Alien is one of cinema’s most agreed-upon classics, as it granted Sigourney Weaver legend status, created one of science fiction’s most decorated creatures, and spawned multiple sequels (some good some bad) to add to the already mystifying lore. But perhaps the thing that made Ridley Scott’s masterpiece unforgettable is the attention to detail gifted by the filmmakers. From H. R. Giger’s bio-mechanical designs (such as the Facehuggers that symbolize sexual violation) to the terror-provoking production design, Alien was imbued with philosophical and inspired craftsmanship that never ceases to amaze.
The film begins with a tour of the Nostromo, a commercial ship on a mineral haul. The crew awakens from their hibernation pods, like newborns reacting to the brightness of their world for the first time. Kane (John Hurt), one of the seven members of the crew, moves one limb at a time – slowly rising until his eyes finally open with a sensitivity to the white room. With the Alien franchise largely being about life cycles, it’s remarkably appropriate that Kane is the first to wake from the safe slumber of the womb-like cryogenic chamber, only to be the first one to bite the dust and facilitate a new life form.
Before long, despite Ripley’s logical warnings that were met with huffs and sighs from the male crew members, they’re involved in a small-scale extinction event. If the ship were a small world, and the humans were the dinosaurs that inhabited it, the arrival of the wormy Xenomorph was the asteroid sent from space to wipe them out. The crew is reduced to cavemen by the advanced species they’re fighting against, using flames to light their paths and also as a weapon. Dallas (Tom Skerritt), an otherwise brave and steady captain, is rendered a sitting, blue, blinking, duck on a monitor as the alien hunts for him in the dark vents. And all his crew can do is watch.
The Xenomorph isn’t just well designed and performed, it’s scarily intelligent and superior. It hides in the shadows of the ship, its body blending with the industrial blacks and ribbed tubes in the misty corners. After its first kill, it flees when outnumbered, then later picks the crew off as it grows bigger and stronger. With no incentive other than survival, it’s a perfectly engineered thing. Monstrous, but undeniably impressive – such as nature is.
There is a balance of refined and monstrous In Alien – perhaps best represented by Ash’s (Ian Holm) controlled behavior giving way to out of control spinning, spraying, and flailing when he is “killed” – that is just as scary as any monster. More so explored in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, the people working for The Company are expendable. It’s not just the ship’s computer or android who think so, it’s the people who created them. They want the Xenomorph to learn from, and to perhaps weaponize. It’s a cold, calculated betrayal of human life that has the same lack of compassion the alien has, but worse. Conversely, the mixture of emotional and brutal state of mind is part of what keeps Ripley alive. She’s not unethical or unfeeling, but she doesn’t fall into hysterics, freezing on the spot, like other members of the Nostromo.
The film appreciates humanity as much as it knows it’s outmatched. When Ash speaks of the Xenomorph’s purity he lists the things that make it a perfect killing machine – things like its mind not being clouded by “conscious, remorse, or delusions of morality” – but it’s exactly these things that make Ripley the creature’s toughest opponent. Not in a physical sense, but in her will and decision making. Had the crew listened to Ripley’s initial plea of not letting Kane back on the ship, the disasters that followed could have been avoided. Furthermore, it’s her planning and tact that allows her to escape the gooey clutches of the alien. She can’t keep the others alive, they lose every showdown, but she does try. Even when she is at her most clinical in the third act once everyone else is dead, she still goes back for the cute cat. It’s this want to live that lets her slip into the leadership role she assumes. It feels natural, earned, and a perfect opposite to the Xenomorph and The Company’s emotional void – despite the inherent similarity of all forces wanting to prevail.
There’s nothing to say about Alien that hasn’t already been said, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling anything less than magnificent upon every rewatch. Ripley is one of the defining women of cinema, and the film’s perfectly executed battle to the death will forever be held as the gold standard. Every part of the film is alive – the goo drips, blood burns through floors, sweat beads trickle down foreheads, and with every death, there is an evolution. And although Scott’s celebration of all things icky might be full of tension, it’s certainly not bleak or cynical. Although Ripley goes through much more after this chapter closes, I wouldn’t blame anyone for simply enjoying the hopeful and peaceful ending she gets in this, once self-contained, film. Because the serenity and rest afforded once the fight is won is just as rewarding as any of the precise and beautiful moments of terror Alien provides. And for anyone wondering, the 4k release does a fantastic job of allowing viewers to experience all of this in a better fashion than ever before.
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