Mon
Jun 4 2012 12:00pm

In Space, Sigourney is Too Cool to Scream: Why Alien Endures

In preparation for the release of Prometheus, Tor.com will be looking back on all of the Alien films this week, starting with the eponymous picture that changed the way people looked at science fiction on screen:

Alien (1979)

Coming up with a more audacious title for a science fiction film than Alien would be tricky. Perhaps the only candidates are Science Fiction Film or Space: The Movie. From the earliest previews, the message of Alien was clear: all previous cinematic depictions of extraterrestrials are jokers and this Alien is the only alien, and yes, we only need one alien to convince you of that.

But the reason this movie is so great isn’t because of the singular Alien, or even the iconic design of the monster. The real monster here is the brilliant unfolding of the narrative. Just when you think you know what the hell is going on, something pops out (literally) and changes everything.

It’s nearly impossible to approach Alien without prior knowledge of it. Like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca, there are certain things everyone knows without having seen it. They know Sigourney Weaver is a badass, and they know a thing pops out of some poor dude’s chest and that it’s pretty gross. I recently was lucky enough to attend a midnight screening of Alien in New York City with two people who had never seen it (or any of its subsequent sequels) before. Watching it in this way, through their eyes, was fantastic because in the ensuing conversation, I realized what is so perfect about the narrative structure: it’s not obvious.

Sure it’s hard to acknowledge this now, but like an unconventional short story or novel, Alien doesn’t make it clear who its main protagonist is right away. Ripley has almost equal screen time with all the other characters as the film begins. The worldbuilding of Alien--at least initially—is close to zero. All we know is some folks are on a spaceship called the Nostromo and they’re a mining operation. Everything else we pick up as we go along. The expansive universe of Weyland-Yutani and the various conspiracies involving the Aliens aren’t as central to this film. They’re relevant and rendered totally important, but like all the elements of this movie, not overshadowed by too much attention.

Alien cast photo (1979)

So when does Ripley become the main character? When she becomes the squeaky wheel, the one person at her job who doesn’t want to throw the safety regulations out the window. When Kane (John Hurt) is brought back to the ship with the face-hugger creature on his face, Ripley demands they all follow the rules and not come inside. This is what the rules are for, right? It’s not that Ripley is some kind of hard-ass corporate stooge, it’s just that she doesn’t really want to do the go-with-the-flow thing for the sake of it. Which is what makes the character and the movie so wonderful. Though great and effective horror conventions are employed to maximum scary effect in this movie, the movie itself doesn’t feel all that conventional. The story structure, at least for a movie like this, is fairly original. There was never anything like it before, and few to rival it since.

The plodding, ominous, overly-deliberate pace of the first half of the film puts the audience in a great place to be totally shocked, exhilarated and freaked out by the fast-paced and horrific second half. Without this kind of creepy initial slowness, the rapidity of the Alien’s rampage on the ship wouldn’t be as keenly felt. This kind of gradual reveal is parallel to the character of Ripley herself. It’s not like we start the movie with her being extremely rude or in-your-face about everything. Instead, like a real person who feels that they’re the odd-man-out, she slowly emerges as the bravest person aboard. One of the nifty little tricks employed to help further this point is the fact that Ripley never screams the famous horror scream. We’d later find she was capable of it in Ghostbusters, but here in space, no one can hear Ripley scream—because she’s way too preoccupied with killing the monster.

Outside of the story and great cast, something else Alien has going for it is how damn great it looks. Though it’s not fair to do this because the movie can stand on its on merits; all one has to do is take a look other sci-fi movies of the 70’s that aren’t Star Wars to see proof of this. Logan’s Run came out just a few years before Alien. Can you imagine that? Sure, the budgets and companies that worked on the projects were different, but considering how wonderful Alien looks by comparison it becomes shocking to think about. Hell, this movie came out the same year as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which again, from realistic production standpoint, looks like a joke next to Alien.

Alien (1979)

Maybe this argument doesn’t hold much water and I’m already hearing cries of apples versus oranges, but when you starting seeing these previews for Prometheus and then you watch Alien right away and realize how good it still looks, the enduring popularity of the film becomes obvious. Even Star Wars doesn’t look as timeless as this movie. Sure, some of the chunky keys on the spaceship and the all greenscreen of the computer interface seem a little hokey; I still think there’s an element of realism to all of it. Maybe it was luck, or maybe it was planning, but Alien still looks—to me anyway—like a future we’re moving towards.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see, but maybe Prometheus will reveal what many of us have feared for years: the first Alien film is really just a dramatized documentary.

Alien (1979)

One final, important note on the brilliance of Alien. It takes some guts to call your movie Alien and have aliens reproduce through implanting themselves in human beings. It’s another thing to reveal a member of your all-human crew to be a murderous robot. The scene in which Yaphet Kotto’s Parker yells “Ash is a goddamn Robot!” may be one of my favorite lines in any movie, ever. Because really, at that moment, we didn’t know robots existed in this universe, and the fact that the movie is getting away with that is truly something special.

So much more to talk about with Alien. Chime in below and all week long as we eagerly count down to Prometheus!


Ryan Britt is the Staff Writer for Tor.com.

11 comments
Improbable Joe
1. Improbable Joe
People call this a "haunted house in space" movie, but what it really feels like to me is workplace/economic horror, and feels like almost a companion to The Amityville Horror which was almost a story about being upside down on your mortgage and you find out your house has black mold after a couple of months living there. Horror tends to be a reflection of whatever is bothering people in real life, and the late 70s were wonky economically... sort of like now, come to think of it.

In that vein, the sort of clunky high/low tech of Alien feels authentic to me in a way that I don't think other people might understand. I've worked in factories for years, and you'd be amazed at the combination of high and low tech. Sort of computerized robotic stuff alongside 1950's machines and mostly run by decades-old computer systems. Those cheap so-and-sos at Weyland-Yutani aren't wasting money on iPads if they can get away with recycled crap, especially if there's a high rate of ship loss on those far-away missions.
Improbable Joe
2. Jose Pardo
Just watched it again this weekend in preparation for Prometheus, I totally agree it still holds up great. Just some minor ergodynamic blunders in the lab when Ash is studying the specimen on a really awkward microscope sitting on a stool that you wouldnt stay on for more than 10 minutes, but overall it's stil rock solid.
Joseph Kingsmill
3. JFKingsmill16
Another thing about Alien is that the original official trailer for the movie is one of the most terrifying things I've ever watched. It shows you a bunch of images and gives away nothing of the story, not like the trailers of today that seem to give away most of the story and sometimes even reveals the twist in the story.
James Goetsch
4. Jedikalos
I remember going to see this movie when it first came out (and knowing absolutely nothing about it). When I went home that night I slept with the lights on--totally freaked! I'll never forget the absolute surprise of the alien busting out of the guy's chest (just didn't expect it at all). What a movie!
Improbable Joe
5. Eugene R.
Ripley never screams, but she does start to cry, at just the same point I would have, right after finding out that You Know What has snuck its shiny xenomorphic ass onto the escape pod. And she goes on to demonstrate that the real meaning of bravery comes not from being unafraid but from doing what you have to do, even when you are frightened out of your mind. A very different, and very human, sort of heroism.
Mike Conley
6. NomadUK
Just watched it again this weekend in preparation for Prometheus

That's a shame, because you've just set yourself up for an incredible letdown.

On the other hand, it'll let you appreciate even more what an amazing film Alien actually is.
Improbable Joe
7. politeruin
I'm pretty sure ripley lets out a fair old throaty scream just as she peeks to the side of her helmet, sees it snarling at her and then blasts it out the airlock. It was on tv the other day and that whole escape pod sequence still remains utterly terrifying when old jazz hands crawls out of the wall.

It's such a shame that by all accounts it seems they have completely cocked up the essential parts of the prequel.
Improbable Joe
8. Annafdd
Prometheus is not a prequel, it was just sold as that, and it's not doing it any favours, apparently.
But apart from that, I saw the movie when it came out and the feeling is still absolutely fresh in my mind. I must have watched it a hundred times, and I can still remember the utter terror of it as if it had happened yesterday. It took me about 25 years to be able to see all of it without covering my eyes.
I loathed Aliens, btw. It reduced all the innovation and originality to Yet Another Marines Action Flick.
Improbable Joe
9. BengtBengt
It's two things I ever want to know: How does such a planet that the Aliens came from look like? And what about the other aliens in the first movie - who were they?
alastair chadwin
10. a-j
Saw this on its release and was not wild keen on it I'm afraid. I was put off by the gore and the portrayal of terrible fear. But I do think it is one of the most important SF films ever made because of its look. The grimy and almost banal look of the ship and the dialogue (all that stuff about bonuses) and the costumes. Now I am pretty certain that this was the first SF film set in the future that did not have futuristic costumes (never seen Alphaville so can't say). Scott would do the same with Blade Runner and it's now standard - see nu-Who and Battlestar Galactica reboot. I do wonder if this is one of the factors that has helped to make SF more respectable. Nothing dates worse than futuristic costumes, look at classic Who if you want proof!
Improbable Joe
11. Taryntula
Just watched the original Alien last night and will see Prometheus tonight...I agree that the slow pace of the first half of the movie really sets up the last half which is a wild race of heart-thumping action. I have to say one of my favorite sequences is Brett off alone looking for the cat, Jones. I've never had heart palpitations like I did during that 5 minutes of movie. EVER. Purely genious. I hope Prometheus at least gives us some minutes of suspense like that, even if the story/characters don't match up to the original.

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