Alien ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

“I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

The future is a terrifying, unknown place. Not because we expect it to be radically different from today, but because we expect it to be littered with today’s problems in ways we can’t anticipate and may not be fully equipped to combat. Technological advancement continues apace—but will it one day outpace us? Will we be able to control it, or will it develop (or, perhaps worse, be controlled by those possessing) ulterior motives? Corporate conglomeration yields lower prices and efficiencies of scale—while also yielding behemoths markedly unencumbered by any organic ethical constraints. Will we be able to keep these massive entities in check? Science is constantly uncovering new organisms and understanding how to control (or defeat) them—but those organisms also uncover and understand us, and adapt accordingly. Will we be able to outmaneuver evolution? And then there’s our ever-present, ever-fascinated fear of sex and death....

Ridley Scott has said that, with Alien, he hoped to make a hybrid of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He succeeded. Alien plays like a nightmarish combination of its inspirations, with 2001’s practical, believable mechanics of life in space and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s descent into inescapable terror in a remote locale. It may be a “haunted house in space” movie, but it isn’t just that. It’s an exploration of our primal fears. After all, there’s a reason we’re scared of things that go bump in the night.

Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon enhance the tension by building it slowly against a naturalistic backdrop. We gather the contours of the Nostromo by travelling down its corridors. We meet the crew and hear them chat and bicker. Nothing truly horrific happens until well into the film; it’s just another day at the office. And unlike so many horror films, none of the performers is disposable, making their demises impossible to predict, keeping us always on edge. The plausible survival of each crew member is one of Alien’s great strengths; it is more than paint-by-numbers slaughter.

Alien is wisely never too pointed about the sources of its terror; they simply grow naturally out of this future. Weyland-Yutani Corporation is heartless, willing to expend its crew in search of the perfect weapon. The world of Alien contains remarkable technology, but it is controlled by a profit-mad company and its automated henchman. Besides, what good is science and technology when faced with an acid-blooded, unkillable beast—a literal superbug? When primitive fire is the most effective tool at hand, the bright prospect of the future dims considerably.

But Alien’s most basic, most enduring terrors are built right into H. R. Giger’s remarkable design. The title creature first manifests as a face-hugger, penetrating Kane (John Hurt) with an appendage of sorts—an appendage that gives life (providing Kane with oxygen) while brutally incapacitating him. That penetration in turn yields more life, with Kane “giving birth” to a chest-bursting baby xenomorph that appears decidedly phallic, but with a tooth-lined vaginal orifice. As the creature rapidly grows into its giant, terrifying adult form, its head and mouth retain those suggestive shapes, while developing into something both reptilian and bug-like, something unknown (yet disturbingly familiar) that exists only to kill. It’s a grab bag of subconscious fears that overlays the proceedings with a terrible sense of dread.

In the end, of course, there is a Final Girl. But we never feel as though we’ve seen a trope inevitably fulfilled. The decision to retain Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is logical and well-earned, and could not have been wiser. Even in this first entry, she is smart, tough, funny, professional, intuitive, maternal, and altogether badass. We admire her, not because she is pure, but because she is a survivor, filled with conscience and morality. She’s the sort of character that more films should explore.

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