Cinemanalysis: Alien (1979)

by Jason Flatt

With Alien: Covenant now in theaters, take a Cinemanalysis dive into the film that started it all, Alien.

In May of 1979, one of the most seminal works in both science fiction and horror graced the silver screen. Ridley Scott’s Alien simultaneously horrified and intrigued audiences by leaving little to the imagination. Sequel bait and franchising were not on the minds of the team behind this original work, but that certainly did not stop fans, creatives, and Ridley Scott himself from wanting to return to this intriguing and fearsome world time and time again.

Alien may not have been the first film whose plot revolved around an alien being brought aboard a spaceship only to get loose and wreak havoc, but it may certainly be the trope codifier. There was nothing quite like it in its time, and few films have been as influential on either of its genres since.

Following Orders

The whole debacle aboard the Nostromo could have been avoided if Ash (Ian Holm) had only followed the orders given to him by Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). She foreshadowed all too well the ill fate to come of her ship and crew. Ripley tried to provide the proper perspective as she speculated out loud about the strange signal the ship’s artificial intelligence mainframe woke them to receive. She knew long before anybody else that the signal was not a call for help. It was a warning to stay away.

The film itself and its plot parallel in their development. The characters are too distracted by the awe of their alien discovery and the danger their Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) is in. Very little horror has ensued to this point, mostly just exhilarating science fiction. This is why when Kane goes from seemingly freed of the alien facehugger’s grasp to literally giving birth to one of the most remarkably horrifying scenes in cinematic history, there is even more grotesque shock than may otherwise have been due. The architects of the film were able to subvert all expectations by commanding exactly what to feel when.

Just the same, the Nostromo crew was the subject of orders. Everyone is following orders without being aware until it is too late. There is one member aboard though that was aware they were given. Ash refused the order to maroon Kane because he secretly responded to a higher power than Ripley. When all is said and done, realizing everything has been set up from the start makes the sting even worse.

Alien ChestbursterFear the “Other”

A trope common in science fiction and very apparent in the Alien franchise is discrimination against androids. Androids are synthetic, robotic creatures made using organic tissue. Androids in film are often characterized as lacking in the emotional or moral competence that truly living beings possess. They are hard-wired and programmed to act and respond in specific ways, even if that includes a level of adaptability.

The big reveal of Alien comes as Ripley uncovers the secret orders Ash had been given by his superiors; to recover the alien at all costs. The crew was expendable. The movie could have left the reveal at that. Ash would have gone on as morally corrupt scientist villain who was secretly working with a morally corrupt corporation. But Alien takes it a step further. Ash is revealed as an android. He becomes “othered,” made to be seen as something markedly different from the protagonists and from what should be considered good or natural.

As common a trope as “othering” by androidism is in science fiction, it fulfills an intentional purpose in this horror movie. Humanity has an innate fear of the “other.” The “other” is known though. It may not be seen or understood, but the “other” is a part of everyone’s lives nonetheless. It can be avoided and ignored and even subjugated, but it is still something feared, even if just subconsciously. Ash the android is that “other” and his swift and sure defeat after being unveiled quenches a desire for order and control that had been lost. A feeling wrongfully satiated.

Alien AndroidFear the Unknown

The alien (Bolaji Badejo) is an unknown factor. It has been slowly picking off members of the Nostromo crew during each and every attempt to defeat it. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is nabbed by the alien during the crew’s first attempt to subdue it using motion tracking. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is halted in his subsequent effort in the ship’s air ducts just the same. The defeat of Ash softens the pain brought on by his betrayal and the losses suffered. But, tackling a known fear provides only brief satisfaction in the wake of the horrible unknown that is the alien.

Three different forms of the alien are encountered after it hatches from its egg on LV-426. It secretes acid and seems impervious to normal means of attack. There is so much bewilderment to excite the science fiction and horror fan alike. Science fiction fans have so much to understand about this terrible creature. Those looking to be scared will be petrified by that same factor. The greatest fear there is not what is uncertain, but what is unknown entirely. The alien, as far as anybody knows, can do anything.

Alien XenomorphOpen our Vulnerabilities

It can also potentially survive anything. With the rest of the crew, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), killed off and the Nostromo destroyed, the alien was thought dead and Ripley was thought safe. The safety she feels is emphasized by her taking off her outerwear to prepare for the sleep required for space travel. Naked and asleep are two of the most vulnerable states one can be in and Ripley is voluntarily entering both. This decision lulls the final sequence of the film into the false sense of security necessary to render the last shock.

Alien works thoroughly to open every vulnerability possible. Methodically, it goes about bursting open a litany of fears by disguising them as intriguing spectacles. Beginning with a simple fear of bodily health and security, the focus shifts through each gruesome death Ripley and the remaining crew must endure. The fear of the “other” and the fear of the unknown come to pale in comparison to the final horror embedded in and by the movie: self-doubt. If Ripley only checked the corners in her escape ship. She would not have avoided her final face off with the alien, but the terrible self-doubt that will linger forever after cannot be understated.

Lurking androids, dark corners, and interesting new discoveries will forever be potential horrors after Alien. Sci-fi nor Horror alike, neither genre has been the same as a result of its impact. There is nothing scarier than the inability to trust oneself. There is no easy way back once that trust is broken. A film that has the power to influence so much as Alien has, in cinema and in its viewers, is truly a piece of art.

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