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 world-building 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.
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 Sigourney Weaver 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.
Maybe this argument doesn’t hold much water and I’m already hearing cries of apples versus oranges, but when you watch 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 extending the Alien movie franchise will reveal what many of us have feared for years: the first Alien film is really just a dramatized documentary.
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.
This article originally ran as part of Tor.com’s 2012 “Countdown to Prometheus” series.