Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto
MPAA Rating: R
Personal Rating: 10/10
“An alien on a spaceship starts killing people” doesn’t sound that great a plot. But as usual, the plot isn’t really the point of the movie. Alien is a drastically misunderstood and shockingly dark movie (the iconicity it holds barely scratches the surface). Nothing else I know of tears into the center of our lives and existence as savagely as this does. Ridley Scott tells you exactly how he feels about the world, and here he tells it through sci-fi metaphors.
In the midst of Star Wars space opera and sci-fi grandeur, Alien presents space as utterly hostile and the darkest blackness of the infinite that it is. It crushes you with the oppressing darkness of the universe and the futility of existence. Like Stanley Kubrick in 2001 and The Shining (a year after this), Scott turns the audience against itself. And somewhat like the little yellow car invading the environment as the environment looks down angrily at it in The Shining, a ship penetrates space. Except unlike The Shining, the ship looms above us- an iron god we can only look up at and hopelessly desire to reach. And as we see inside the ship, it’s not so great in there either. It’s not a shipful of action heroes and space marines- it’s just 7 workers doing a job. Not noble or special people either- they’re just looking to survive. This is a deeply nihilistic movie- there is no hero, no villain, just survival and maybe survivors.
Ridley Scott’s movies are very secular. God is always a factor in them- or lack of God. His characters are always alone in a huge, dark, cold universe. God is dead and establishments and corporations loom ahead- giant ships always loom above the universe, and the universe seems to be on their side. But even in Blade Runner, people are used to the oppression of giant advertisements and skyscrapers ruling above. In Alien, there is nothing except the company of other human beings. And even then they’re not comfortable with each other. Camaraderie does not exist here. These aren’t humanity’s best or people who learn to be humanity’s best- they’re just doing a job and surviving on instinct.
So of course the corporation they work for uses them in the worst way possible. On pain of not getting paid, the crew of the Nostromo is sent to a strange Freudian planet. They find an alien structure- maybe a ship; maybe they were that advanced, or maybe it’s a building, or maybe it’s just a cave. But this is where the movie is penetrated by a perverse sexuality. The tunnels in the alien place look like they’re constructed of dark phalluses. And on top of that, there seem to be mechanical structures- almost like our skyscrapers, but more twisted. And on top of that is a dead alien. It’s fossilized- long dead. It’s massive. Something seems to have exploded out of it. It’s like a lonely god. And when we see the Xenomorph later, we find out why. This thing is like us- it survives by breeding. Its head and the spines on its back are extremely phallic shaped. But its breeding instincts are tied up with its killing instincts. Ultimately the crew “go” to a strange “planet” and come back with a sexually transmitted disease- which happens to be sentient. The Xenomorph (thank God it’s not actually named in the movie) rapes 6/7ths of the crew to death. They don’t do it because they’re evil and hate humans and wants to punish them for breathing- it’s just survival.
Its habits aren’t too far off from ours. The chemistry among the crew (yes, there is chemistry) is loaded with sexual tension. The camaraderie isn’t there, but they’re sure fond of each other’s bodies. But they don’t ever talk about it- they use sci-fi conversations to cover it all up (this is more explicit in Ali3n, which is actually a pretty interesting movie). When Ripley and Dallas argue over Ash, it’s basically a morning-after argument- and it happens to be about a machine. Brett and Parker frequently go off on their own, Parker seems to have his hands on Brett a lot, and Brett seems to agree with Parker a lot. It’s unfortunate that the homosexual characters happen to be the rough and crass ones of the group, but it should be noted it’s when Brett leaves Parker and goes off on his own that he dies. While the movie condemns just about everything, it still notices that bonding in danger isn’t a bad thing.
The cast is actually quite good. John Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Ian Holm remain some of the best actors working today, and the other five actors are good too. Characterization is minimal but it’s absolutely there. As situations shift more and more implied character traits make themselves more present. Weaver’s Ripley is the strong female lead that could characteristically for this genre become a dead damsel but instead… Well, she’s the third-in-command behind Tom Skerritt and John Hurt, so when they’re off the ship she takes charge. And she does take charge; she adheres to regulations and even when Kane (Hurt)’s life is at risk she thinks practically and doesn’t let him onboard to keep the Xenomorph from transmitting to the ship. Ian Holm’s Ash undercuts her authority (note his discomfort around the women which is even stronger than his usually stiffness), as he seems to undercut all authority that doesn’t come from the corporation. Ripley experiences quite a bit of bad-natured ribbing from Parker and Brett too. Lambert doesn’t receive any similar treatment; she’s just the old woman- a crying squeeze who won’t stand up for herself and just looks longingly at Dallas. Ripley is something for Brett and Parker to mock (and it’s Parker who always leads) - a woman who can hold her own so hard her own could explode (that wasn’t a double-entendre). Unlike everyone else on the ship, she has evolved.
Evolution is needed. Unity for survival is needed. The corporation isn’t looking out for them- death of workers is collateral damage. Unfortunately there is no unity among the crew- there is no actually emotion or care about the others from each member of the crew- except for Lambert, and even then her care for Dallas is a sniveling inactive affection. And there can be no unity among the crew- Ripley is the only one who’s willing to evolve to survive. Ash is the total antithesis, and the closest thing the crew has to being a villain. He actually is a machine- he is manufactured by the corporation to keep an eye about them and possibly let them die, just to preserve the Xenomorph. Possibly the most frightening thing about Ash is that he admires its “purity” and that he could be right. The Xenomorph has no “delusions of morality”. It just survives.
Ash is possibly the wisest- and worst- person in the film. He’s bad to the characters because he threatens to cause their death and he’s the establishment fully realized. And he has a key line that’s maybe the scariest line ever put in a movie. During a discussion of the Xenomorph, he says, unnoticed by characters and audience, “Kane’s son”. On the much simpler hand, he is blaming Kane for being raped and bringing forth the Xenomorph to grow bigger than the humans and kill them. Obviously it’s not Kane’s fault- but he did become the alien’s vessel for birth. He was orally raped by the facehugger, and it didn’t know how human bodies worked- so it exploded from his stomach. But the far more frightening, horrible, eternal, existential terror of an idea in the line “Kane’s son” is the realization that the Xenomorphs are human. Biblical Kane was the banished son of Adam- the twisted one where it all went wrong. The one who killed his brother out of jealousy. His descendants went away. Far away. Away from Earth. They adapted. They forgot morality. They forgot civilization. They learned how to survive. They killed their God. He exploded from the inside and they were born. The scariest part of the alien isn’t that they kill us.
It’s that maybe we deserve it.