“What is Special Order 937?”
When you hear the title Alien, images are conjured up of Bill Paxton having a mental breakdown, Lance Henriksen rapidly stabbing a knife through his fingers, and Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley inside a mechanical forklift suit engaging a slobbering, hulking monster. The most fascinating thing about this comes not from how iconic the franchise has become, but instead the realization that none of these moments occurred in the original film. Somehow James Cameron‘s action-packed sequel has usurped its predecessor’s slow, cerebral horror in our consciousness to become the lynchpin of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger‘s xenomorph’s saga.
But what of Ridley Scott‘s seminal tome of terror? What of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett‘s look at 2122 and their commentary on corporate greed? To me, Alien is superior to its sequel by its tone alone. Horror films today still copy the deliberate pacing and desire to shield their monstrosities from audiences until absolutely necessary. Just as it recycles imagery from the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey with claustrophobic, octagonal spaceship channels, others continue to mimic its contrast of biomorphic creatures against the stark sterility of technology. We have yet to let go of our fear towards organic, reptilian-like beasts whether from V, Species, Splice, and so on. With salivary discharge unparalleled on the grossness scale, only recently has the trend moved towards J.J. Abrams‘ contemporary construction of insect-like extraterrestrials.
Two years past the phenomenon of Star Wars: A New Hope, one sees the filmmakers’ desire to take science fiction away from fantasy by placing it in nightmare. We float by intricate miniature models in space to gather our bearings within its cyberpunk future and travel through cramped rooms of flashing lights, metal panels, and electrical tubing as though traversing an enlarged microchip. The soft drone of Jerry Goldsmith‘s score breaks the silence of our introduction to the commercial vessel Nostromo as empty interiors come to life via the craft’s sentient interface MU-TH-R 182. Its seven passengers thus far absent, we take the computer’s ominous return to life as a sign of danger lurking in the unknown as a distress signal beckoning them off course ultimately destroys them.
Sleeping in cryogenic chambers on a journey home, their rousing is ten months ahead of schedule. Jovial despite dissension jokingly threatened by two mechanics looking to squeeze more cash, the crew appears tightknit as they ready to investigate the nearby planet calling. Completely unaware of what they’ll find, the music crescendoes on the reveal of a foreign ship the likes no one has ever seen. A routine check for surviving life, the rescue party soon uncovers a nest of eggs about to hatch. One slip off a ledge followed by a misguided lapse in protocol is all that’s needed to allow a malicious, remorseless creature on board the Nostromo. Moving through its incubation stages to become the slimy surrealist nightmare that’s haunted people’s dreams for three decades, the body count mounts and Weyland Industries’ true intentions are gradually revealed.
Inspired by Giger’s 1976 painting Necronom IV, the singular alien hunting the crew is a grotesque combination of reptilian slime and futuristic evolution. With two sets of teeth and a third mouth extending forth from within, a watery flood pours down as its long fingers stretch to grab hold. Containing acid blood and unparalleled strength, this creature isn’t one to mess with when at any stage of its metamorphosis. The crab-like critters that attach to a lifeform’s face in order to plant its embryo and the chestbursting full-term beast readying to shed its skin before reaching full-growth are equally difficult to kill due to their speed, but at least they afford the opportunity to be rid of danger early. No matter how calculated and driven the monster, though, the real villain becomes humanity’s hubristic penchant for double-crossing ulterior motives and an infinite longing for power.
Led by Tom Skerritt‘s Dallas, everyone on the Nostromo is naive to this brand new final leg of the mission. He asks ‘Mother’ for answers, but receives only error messages in return. It isn’t until he, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Kane (John Hurt) are inside the alien ship that Ripley begins to comprehend the beacon heard is a warning, not a cry for help. By that time it is too late and each member’s life becomes expendable as the filmmakers refuse to focus solely on one specific hero. In retrospect we know Weaver to be the star that will lead three more entries, but audiences in 1979 were absolutely clueless as to whom—if anyone—would make it out alive. So the film continues shrouded in mystery as each is picked off one by one until a stirring finale pits blind aggression against humanity’s tenacity for salvation.
Despite some humor in the form of grunts Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) giving relief from the dramatic gravitas, the tone of Alien remains steeped in the dread of the unknown. And while that duo is memorable for their antics just as Weaver and Skerritt are for their intelligence driven hope for survival, the darker moments are what will linger in your mind. Hurt’s ubiquitously known demise—recreated in Spaceballs—remains a true feat in cinema’s power to earn a psychological and physical reaction from its audience. Couple that with a scene-stealing performance made infinitely more nuanced and telling upon subsequent viewings by Ian Holm as medical specialist Ash and true horror is proven to lie in selfish desire.
A stunning visual feat punctuated by the smallest of details in sight and sound, Ridley Scott created a masterpiece. Copied in the world of film, video game—Nintendo’s Metroid—and plenty more examples of science fiction across all mediums, Alien deserves mention amongst the greatest films of all time, not simply its genre. Scary, darkly sexual, and nightmarishly unforgettable, it’s almost surprising to see the direction the franchise moved afterwards despite its equal-to-greater success stemming from the public’s differing mindsets. A unique vision of terror, the creativity on display can only ever be paid homage—humanity never able to look at the stars without trepidation again.