There are a handful of horror films which I consider my favorites. Alien is very near the top of that list.
To fully be appreciated, I think it is necessary to understand the landscape in which Alien arose. Two years before its release, Star Wars had blown the minds of most of the world. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released that same year. Both of these films presented the alien from outer-space as mysterious, potentially dangerous, but ultimately familiar, comprehensible, and even friendly to mankind.
The modern revision of most fairy-tales we are familiar with presents something just outside our common experience, working for the good or ill of man, which a hero ultimately deals with leading to a happy ending. Most fairy-tales in their original, however, were far darker stories meant as warnings not to stray to far from the well lit and traveled path. Alien is a dark fairy-tale, like those of old, a warning that the unknown is likely to be hostile to our intervention. No matter how advanced we may become, there will always be something which we cannot understand, which cannot be negotiated with, and wishes nothing but harm.
|So happy to see you that you get a hug!|
The Nostromo is a towing vessel assigned to retrieve a deep-space mining rig and return it to near-Earth space. On the way, the ship's computer detects a signal that appears to be from an intelligent source. It changes course and wakes the crew from cryo-sleep to investigate. While I won't get fully into the hints of conspiracy that are present here and explored in later films, there is the suggestion that they are well off-course, almost to the point that the ship's route would have had to have been changed to encounter the signal in the first place.
|Don't order the special.|
The unnamed planet has a hostile, but not impassible environment. The crew takes The Nostromo down and discovers and alien vessel with what appears to be a long-dead pilot who died violently. In what may be the cargo-hold, hundreds of leathery eggs stand covered in a strange mist. Kane, one of the ship's pilots, studies one of the eggs as it opens, releasing a crab or spider-like alien with a long, prehensile tale that punches through his environmental-suit visor and attaches itself to his face.
The crew discovers, in short time, that this was just the beginning of their nightmare.
|In about 3 years, they will give you E.T. to take the nightmares away.|
The film's strength is in its direct appeal to the pathos of the viewer. The score is almost always present and often barely audible, remaining ominous throughout the film and underscoring the tension that builds throughout. Like the horror films of the past, the filmography relies more on what is unseen, even with an award winning visual effects including the set and creature design by H.R. Giger and costume designs by Moebius. One of the most iconic monsters in modern horror films spent the majority of the first film hiding in dark corners and seen only in brief flashes or extreme close-ups. Director Ridley Scott gave each of the seven actors a back-story about their characters and held several improvisational rehearsals to help generate familiarity and tension among them. Each of the characters are easy to identify with, just working-class people trying to get home. Nothing spectacular sets them apart from anyone else, which means it could literally be any one of us on that ship.
|Underwear in space. Someone needs to tell Carrie Fisher.|
The special effects and set-designs were on the leading edge of the industry at the time. The chest-buster scene has become a part of the fabric of our collective consciousness, even those who have never seen the film recognize it in parody. The acting is excellent throughout. I have read some sources that suggest that some of the emotional tension was not an act, that Scott kept the actors awake for long periods of time and intentionally harassed them in order to keep the convincingly frazzled.
|Sets like this win awards.|
The story's deepest strength is that it is one of the prime myths of humanity, akin to the tale of Gilgamesh. The small and fragile band of humans are harried by a monster, a dragon or serpent of old, deep in the wilderness and far from civilization. The monster means to destroy them, and it is up to one of them to discover their internal heroism and face the monster as well as their own fears. In this tale, the princess and the hero happen to be one-and-the-same, the character Ripley. The death of the alien itself even mirrors the Gilgamesh epic. It is one of our oldest tales, an archetype that is one of the deepest roots of our mythology.
Alien stands apart from all other films about monsters in space, including its own sequels and spin-offs.