29 years on from its original release, Alien continues to be a masterpiece of sci-fi and horror. At only his second directorial effort, legendary director Ridley Scott put himself firmly in the Hollywood spotlight with both a critical and commercial success in the shape of a terrifying space adventure.
Alien stars a then relatively low-key cast, but today it’s a veritable who’s who of classic actors. John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, and, of course, Sigourney Weaver. Weaver plays the now iconic role of Ellen Ripley, an officer tasked with the job of somehow saving the day from a horrifying, powerful creature which has found its way onto their ship, the Nostromo, in arguably the film’s most iconic sequence. As the crew of the Nostromo begins to be picked off, Alien becomes a tense survival mission as they attempt to escape the creature’s wrath.
Criminally left unwatched until I was 19 years old in university, I’d genuinely avoided watching it despite knowing I should because I’d heard how scary it was. When I eventually bit the bullet late one night, the film lived up to its billing as a harrowing experience. What begins as a mysterious sci-fi, exploring a moon in the far reaches of space, becomes an unrelenting, thrilling experience that I have genuinely never forgotten. It’s well-written, it subverts expectations, it has outstanding production design, lighting, and sound design, and Ridley Scott meticulously balances the tension in order to maximise the impact of its numerous and plentiful scares.
You cannot write a review of Alien without talking about the actual alien. The Xenomorph. To this day, the Xenomorph has no equal as the most feared, and best design creature in film history. Nothing in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Predator can hold a candle to the Xenomorph. HR Giger’s creation is the most iconic thing to come from an iconic film because of its individuality and impactful design that’s equal parts horrifying as it is fascinatingly unique. The mouth within the mouth; the freakishly long, phallic cranium; the slightly humanoid elements (bi-pedal, five fingers) heightened to be so obviously, uncomfortably alien make it unforgettable. Add in its towering height over its human prey and it’s enough to scare even the bravest souls. There’s a reason the Xenomorph hasn’t changed much beyond some in-universe evolvements (the Xenomorph Queen in ‘Aliens’, the weird baby alien in ‘Resurrection’, the white baby aliens in ‘Alien: Covenant’), but the principal Xenomorph never changes because Giger nailed it. Creature designers have tried for years to come even close to the iconic creature and no one has managed it.
In rewatching the film, I thought I’d conduct a short experiment to see how much the Xenomorph is actually on screen. Give or take a few seconds where I had to restart the stopwatch, it came it at less than 4 minutes of screen time. 4 minutes! 4 minutes for it to make one of the biggest impacts we’ve ever seen in horror film history. That takes skill, and it takes the combination of all sorts of factors – building tension, perfectly timed jump scares (I’ve been irrationally scared of vents for the last 6 years since I first watched Alien), and the audience believing in the Xenomorph as a threatening entity, which they surely did – working for it to have such an impact.
Alien is incredible. It has stood the test of time for very good reason and remains as terrifying today as it surely was on its release. Despite the abundance of horror films in the market these days, Alien still stands tall as a scary-as-fuck film, and one of the all-time best scary-as-fuck films, at that.
Quoth the Alien, in space, no one can hear you scream. I’m sure the people of Nottingham heard me scream that night.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt