I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Alien. Every shot of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror has etched itself on my brain, and the corridors of its ship, the Nostromo, are now hopelessly familiar.
The point where Alien still provoked a frisson of fear has long since passed, but I still feel compelled to watch it again every few months or so. And when I do, the same thought often runs through my mind: what would it have been like to watch Alien on the big screen in 1979?
I try to imagine seeing Kane rise from his hypersleep for the first time, and what it would be like to see the horseshoe-shaped alien ship with fresh eyes. Would I have guessed the disturbing fate that awaits John Hurt’s character within? How would I have reacted to the moment when the creature is born in the Nostromo’s canteen?
I’ll never know. By the time I saw Alien for the first time in the late 80s, I’d already seen Aliens, and was therefore well aware of the former’s plot. The lifecycle of its monstrous antagonist held no surprises for me, and compared to the brisk pace of James Cameron’s gung-ho sequel, Scott’s film seemed leaden. So, if Alien‘s shocks are diminished, why bother watching it again and again?
For me, Alien‘s continued allure lies in its detailed visuals and dark subtexts. The film’s story, in which a malevolent creature climbs aboard a spaceship and slaughters its crew, was the stuff of pulp sci-fi and 50s B pictures such as It! The Terror From Beyond Space (tagline: “$50,000 by a world renowned insurance company to the first person who can prove that ‘It’ is not on Mars now!”), but the level of detail and logic in every element of Scott’s film lifted it out of the bargain basement.
As initially conceived by writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Star Beast, as it was originally called, was very nearly produced as a cheap B picture by Roger Corman. An early draft of the script (which can be found in several places on the Internet) has echoes of the 50s sci-fi that influenced it. Characters have names such as Sandy Melkonis and Cleave Hunter, and its violence is far more bloody and sensational than the movie that appeared in 1979.
Watch 1981’s wobbly Galaxy Of Terror (which, funnily enough, featured an alien pyramid on a spooky planet, just like O’Bannon and Shusett’s early script), for a rough idea of how Alien could have looked had it been produced by Corman. (Galaxy Of Terror was also one of the earliest production credits on James Cameron’s CV.)
Instead, Alien was helmed by Ridley Scott, who didn’t so much direct the film as design it. HR Giger is justly renowned for his artwork and creature designs, but Scott’s handling of the Swiss artist’s material shouldn’t be underestimated. A lesser director could have taken Giger’s startling monsters and still made a horrible mess of a film (which is precisely what happened in 1995’s Species). The economy and restraint of Scott’s direction keeps Alien‘s action at a perpetual murmur, its occasional flashes of violence punctuating a film that prowls and broods.
Scott’s passion and understanding of art and design is evident throughout Alien, and his talent for rendering storyboards encouraged his financiers to increase the film’s budget. And just as a great painting requires a balance of light and shade, Giger’s artwork clashes spectacularly with the logical, technical designs of Chris Foss and Ron Cobb. Giger’s work is all curves and suggestive orifices. Foss and Cobb’s is utilitarian, like the exposed engine of a racing car.
The appearance of Giger’s derelict alien spacecraft, with its ribbed interior like the carcass of a whale, is all the more startling because of its contrast to the austere, metallic Nostromo.
Then there’s the alien itself, an embodiment of all kinds of dreadful thoughts and half-remembered nightmares. Everything about it seems somehow corrupt. Its lifecycle is invasive and hideous, its intentions sometimes unclear, its presence as ubiquitous as a disease.
The darkly sexual air of the alien is similarly present elsewhere. The clash between biological and mechanical is particularly explicit in the struggle between Ripley and Ash (played by Ian Holm, in a startling performance), a scene that almost threatens to top the alien’s birth as the film’s most obliquely disturbing.
Revealed to be an android, a malfunctioning Ash attempts to suffocate Ripley by forcing an adult magazine down her throat. It’s a moment that continues to unsettle even after repeated viewings, and suggests that even a synthetic male could somehow harbour deep-seated feelings of hatred and desire.
It’s clashes such as these, between flesh and metal, between Ripley and the alien, which itself seems almost feminine, that give Alien its texture and resonance that remains as mesmerising today as it was almost 30 years ago.
The new Alien Anthology Blu-ray release reveals the attention to detail in the film’s production design in greater depth than ever, and its shadows have never looked so black.
There are, of course, many other factors to Alien‘s success. You could rightly point to Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score, the pared back, minimal simplicity of O’Bannon and Shusett’s dialogue, or the quality of its performances, Sigourney Weaver’s, in particular, as the now archetypal heroine.
It’s Alien‘s production design that continues to capture my imagination (and massive credit there, of course, has to go to Roger Christian). I’ll never know what it was like to sit in the darkness of a movie theatre in 1979 and experience Alien for the first time, but the gothic corridors and chambers of the Nostromo are nevertheless filled with richness and detail, and Giger’s monster still exudes a strange, horrifying allure.
The Alien Anthology Blu-ray is out now. Tomorrow, we look back at James Cameron’s Aliens.