The film “Jaws” was scary because we were kept in the dark about the shark throughout most of the movie. It was scary because of the build-up the shark received. “Alien” uses a similar tactic, but is scarier because we don’t know the monster at all: it’s alien to us (ha).
This film’s success, however, is owed to two people in particular: designer H.R. Giger and director Ridley Scott. Ridley Scott saw the original screenplay, which was for a B-movie horror film, and decided that everything needed to be scaled up and paced down. He hired Giger to design the sets and the monster. The rest, as they say, is history.
A crew in space receive a transmission that they attempt to discover the source of. When the crew returns, a creature has returned with them and begins killing the crew. That is our plot: a basic slasher film set-up with a small crew dealing with an alien. Like the most effective slasher films, the monster is a blank slate, a real monster, a killer. What sets “Alien”apart is the execution.
Ridley Scott, as he proves later with “Blade Runner” and shows why he needs this skill in “Gladiator” (it’s not bad, but it is over-rated), is a master at pacing. This film is a slow burn. The action does not explode, but instead sizzles. After all, both ships in the film are huge and the crew is small. The pacing also works with the reveal of the alien itself. At first an egg, then the facehugger, then chestburster, until it finally becomes the iconic monster we all know, which is only shown in parts. After all, if we saw the alien early on, would we have been as scared? No, we wouldn’t.
Giger’s iconic design work gives this film everything it needed. The ship in which the alien is found is large, spherical, and ominous. The alien is sleek, smooth, and full of phallic imagery that helps many people see the film as an allegory of rape (how do they see the sequels?). We see the alien bleed acid and extend an extra set of jaws to kill. The tail is sharp, like a spear. They hide particularly well, waiting to strike their prey. When we see it revealed in full at the end, we are terrified because the build-up showed it as an unstoppable killing machine and in full, it seems like it.
The film’s sole survivor, Ripley, will be the thread that helped create the franchise. While Sigourney Weaver plays her as a war hero in the sequel, here, she is the Last Girl: the one person who survives the killer, the one who is most helpless but usually is more innocent than those killed before her. The difference is that here, she saves herself (other slasher films don’t usually do that). Seeing how this film ends shows a logical progression to her character in the sequel.
Let’s face facts: film is a visual medium. The visuals are what made this film stand out. And it became iconic because of the visuals. If left as a B-movie, it would’ve been a forgotten relic. With Scott and Giger, however, it became one of the most terrifying films ever made. And all it needed to do that was some goos iconography.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto