Few films are as influential and more pointless to review than Alien; by this point trying to say anything new about the 1979 classic is the critical equivalent of screaming into the vast blackness of space. So here we go!
Alien‘s premise is almost comically straightforward (alien attacks spaceship), but like all great slasher flicks, the devil is in the detail: the gradual way Ridley Scott reveals the creature one horrifying component at a time, Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) believable transformation from Lisa Simpson to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Dan O’Bannon’s subtle hints at military-industrial conspiracy – themes he would resurrect in The Return of the Living Dead. But while that cult favourite vies for the title of the most ’80s (ie. coke-fuelled) film of all time, Alien hasn’t aged a day.
Still a uniquely terrifying two hours, it taps into something fundamentally frightening, primal and universal, even though most people are unlikely to end up in that situation. That visceral fusion of sci-fi and horror spawned an entire genre, making a bigger impact on The Fly and The Thing than the films they’re actually based on. Alien is Black Christmas meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, a paranoid cosmic slasher about the unknown. Except where 2001 is all cold surfaces and shiny astronauts (or possibly the other way round), the Nostromo is a grungy cargo ship, with a grungy cargo crew to match.
Their realistic work lives and downtime feel like M*A*S*H in space (before they turn to m*u*s*h), a distinctly 1970s naturalism and cynicism coursing through its vents and veins. The well-documented fact Ripley was written as a man makes for an unusually tough female character, but also genders her interactions with her male colleagues (who always overrule her rational choices) and the bodily invasive alien. Plus through her cat Jones we see her nurturing side, developed further in Aliens. Ash (Ian Holm) meanwhile walks an uncanny tightrope between human and hiding something, weirdly uptight but ambiguous enough that he could just be British (compared with Michael Fassbender’s I AM AN ROBOT performance in the reboots).
Again, like all great slasher flicks the sequels delve unnecessarily into the monster’s family history – centuries back in this case. Here the horror lies in the unexplained; we don’t even have a complete picture of the alien come the end of the film. We simply recognise it as the antithesis of what makes us human. It is no coincidence that Ash’s description (“unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”) recalls Dr Loomis’ account of Michael Myers in the previous year’s Halloween: “No reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong … purely and simply evil.”
Alien is as perfect as its eponymous killing machine, from the soon-to-be famous cast and cat, to the world’s greatest tagline (until Alien vs. Predator came along). Without it there’s no Terminator, Predator or Aliens the Musical.