Alien: The sci-fi horror where you can hear people scream
Ivan Radford | On 08, May 2017Reading time: 7 mins
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm
Watch Alien 1979 online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
With Alien: Covenant out in the UK, our Alien Retrospective looks back at the original Alien films, plus where you can watch them online.
In space, no one can hear you scream. Ridley Scott’s Alien has one of the most famous taglines in cinema history. But it’s only once you go back to watch it that you realise just how apt that slogan is.
The 1979 classic is an astonishing feat of film-making in every possible way. From the script to the cast to the production design, it’s a masterpiece of craft – and that’s as much testament to each individual person on the crew as it is to Ridley himself, who brings together all those elements with a terrifying vision of the monster he’s creating.
Creation is a huge part of the movie’s still-eerie effect: Alien begins a cycle of birth, life and death across a hauntingly well-conceived trilogy (let’s not talk about the underwhelming fourth one). It opens with the sight of pods flowering, reanimating a ship’s inhabitants in a room bathed with a pure, white glow. And over the two ensuing hours, that echo of birth gradually becomes corrupted into something darkly disturbing.
It all happens when the crew aboard the Nostromo find their journey back to Earth interrupted by a distress beacon and go to investigate. Kane (John Hurt) leads a team exploring the planet, where they find an abandoned alien spacecraft – and inside, a room full of eggs. One opens and a creature attaches itself to his face. Bringing Kane back on board, against the wishes of Warrant Office Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), it’s only then that they realise the creature has impregnated him – and the resulting birth of yet another iteration of this deeply unnerving beast is one of the most traumatising things ever caught on celluloid.
There are many reasons for that. Essays upon essays could be written – and, indeed, have been – about the way that Dan O’Bannon’s script plays upon the horror of a male pregnancy, a horror that extends into every nook and cranny of sexual perversion, from the way that the facehugger engulfs Ash’s face to the sight of the fully-grown adult alien, with its protruding mouth. Body horror seeds a story of parasitic dependence and destruction, all parts of the same phallic nastiness dripping in saliva and bathed in dark shadows. Even a fight between Ash (Ian Holm, perfectly pitched between polite and creepy) – who refers to the alien as Kane’s “son” – and Ripley sees him try to suffocate her with a rolled up magazine.
It is, the more you think about it, deeply messed-up stuff. And who better to design that than HR Giger? The Swiss artist’s designs for the alien – partly a result of his work on Alexander Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Dune for the screen – are brought to hideous life by Ridley and his team of artists, turning a man in a costume into something we barely even see for most of the runtime, just to cement its position in our dreams.
The casting of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley feeds right into those themes. Once planned to be a bloke, the gender-swapping of the character imbues the movie with endlessly rich subtext – and, as a bonus, a satisfyingly tough female character, of the kind that is still relatively rare today, let alone in the 1970s. At the time, sci-fi was basking in the glow of Kubrick’s 2001, so Scott’s Alien came into the world as a scuzzier, gruffer cousin – gone were pristine ships and sleek technology, replaced by the kind of battered, worn-down space junk that helped make Star Wars stand out a couple of years before. But even George Lucas couldn’t have prepared audiences for the warped horror of Scott’s sci-fi, which gave all the pretty, curved qualities to the alien architecture and left the humans with angular corridors and rugged metal, corroded by acid.
In meshing those genres so distinctively, Alien is the definitive sci-fi horror – a film of two parts that starts as sci-fi, before lurching clearly into horror. And Scott’s careful guidance of the script through those phases is the secret to its success. The slow first act gives the chance for us to get to know the characters (Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton as the weary, downtrodden engineers do a lot of work to bring out the natural humanity of the ensemble), with Tom Skerritt’s ill-fated Captain Dallas overseeing an intriguing bubbling cauldron of shifting power dynamics.
When the egg scene happens, transforming the low-key genre piece into another register, Scott steers events with a typically hands-on approach – he literally uses his hands in some rubber gloves to perform the movement of the facehugger inside the translucent egg. That sequence was shot, in part, upside down, which adds a wonderfully creepy touch that you might not even notice – when the camera shows us the egg up close, the moisture on its surface drips upwards, enough to send shivers down your spine.
Even now, the attention to detail is gob-smacking – when Ridley Scott was asked to make a director’s cut of the film, he added in four minutes of deleted footage, but still made it one minute shorter, trimming tracking shots to tighten the pace. But perhaps the most effective weapon in Scott’s unseen arsenal is his judicious use of sound and music. Jerry Goldsmith’s gloriously atonal score is deliberately, aggressively weird – after Scott reportedly told him his first draft wasn’t out there enough – and is responsible for much of the film’s spooky atmosphere.
The initial theme sings with the beauty of galactic exploration and discovery, but the melody doesn’t jump the full five notes of John Williams’ optimistic Star Wars march, hopping up four notes, before sliding back one to create an unsettling end to each phrase. And Jerry’s only getting started, using odd breathing patterns to make the brass instruments squelch and parp in terror, as the strings screech and teeter all the way up and down your nerve-endings. There’s no synth here, although it might sound like it: just normal instruments augmenting out of tune to creative a clacking, jangling cacophony of fear.
Scott cuts lots of Goldsmith’s score into pieces, which could be considered sacrilege, but the director knows exactly what he’s doing, fading the music in and out to hair-raising effect: just before the egg opens, the soundtrack disappears entirely, leaving us with the barely audible rustles and slitherings of the unknown. It’s a trick he uses again and again to build tension – every time we venture outside at the start, the wind howls into our ears, cutting to silence as soon as the camera steps inside (an influential technique that carries all the way through to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). When Kane is in the medical lab being examined, the crack of his helmet in the silence of the room is loud enough to make you jump. Nowhere is it better done, though, than in that iconic chest-bursting scene, as the music vanishes to leave us pondering only the noises of a snapping rib cage and people’s cries of horror.
In space, no one can hear you scream. In Alien, Scott makes sure that’s the only thing we can. 38 years later, the sound is still ringing in your ears.
Alien is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.