“Alien” (1979) still bares its fangs over 40 years later
By Aidan Janssen, Design Editor
The hardest part about writing any story is subverting the expectations of the viewer, reader, etcetera. Far too often in today's movie landscape, viewers experience a horror story with predictable thrills and unsatisfying surprises. It is hard to process the fact that almost 50 years later, “Alien” (1979) has done better than the vast majority of horror films and has proven to be a timeless classic.
Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Dan O’Bannon, and with music by Jerry Goldsmith, “Alien” tells the story of a crew of seven aboard the commercial starship Nostromo. On their way home, they investigate a distress call from an alien ship landed on a nearby moon. Upon reaching the moon, they bring aboard an alien lifeform, freshly hatched from and attached to a crewmate’s face.
The film's greatest strength comes down to its ability to subvert the expectations of its viewers. The crew, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Kane (John Hurt), Ash (Ian Holm), and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) are all incredibly well written and acted, and the actors do a fantastic job selling these characters as real people.
“Alien’s” universe feels very grounded and realistic. Everything about Nostromo as a location feels very real, even if its depiction of technological innovation is off. The infinite silence of space is filled to the brim with the beeps and boops and moving parts of the ship's internals. The use of the synth along with reverberating flutes and violins alongside the quiet but still squeaking ambient sounds within the film's brilliant soundtrack help to sell the fact that the crew is very far away from home.
It is very easy to think that the main character is Dallas, Nostromo’s captain, as it seems implied via the establishing shots of the film. However we soon learn that the story actually focuses on Ripley, the warrant officer aboard the ship. She comes across at first as the unimportant standard female side character that the movie industry unfortunately loves to throw everywhere nowadays, but she turns into one of the best and most important examples of female empowerment that the movie industry has to offer.
Throughout the earlier portions of the story, Ripley’s male crewmates continue to undermine her authority as a warrant officer. She eventually finds herself taking a leadership position amongst the crew and has to handle the stress, anxiety, and self-doubt that comes with that role. She proves herself to be a strong character, not because she is there just to appease and fit some kind of quota, but instead comes across as incredibly human with the realistic emotions and actions that come with being thrown into that situation. It is her ability to persevere through tough situations that makes her strong, and you can tell she is a human being with a fleshed-out character and not just a flawless woman placed to appease people angry at the lack of strong female leads in the media.
The alien itself was executed very well too. Also known as the Xenomorph, the alien actually does not appear very much throughout the film, as it remains a majority of the time hidden within the ship's ventilation system. Its presence is undoubtedly one of the best parts of the story. Just the idea of the alien lurking in a nearby vent creates enough tension to provide a thrilling atmosphere. It is described as the ultimate predator and its design shows that at an instant glance, creating the ultimate horror monster without looking too cartoony, even if 1970s’ costume design can look a little outdated by today’s standards.
Its likable characters, immersive setting, nail biting soundscape, and incredible villain prove that “Alien” still has plenty of bite and is a must-watch for any horror fan or as a great intro to the genre, even if it is over 40 years old.