The movie Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and staring Sigourney Weaver, is one of my favorite science fiction horror thrillers. Watching it as a kid, I remember being scared to death while at the same time being glued to the television screen. And even watching it today, knowing what will happen, I still find myself caught up in the story. But what makes this such an effective monster movie after all these years?
Glad you asked!
For starters, the setting plays a pivotal role. The isolation of a spaceship is such a perfect set up because we have both death outside and death inside, the double whammy of horror. There is nowhere to go which forces the characters into confrontation with the monster. Scott also gives us a very gritty type of space journey. Gone are the polished surfaces from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are on a working ship with greasy walls, dirty uniforms, and a crew that smokes cigarettes and drinks coffee. It is the little touches like this that really brings the fantastic setting into a sharp focus by making it so instantly recognizable to the viewer.
This film is also a perfect example of story trumping special effects. Part of the reason I never connected with all of the sequels was because they lacked the tension of the original. Instead of extended moments of silence punctuated by dripping water, we get hundreds of xenomorphs, the creature in Alien, with too many bullets and too much of everything else. A blasting gun doesn’t build tension. An extended shot of an unmoving corridor does because in the absence of action we supply the expectation. I think it’s hilarious that a Pac Man style dot and a beep convey more tension then all the sequels combined.
But if I had to criticize the original for anything it would be lack of character development. We know absolutely nothing about any of the characters beyond their general role and desires such as money and survival. Because of this the first quarter of the film doesn’t have a central character. If I were watching it for the first time I’m guessing I would gravitate toward Dallas, the captain, but Ripley (Sigourney Weaver’s character) doesn’t step away from the pack until she refuses to open the airlock and let the wounded Kane inside. It’s then that we start to realize that she’s different. She cares more about survival than the rest of the crew which primes us for the inevitable showdown between her and the xenomorph.
I guess this shows that if you have a tremendous atmosphere and an idea that’s strong enough, you can focus less on characters. Because hey, if you hit the game winning home run who cares if you struck out in the third inning? Nobody except for the critics, that’s who.