In space, no one can hear you scream.
Steam and smoke billow everywhere about the never-ending, amber-lit corridors of the Nostromo, as a piercing self-detonation alarm wails and a hulking beast with a phallic, eyeless face stalks our protagonist. Alien is my favorite horror film, hands down. Only two others come close: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining, but neither is quite as cinematically perfect from its first to last frame as Ridley Scott‘s chilling space slasher masterpiece.
Long into the distant future, the crew of the mining vessel Nostromo- Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Kane (John Hurt), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), and of course Ash (Ian Holm)- are unexpectedly awoken from hypersleep by a distress signal arising from a nearby uncharted planet. Complied by company policy to investigate such matters, they land on the planet and discover a vast alien ship with thousands of mysterious eggs. Kane is infected by a parasite born from one of the eggs, spawning a towering beast that hunts and quickly kills off each member of the crew, one by one.
The absolute first quality that comes to mind when I think of Alien is its overwhelmingly oppressive and claustrophobic darkness. For nearly a decade after the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the idyllic cleanliness of space travel permeated science fiction everywhere in American science fiction cinema. Only with Star Wars in 1977 and then Alien two years later did space become dirty and dark, and with that ushered in a new era of science fiction cinema (including Scott’s own Blade Runner in 1982). The grungy clunkiness of the vast Nostromo is truly an impeccable piece of set design, from its grimy industrial underbelly to its contradictory sterile living quarters. With its remarkable attention to minute detail, Alien’s production design adds immensely to the terrifyingly silent sense of isolation in space.
And of course the imaginative grace and terror of the actual Alien is wholly unmatched in monster horror. There is no beast in cinema even remotely as iconic or unique as the Xenomorph, perverse and revolting yet hauntingly beautiful. Before the Alien sequels let us see the Xenomorph more often and in larger numbers, all we were allowed in Ridley Scott’s original Alien were brief glimpses of a singular monster, one that seemed to blend into the very walls of its environment like the natural predator it is.
Structurally, Alien is completely unoriginal, stealing but perfecting the standard slasher formula of isolating and murdering characters one by one, down to the last survivor. Despite its predictability, there’s not a single dull moment, as the film takes ample time to immerse you in its world before introducing its horror narrative. The tense atmosphere of watching Alien, alone in the dark with headphones, is so thick you could cut through it with a knife. Much of this is also imparted by the film’s insistence on smart characters. Though we’re given very sparse time with them, each and every member of the Nostromo crew feels like a real person, and their decisions carry weight.
Ultimately that’s why Alien is so frightening: because its characters do everything right to the best of their knowledge and still die painfully horrific deaths. Their plans to catch and kill the Alien are certainly not asinine, and besides their understandable, stress-induced quarreling, they all remain remarkably level-headed. The Alien is just smarter, and the greedy Company influences to keep it alive decidedly overpower the crew’s hardy blue-collar resolve.
It’s mind-boggling to comprehend that such a perfect horror film exists. Alien has more than a flawlessly intense atmosphere, highly believable and creative production design, smart writing, and an effective monster. It has the compounded power of preying upon deeply-rooted sexual anxieties, evoking fiercely uncomfortable imagery of rape and phallicism. Horror is at its best when it is able to strike open wounds in the subconscious, and Alien’s deeply disturbing symbolism is decisively why it has stood the test of time.
Alien was one of the first horror films I ever saw (it was also my first R-rated movie), but it has only grown scarier as I’ve matured. At 12, I was less interested by Scott’s calculated and leisurely suspense, preferring instead James Cameron‘s action-packed sequel Aliens. Now, I find Alien the more nerve-wracking and stressful of the two. With smaller, more claustrophobic stakes, it conjures an atmosphere so impenetrably dense that the experience can reach almost unbearable heights by the time it arrives at its heart-pounding conclusion. Alien will always claim a seat among my favorite films of all time, and no other horror film will likely ever top it. It’s dark, it’s terrifying, and it’s meticulously spellbinding.