Ridley Scott’s Alien was unleashed in 1979 upon an unsuspecting sci-fi audience still woozy from the afterburn of Star Wars. With aspirations far above those of an ordinary horror film, Alien was aptly pitched as Jaws in space and proffered viewers’ deepest fears in the same white-knuckled fist as its fishy ancestor. My first glimpse of Alien was harmless enough – a sticky-labelled VHS tape in a stack donated to us by movie-loving cousins who refused to share a house with our limited video collection. Evidently the jewels in our crown – Police Academy, The Wizard of Oz and Bugsy Malone – were not sufficiently cool for the sophisticated teenagers of Surrey! Though later I would fall for the subtler charms of other tapes in the pile (my unabashed affection for Pretty in Pink continues to this day) for me the summer of 1987 took place aboard the Nostromo.
The genius of Alien lies in its veracity. Ron Cobb and Chris Foss’s ship is an extraordinary work of engineering and design and delivers viewers into the physical world of the commercial mining crew before you notice your mind has wandered from its safe sofa seat. When Dallas, Lambert, Ripley and Kane awaken from stasis dishevelled and bewildered you take your tired place among them. When Parker and Brett bitch that they’ve been short changed on their bonus again you are over-the-shoulder observers of their gripe. The Nostromo looks battered and lived-in – like a giant truck that has seen better days. It is as crumpled around the edges as the miners themselves and as solidly reassuring as their familial banter. These guys aren’t movie stars in space – there is no kind soft-focus to flatter the complexion or fool the eye. Some of the crew probably appear downright old to the eyes of modern cinemagoers who expect an oiled six-pack and a heaving set of twenty-something double D’s whenever they hand over their hard-earned. There is no sleight of hand here and thus you are free to believe what you see and to lose yourself entirely in the story as it unfolds. And what a story it is.
At the insistence of ship’s computer Mother, the Nostromo’s tug makes a clumsy landing on an unfamiliar planet in search of the source of an SOS beacon. Captain Dallas, Navigator Lambert and Executive Officer Kane head off to identify the source of the signal while the remaining crew try to make good the damaged craft for departure. Only Science Officer Ash, a perpetual outsider, lingers to observe the three leave. Affectless, he watches their progress on a snowy monitor screen and eavesdrops on their nervous chatter. John Hurt as Kane skips on ahead of the other two, an adventurer in a foreign land. He shows none of their reticence as the search party board a vast crashed alien vessel and explore its fathom-deep innards. And instantly we are torn from the familiarity of the Nostromo and thrust into the biomechanical world of H.R. Giger.
Nothing could have prepared me for the first time I saw the revolting reptilian curves of Giger’s Alien design. There is nothing comparable to his surreal vision of the future. Dan O’Bannon wrote the final version of his Star Beast script with a Giger alien firmly etched on his mind and you can see why. His work is impossible to forget.
I lost my nerve in the yawning darkness of that spaceship and didn’t recover it until well after the sun came up on a sleepless night. From the discovery of the eggs onwards I was in a permanent state of panic – I had seven characters to worry about and what the hell was that thing on his face?? Never had a midnight feast been more surplus to requirements. My cousins were so worried about alerting the adults that they buried me under a pile of soft furnishings before each and every scary moment. In my house, unlike Ridley Scott’s space, everyone could hear you scream!
Alien did things to its audience that few films had dared do before. It turned expectation firmly on its head, killed all the good guys, refused to show us the monster and totally forgot to send a man to save the day. The closest sensation I can describe to my first experience of watching Alien is to draw your attention to the spoof trailer Edgar Wright made for the Rodriguez/Tarantino Grindhouse sandwich. The trailer was for a film called Don’t. If you are thinking of going into this house…don’t. If you are thinking of opening that door…don’t. Don’t look behind you… Don’t go up there… Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t is my mind on Alien, a constant heartbeat percussion thrumming in my ears to a snare drum accompaniment of “DON’T!”
Once Kane awakens from his coma the film picks up pace to match the speed of your pulse. The chest-burster scene is by now the stuff of scary movie legend and has been copied and parodied into meek submission. But to see that chest-burst for the very first time on screen is to know true fear. The shock/horror on the faces of the cast – achieved by one bloodily executed take – mirror the disbelief and terror of the viewers and, for me, the tensile timing comes pretty damn close to perfection. Suddenly the Nostromo becomes a trap sprung upon its crew and you are imprisoned with them. Its corridors are as alien as the creature you are hunting and their every twist and turn tighten its death grip upon you.
The first time I saw Alien was a defining moment in my movie watching life. (It also had the happy side effect of bestowing instant sleepover credibility upon me as the proud owner of the notorious tape. That cred lasted until I was fifteen years old and we began to stay out rather than up all night!) The sensation of delicious slithering paranoia it uncoiled at the pit of my stomach is one I have sought in scary movies ever since. Alien demonstrates perfectly the absolute power of the imagination. Nothing can scare you as effectively as you can scare yourself. From the fragments of the creature we see to every corner we hide her behind, our minds work overtime to up the horrible ante. And, though she did not truly grow into her ass-kicking boots for another seven years, let us not forget that Alien gave us Ripley…
Only Ellen Ripley survived the onslaught of an acid-blooded, double-headed, giant killing machine from outer space. The slender brunette Warrant Officer outlived her colleagues, human and otherwise, outsmarted the monster and saved her cat! We part company with Sigourney Weaver as she plots a course for home, and finally exhale, satisfied that she and Jones will get their happy ending. After all isn’t that how it always works in the movies?