into particular pre-determined social and economic niches in the novel’s hierarchical society.

At least Ripley and the others discover who the real monster in the scenario is – and it ain’t the one hiding in the air shafts hunting them down. The film is not very subtle about that fact – indeed much of it plays out like a B-grade horror film – but in its set-up and characterisation that provide the basis for the plot, it makes assumptions about the future evolution of human society and its relationship to science and technology that would have most of us hanging our heads in despair.

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