Film Notes: Alien (Ridley Scott)

Can anything new be said about Ridley Scott’s Alien? Yes…please, Ridley Scott, stop making ill-conceived prequels to the original. But otherwise, probably not, but there are several elements that make this a classic. Here, in no particular order, are three reasons why you should watch or revisit it.

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  1. Sexual Grotesque

Swiss artist H.R. Giger developed the grotesque designs for the alien and the derelict space ship. The aesthetic he employs merges the organic and the technological into what the artist called the “biomechanical.” The boundaries between living and dead and machine and organism are made fluid, unsettles the viewer with an abject grotesquerie.

Though this biomechanical aesthetic is mostly seen in shadows or through smoke or mist, it creepily melds the sexual with the grotesque. The derelict ship where the crew of the Nostromo stumble across the alien eggs is fallopian in nature, and feels less like a vessel and more like a desiccated womb, where all sorts of monstrous offspring incubate.

The alien itself is a bizarre melange of slithery bones and teeth and tentacles, its head phallic, its mouth dripping and vaginal, with a phallic tongue inside, it too armed with a set of teeth. In joining the sexual and the horrific, the creature design especially pushes all the right (and wrong!) buttons.

  1. Making the Future Work

As a science fiction/horror hybrid, Alien has an outlandish premise (if it seems contrived, that’s only because of its many imitators), but that premise is grounded and buttressed by an attention to the workaday life of the crew of the Nostromo. Space has been commodified and corporatised. This is signalled at the very beginning of the film as we range across the hulking mass of the ship lumbering through the stars on its was back to earth to deliver a vast payload of ore. The Nostromo is a mining ship, out in space to resource a corporation so big it’s literally interstellar. In stark contrast to science fiction narratives like Star Trek, Star Wars or Doctor Who, space is not full of adventure and exploration, it is just another site of economic exploitation.

  1. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley

The film begins as an ensemble piece. It is only through the developments of the plot that we come to see Ripley as the protagonist, so nuanced and understated is Weaver’s characterisation. Though we now view her as the centralising narrative focus of the three sequels, watching the first film, this is never signposted until towards the end of the film.

Though Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley is to some extent the lynchpin of the Alien series, her character is written and performed in such an way that you wouldn’t readily expect her survive the encounters with the xenomorph creature. In early drafts of the screenplay she didn’t survive. One particularly ridiculous alternate version saw the alien beheading her then imitating her voice to send out a distress signal to bring the alien more victims. Thankfully, that ending never came to pass and Ripley became a memorable paradigm of survival.

 

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While there are other things to rave about, it’s mostly these three ingredients that make it stand out. The future in the late 70s looked pretty desolate, so we can understand why a film like Alien resonated at the time. Why it has become a classic is a trickier question. Alien draws on anxieties both symbolic and material that speak to us so profoundly that one encounter was never going to be enough. It’s perhaps why it doesn’t suffer from rewatches, and why it’s spawned so many sequels and imitators.

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