Active Ingredients: Dense atmosphere; Restrained pace; Creature design
Side Effects: Jump scares
Alien or Aliens? It seems like everyone has to choose one, and the last twenty years or so of blockbusters makes James Cameron’s action sequel look influential and prescient. Really, though, the two films couldn’t be more different, and for me Ridley Scott’s tension built from a combination of intricate production design and uncommon patience far surpasses Cameron’s cheesy machismo.
Alien is justly remembered for its classic sci-fi and horror moments (face-huggingly, chest-burstingly awesome), and one of the scariest monsters in film history, but rewatching the film today it’s the eerie, slow pace and stifling ambiance that define the experience. The set of the spaceship Nastromo is crammed with blinking monitors, computer readouts, flashing lights and steam. Scott composes shots and builds scenes around these elements, beautifully using colors and textures in depth in the frame. The sound design matches the aesthetic with an arsenal of sirens, hissing motors and electronic beeps. Despite the extreme detail and complexity in set design and cinematography, however, Alien feels remarkably light, even graceful, and this perfectly calibrated juxtaposition creates the film’s unique mood and stands as Scott’s greatest accomplishment.
Scott’s next film was Blade Runner, but already in Alien themes of the tenuous value of human life emerge. There’s lots of talk about life of all kinds: “the perfect organism” of the alien, the simulated life of robots, and the fragility and expendability of humans. Even the Nostromo, with its ubiquitous computing and the disembodied “Mother” that communicates orders to the crew, beats and pulses like a heart, its own macro-organism in space. Alien has probably supported fewer existential essays than Blade Runner, yet the content is there, subtle and complex.
But, of course, what most take away from the film is the alien, and what a creature it is, with its slick curved head, double mouth and acid blood. Dan O’Bannon, who went on to direct the zany The Return of the Living Dead, helped write the story and design the creature, and though it’s thoroughly modern in its ferocity, something about its implementation in the film, often just a man in a costume, recalls with fondness early creature features of the 1950s like Creature from the Black Lagoon. Scott relies on ambiance, pacing and editing for tension, not special effects, and Alien reminds us that as the technical possibilities of cinema continue to advance, there’s still no substitute for creativity, in sci-fi, horror or any other genre.