Not only has the original movie’s tagline become quite the cliche, such that it’s near impossible to riff on it because all the variants have been said, nearly everything else about it has been equally recycled into other, later pieces of popular media. Even to the day we see the influence of Alien and Aliens, in video-games from DOOM (originally supposed to be an Aliens game) to Dead Space (2008), and in movies like Sunshine and Pandorum and countless others. It’s a historical milestone in the genre of science-fiction, single-handedly lifting sci-fi/horror from dreck fiction to a level not seen since the classic Frankenstein films. Alien is a classic, Aliens is a classic. Alien 3 is one of the most underrated science-fiction films, or possibly films, of all time. Alien Resurrection is a story that can’t be approximated briefly in a cute sentence here.

The four Alien movies make up what is undoubtedly the greatest sci-fi movie series, and it’s about what scares us the most.

That was the origin in fact, that very question; Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett got together and asked. They came up with one word, an r-word that you’ll probably guess at with ease. What if that happened to you? What if the thing on the other end was a goddamn alien creature with a big old alien penis? What if you were in space, and no one could hear you scream? What if you discovered that there was in the end, no hope, but in your own will to survive?

Thus Alien was born, but first, perhaps we should take a moment to recall Alien 0.5 – John Carpenter’s very first film, Dark Star. This movie starred Dan O’Bannon as a hippie astronaut among hippie astronaut, and his assignment was to chase an alien through the various corridors of the ship. That sounds familiar, only the alien in question is a beachball with rubber monster feet attached to it. I don’t think HR Giger had his hands on that one.

What’s interesting about Dark Star is not necessarily that it’s a great movie, but that it silently impacted science-fiction and nobody but nerds knows about it. Nerds and Danny Boyle I guess, who paid homage to the 70’s flick by naming one of his astronauts in Sunshine after a character in Dark Star, Pinbacker.

O’Bannon’s next project would be a bit more popular; Alien went on to be quite the commercial success, which really set Ridley Scott up for a sophomore slump in Blade Runner. It’s a shame that the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? adaptation grossed so little, because it put the director off of science-fiction for thirty years. Blade Runner and Alien truly stand out in Scott’s filmography because of it, and because so much attention and craftsmanship was put into the film’s look. Matchstick Men looks nice, but it doesn’t have the classic lighting composition and atmosphere that heighten the tension or create a sense of apocalyptic decay.

The production design in Alien indeed is legendary, as you’ll see it repeated several times over in sequels and in pieces of media that bear a resemblance. The movie, intitially entitled Star Beast, was just as cool to rip off as Star Wars and the later Blade Runner – it was fashionable. All of a sudden science-fiction had a sense of range to it, and this is all thanks to the visuals. Star Trek and Star Wars told us that we could see the great heighs of man as imagined by creative masters like Roddenbery and Lucas, while Alien and Blade Runner told us we could shove all of that. The two movies have the classic ‘used future,’ look, and it makes sense in either context.

Alien finds its seven crewmembers on the Nostromo, a Conrad reference that seems fitting after The Duelists, which was Scott’s debut. As we discover from an initial conversation over grubby food, they are blue-collar workers. They aren’t talking about saving the world from space vampires – they’re talking about shares and getting paid. These are the characters who are established at the front of the film, and we get to know them by the time they reach LV-426, which I don’t think is named in the first movie, but will be revisited later.

The movie moves incredibly slowly, but it has to. There is narrative progression, and this happens on many levels. Because it’s a movie about what scares us the most, it’s also a movie about reaching out and touching that fear, as one would expect on the frontier of space. Thus we see our heroes experimenting with the alien facehugger, noting that it has acid blood and tightens around Kane’s neck when threatened, and then rallying together to try to find a cat-sized alien which is now loose in the ship after the film’s most iconic scene – the chestburster.

We assume that it’s cat-sized because that’s how it left Kane’s dead body, skittering off the table and into the depths of the Nostromo. When we find that it’s not, that it’s a rather large creature, we can’t be sure of anything. And that’s when the movie begins to really take off.

First, we’re frightened of the creature. It becomes a ubiquitous threat, always hiding somewhere on the ship, ready to pounce with its terrible tongue-jaws-dick. Then, we’re frightened of the Company. We discover that they’re so goddamn cold they consider the crew to be expendable, something that would repeat in every other movie about aliens, from Predator to Alien Lockdown. Then we’re afraid of each other – Ash turns out to be a robot, which is very phildickian. This provides for one of the most intense scenes in the movie, as Ash is bleeding and vomiting this horrible white ‘blood.’

Finally, we become frightened of the ship itself, our surroundings. It’s always been creepy, as the description of Alien as a haunted house movie in space is fair, but towards the end of the movie, it becomes hostile. Fog is blowing everywhere, emergency lights are flashing, alarms are ringing and Mother, the ship’s computer, is counting down until an explosion. Caught in the middle is Ripley, who’s had to experience the fears of all of the above, and is now struggling against the last.

We can only overcome these fears by being reborn, which is why the ship is the final thing to be feared, other than the fact that it makes for some great hallway-running sequences, which is also iconic. Ripley is reborn when she takes the shuttle out from the Nostromo, essentially breaking away from Mother. That’s not the end of the movie however, although we do get a sequence akin to Metroid‘s perfect clear ending.

If that was the end of the movie, the victory over her many fears would not have a measure, and the movie would be about nothing. The alien returns, and Ripley is able to defeat it by being calm and a badass. She harpoons it and sends it flying out the airlock, and she’s the only survivor, save one lucky cat. She is able to have this victory because of her will to survive, which is the only thing that can save you from your worst fears.

This is the point of the movie because we have to explore our worst fears to get to that point. That’s how we have one of the most excellent horror films ever crafted, filled with glorious set pieces and surprisingly intense moments that hold up thirty years later.

There is however one point of contention I have. It has to do with Ripley, who is played by Sigourney Weaver, the one recurring character (well, besides the titular alien) across all four movies. Considering that Ripley has at this point become at archetype, such that even to the day she has characters modelled after her – Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing prequel is taking on that role, which I look forward to – as she is the most famous heroine in science-fiction film, it’s disappointing to realize that her origin in Alien is born out of horror than feminism.

Indeed she is the Final Girl, and this is because she is a female, and because we assumed Tom Skerrit, who gets top billing, was going to be the last one out to shut Nostromo‘s lights. Once he dies, we can’t be sure who it’s going to be, thus creating more horror for the viewer because the Alien could jump out and kill anyone. She is the hero to take away audience comfort, not because ‘wouldn’t it be cool if it was a girl kicking ass?’ I’m sure there was some of that, but it’s certainly expanded upon more in the James Cameron (naturally) sequel, Aliens from seven years later.

For a more in depth look at Alien and the Alien series, be sure to check out Roz Kaveney’s From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science-fiction Film

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