“In space no one can hear you scream,” has probably become one of the most iconic taglines for any horror or sci-fi film, ever!
For the final Sci-Fi Saturday and 31 Days of Horror crossover, I’ve saved the best for last. Probably the scariest sci-fi/horror film ever – Ridley Scott’s Alien. A film that took the sci-fi/horror hybrid to new heights, riding on the back of those films that had come before it – and exceeding the sum of their parts.
The trailer for this film showcases an alien egg for the majority of its runtime, ending with a crack appearing with light spilling out. From there it’s a frenetic soundtrack with shots of Sigourney Weaver running down a hallway, camera shaking all over the place. A few other shots to provide context that there’s futuristic machinery and the characters in spacesuits fill in the moments, before a great amount of noise and quick shots illustrate something disastrous. There’s not much given away, but the trailer ends with the iconic phrase “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The commercial space-tug Nostromo is traveling home from a mining operation with the seven-member crew in suspended animation when an alarm triggers them to wake early. The AI computer, called Mother (aka MU-TH-UR 6000), has received what it believes to be a distress call from a nearby moon. Commander Dallas (Tom Skerritt) orders the ship to undock from it’s payload of ore and land on the inhospitable planet.
Landing on the planet damages several systems, which engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) take care of while Dallas, 2nd Officer Kane (John Hurt) and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go to investigate the source of the transmission. Discovering a large alien spacecraft, the trio enter to find a giant mummified alien in the pilot’s seat, a hole in it’s chest that appears to have come from the inside out. Kane explores further, finding a room with a strange mist and a number of leathery objects that appear to be eggs. One unfurls and something inside attacks him.
The officer in charge, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), refuses to admit Kane back into the ship citing quarantine protocol, but medical officer Ash (Ian Holm) ignores her order and opens the airlock anyway. Examining Kane shows a strange hand-like creature gripping onto his face, with a tail coiled around his throat. He is able to breathe, but any attempt to remove the “facehugger” results in it constricting harder, or bleeding an acidic blood that eats through at least three decks of the ship before stopping. Eventually it sloughs off of him and dies. Kane appears fine.
Meanwhile, repairs have been completed and Dallas orders the ship to continue its journey back to Earth, which is still 10 months away. The crew has one final meal before dropping back into stasis. Suddenly Kane begins to convulse and falls on the table, his chest exploding as a small alien bursts out of him. It runs away to the horror of everyone. Ash creates a device to track the organism, while Dallas comes up with a plan for capturing it. Brett becomes separated from his search team due to Jonesy, the ship cat, setting off the detector. He goes after the cat and is attacked and killed by the alien, now an 8 foot tall horrific creature.
Dallas believes the creature is using the air ducts to get around, and decides to go in after it with a flamethrower. While attempting to force the alien towards the airlock, Dallas is ambushed by the creature and killed. Ripley, now in charge and not liking the answers she gets from Ash about the nature of the alien, accesses Mother to find out the truth. It reveals Special Order 937, which directs the science officer to obtain a sample of the species for the “company” with the crew being considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, but she fights back, hitting his head with a fire extinguisher knocking it off! Ash is an android! Parker, Lambert and Ripley subdue it.
The remaining three decide to leave in the escape pod and blow up the ship. Parker and Lambert are both attacked by the alien as they gather the supplies needed. Ripley begins the self-destruct sequence and makes her way to the shuttle, only to be cut off by the monster. With no time to abort the countdown, she circles back and makes it into the shuttle, launching moments before the nuclear engines go critical. As she readies to get into cryo-sleep the alien crawls out from some wiring. She gets into a spacesuit and opens the airlock jettisoning it into outer space. It attempts to crawl back into the engine, but she fires it up, burning the creature out. She makes one final log entry and then she and Jonesy settle into hibernation for the trip home.
“You’ll get whatever’s coming to you.” – Ripley
History in the Making
Alien was an historic release for several reasons. While there had been science-fiction films with elements of horror in them (or perhaps they were horror films with sci-fi elements), the two had not been combined in such a popular fashion prior to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film. Since this Sci-Fi Saturday article is also out of order, the build-up to this hybrid film is not yet evident, but it obviously comes partially from the success of Star Wars. Up to 1977 sci-fi/horror films were all set on Earth and featured aliens visiting, mad-science, or apocalyptic future worlds to provide the terror. I have featured several of these films on Sci-Fi Saturdays already, and will be getting to the remaining as I continue my look through the 1960s and 70s. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the 1956 version and the 1978 remake), The Blob (1958), The Day of the Triffids (1962), The Andromeda Strain and The Omega Man (both 1971), Westworld (1973), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), and The Swarm (1978). Alien successfully integrated the space opera style of science-fiction film with the monster style of horror to make a unique and exciting step forward in both genres.
Separately the elements of this film would make for a good genre film of either type, sci-fi or horror. The lifestyle and machinery of the crew on the Nostromo tell a very interesting story. A lot can be gleaned by the set pieces and technology shown. No time frame is set, but it’s far enough in the future that humans have discovered interstellar travel, cryogenic sleep, and advanced robotics. But the characters, however far into the future, still talk, look, and act like 20th Century people. Take out the horror aspect of the film, and there’s a great sci-fi film about long-haul space truckers.
Conversely, the horror elements could be a solid scarer minus the sci-fi portion. In fact, this is not too dissimilar from many other monster or slasher type films. A group of people break down and enter a house where they shouldn’t go (perhaps in this case it would be sailors on a boat landing on a mysterious island). The place is foreboding and eerie. One of them touches or disturbs something, unleashing a great evil, which follows them, killing each member of the party one by one, until the final female (see You Might Be The Killer, for more discussion on this horror trope).
So if the film is a really solid sci-fi film and also a really solid horror film, what does it provide for the genre as a whole? Alien is so much more than the sum or its parts. It proved, as a sci-fi film, that it really could advance the genre by creating a realistic universe that felt lived in. Star Wars may have been the first sci-fi film to really create the idea that sci-fi is not a shiny and new looking universe. It weathered props and locations making them look used, made spaceships look like hunks of junk, and basically made it no different than the world we live in. Alien continued that trend, mostly due to sharing a number of the same special effects technicians and set designers.
It also brought new ideas to the idea of alien design. Sci-fi and horror films have historically had to deal with the problem of “the man in the suit.” If an alien or monster was needed to perform on screen it was difficult (at least prior to the 1970s) to get a prop or puppet that performed better than a man in suit. The problem with this, is that aliens always looked bipedal, or humanoid. It was difficult to hide the proportions of the human actor. Alien solved that problem in a number of ways. It started by making the first two creatures seen on-screen puppets that had no relation to the human form. The final iconic version of the alien, while actually being a man in a suit, was designed in such a way to provide maximum terror and minimize the human inside. An oversized head, longer than normal appendages, and most importantly shooting the creature in low light or obscured circumstances created a truly believable monster on board the ship.
Alien also proved that horror is not exclusively about haunted houses, or pod people, or any number of other well-trod concepts. Horror is about the unknown, and how much more unknown is finding a new species on an alien planet? Audiences scream for the crew to leave the eggs alone! This film has ideas and creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. But Alien also created a new type of character for these sort of situations: the bad-ass female. As one can see in many of the Sci-Fi Saturday and 31 Days of Horror posts, women in horror films fill one of two roles: screamers or victims, sometimes both. The idea of a woman in the majority of sci-fi films I’ve looked at from the 50s and 60s is one that might be a scientist, so she’s smart, but really she’s just there to look pretty and scream (Them! or This Island Earth are good examples). In this film writer Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott create a heroine for a new age with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. This idea that the woman can be feminine and scared, but still pick up the weapon and kill the monster when needed is the introduction of a new wave of feminism in sci-fi that would continue with and beyond Ripley in numerous sequels to Alien, Sarah Conner in the Terminator franchise, and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace in the Battlestar Galactica reboot.
Science-fiction and horror films from the 1950s and part of the 60s had a naive quality about them. They were escapist entertainment, and very few ever transcended beyond the end of the film. As the 60s rolled on however, the world stopped being so idealistic, at least in America. Suddenly everything wasn’t as clear-cut or certain as it used to be. Several prominent political assassinations, the Vietnam war, and racial tensions turned the values of the nation topsy-turvy. Even the success of landing a man on the moon wasn’t enough to turn back the world to a simpler time. Cynicism began creeping into the popular culture, and eventually into television and films.
While Alien does not wear its cynicism on its sleeve, it still points out some current problems that won’t go away in the future. In fact they may just get worse. The film shows that corporate greed is very much alive and well in the future. But, instead of exploiting the riches of the planet Earth, now the corporation (Weyland-Yutani for all the fans out there, but just a nameless company at this time) is looking to weaponize monsters from outer space. Not only that, but they’re willing to sacrifice the lives of employees to do so. Sound familiar? This theme of corporate greed continues more strongly in the sequel, Aliens, where we not only get a name for the company, but also a living, breathing example of the kind of people they hire, in Burke (Paul Reiser). The commentary on commerce and other earthly concerns in sci-fi films was far from over, as films became more overt in their reflection on modern society.
Another theme present in this film, as it is in many films being reviewed here this year, is isolation. Of course thematically, isolation works best in horror films. The protagonist gets into a situation where the support structure of society is removed, leaving them relying only on their wits for survival. In fact the physical isolation is only part of the problems for the characters in the film. The crew of the Nostromo is told that they have a distress call, but have no way to confirm, or call for help. Ash, as a gatekeeper for the company (literally built by the company, to enforce their will) makes sure to keep them isolated from the information they need as well. Not a great situation to be in for sure. And unlike The Thing or The Shining, this isolation is being forced on the protagonists by their employer, showing that even in space, your company does not have your best interests at heart.
The Science in The Fiction
It seems like it would be hard to design a new monster that can become iconic. Yet, HR Geiger designed not one, but three different creatures for Alien, all of which are unforgettable! Geiger was a Swiss painter, who’s bizarre body-morphed paintings, caught the eye of Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott. Together they came up with a full life-cycle for the creature, from egg, to something akin to the polyp stage in the life of a jellyfish (the facehugger), to larval infant stage (the chestburster), and finally the adult alien (xenomorph). It’s seems so obvious today, but imagine seeing the film without knowing about these transformative designs. You might think the facehugger is the alien. Silly rabbit!
Not only did the filmmakers look to Earthly nature for inspirations for the alien, such as the parasitoid wasp which lays its eggs inside other creatures, killing the hosts upon birth, but they made the alien reproductive cycle metaphorical as well. Much has been written on how much like the act of rape the attacks of the facehugger are and how the birth of the chestburster is an horrific male fear brought to life. This symbolism of male rape, which continues to be explored even in the Alien prequel Prometheus, coupled with the strong female character is something the writers came up with to traumatize male audience members. This may be due to the fact that female rape, and abuse had been a staple of horror films for at least the past decade if not more, and turn about is fair play.
Besides the hard work and complexity put into the design of the creatures appearing in the movie, so too was the human environment. The man responsible for the production design on Alien was Ron Cobb, a man also responsible for many alien-elements from a small science-fiction film from two years previous: Star Wars. His creation of the design for the Nostromo, the spacesuits, the logos on various surfaces, all lead to the realistic (and functional) approach the film takes to science-fiction. The fact that all the elements are dirty and used, create potential backstories for all the tools, ships and suits. This is not the future of Logan’s Run, all white and pristine. Alien has character.
The Final Frontier
Alien wasn’t just a success with sci-fi and horror fans. The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for 1979, which put it up against three other sci-fi effects films including The Black Hole, James Bond’s Moonraker, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But the biggest success came for Ridley Scott. Alien was only his second film, and his first science-fiction film! His previous film, The Duellists, was a period drama set during the Napoleonic Wars. Talk about worlds apart! Scott would follow Alien with the potentially more influential, Blade Runner.
The Alien universe has grown and changed over the years. In spawned three direct sequels: James Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s Alien 3, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Joss Whedon’s Alien Resurrection. Scott would return in 2012 with a prequel entitled Prometheus, which was followed by Alien: Covenant, both of which take place prior to Alien and explore the origins of the xenomorph, the space jockey and similar creatures. Dark Horse Comics started telling expanded-universe stories of the Alien franchise in 1988, eventually teaming them up with the Predator franchise, which it also had a license for. This in turn would lead to two Alien vs Predator films being released. So for a 40 year old movie about a non-specific future where evil corporations want to weaponize crazy-scary alien creatures, it’s still got some legs to scare as well as seem futuristic!
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.