The sense of isolation, whether physical or emotional, is a key component of horror fiction. Fear and despair become far more palpable when one must endure the feeling of being completely alone in their experience. Now transfer those emotions to the terrifying vastness of space, where, as Alien‘s famous tagline goes, “…no one can hear you scream.” Ridley Scott and team, understanding so well the mechanics of fear, thus created one of the most successful blends of science fiction and horror to ever grace a screen or page.
Alien is at heart a slasher film, updated for the science fiction generation (this was just two years after Star Wars, after all), featuring a killer that picks off the cast one by one simply because it has the power to do so. The film contains many classic horror moments, one of the first coming as Kane descends into the hole within the derelict ship. It’s the “don’t go in there!” moment–you know things aren’t going to end well for Kane, and they certainly do not. The concept of the parasite/human host, introduced in Alien by Kane’s face-hugger, is one that has been explored frequently in horror and science fiction, as the fear of being taken over from within is a recurring theme in those genres. Once Ash breaks the rules of quarantine and allows Kane, Dallas, and Lambert back onto the Nostromo, the audience knows that it’s game over for the crew. We’re lulled into a false sense of security when Kane appears to recover, but it is brief; the alien has reproduced inside of him and is unleashed in the famous chest-bursting scene.
Ash’s pursuit of knowledge at all costs echoes ancient myths like Pandora and Eve (fortunately Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, unlike so many mythologists, do not pin the source of corruption on women; rather, that modern villain, the corporation, is to blame). He reprograms the ship’s computer, “Mother,” to change course–and I could go on a tangent about the feminist implications of that, but I’ll save it for another time–so that alien specimens may be gathered and studied, regardless of the crew members’ lives. One wonders how a human being can possess such callous disregard for life, even his own, until the revelation that Ash is only a man on the outside–he is in fact an android. Both Ash and the alien present an interesting philosophical conundrum as to the nature of the antagonist in the film. The alien is driven by biology, and Ash is driven by his programming. Can they, then, truly be held accountable for their actions? Can they truly be considered “villains” at all? And if the alien is, as Ash says, a “perfect organism,” how can it be considered a monster? Perhaps it views the humans who intruded upon its habitat as the monsters, which must now be destroyed. It’s a relationship not unlike the vampires and Neville in I Am Legend.
Ripley, as the sole survivor, faces the alien alone. Her struggle is compounded by the fact that she must also outrun the Nostromo‘s self-destruct sequence and reach the shuttle in time, since Mother will not abort the countdown sequence. The film really shines here, as we sympathize with Ripley’s terror and her understanding that she is irrevocably alone. That the alien has found its way into the shuttle just as Ripley prepares for stasis, and she has no means of escaping it this time, further heightens the tension. Ripley at last manages to blast it out into space, but she is now adrift herself, not knowing when or even if she’ll be found. The isolation of such a state is almost too profound to consider.
I’ve seen Alien a fair number of times over the years, and it seems to get better with each viewing. Ridley Scott not only updated a subgenre of horror that, even by 1979, was starting to get stale, but he also created an iconic female action hero. Here’s hoping that Prometheus lives up to the standard set by Alien.