Forum feature: Alien

Exploring Ridley Scott’s dark vision.

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Welcome to SciFiNow’s long-running feature that gives you the chance to vote for the greatest sci-fi film of all time. Every issue for the next ten months the industry’s best writers will campaign for their favourite film from a shortlist of ten, with our readers ultimately deciding which film deserves the accolade of Greatest Sci-Fi Film Of All Time.

Today, Lee Medcalf argues the case for Ridley Scott’s Alien.

5337_16_6“Jaws in space” was the original pitch for Ridley Scott’s brilliantly dark classic Alien. It is a description that initially seems to suit the movie about a crew of the tug Nostromo being terrorised by an unseen yet ruthless foe. Yet it also sells the film short, ignoring all the facets and subtleties that elevate this film to the status of a bona fide classic.

Blending the two genres of sci-fi and horror expertly, Ridley Scott produced an antidote to the childish wide-eyed optimism and Flash Gordon antics of Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In our heart of hearts, we as fans knew that space is not a walk in the park; it’s a dark, dangerous place not traversed easily or quickly and if we did meet creatures from another world they would not be mixing us drinks in a cantina. It was this utilising of the Lovecraftian themes of the human race’s insignificance and possible place in the food chain that Alien exploits expertly.

From the iconic poster with its immortal tagline, through to the eerie score by Jerry Goldsmith, Alien strived to keep the audience unnerved. Its pacing is languid and seemingly meandering for the first 40 minutes, which was a brave move by Scott. Yet he uses that time skilfully to present the meticulously crafted environment of the Nostromo and introduce the audience to the seven unfortunate ‘space truckers’ before getting to the action. The result is a master class of ‘show, don’t tell’ performance and cinematography. By the time the Alien is introduced, we know the characters well – the stoic yet weary captain, the bullish engineer and his quiet sidekick, the nervy navigator, the level-headed first officer, the slightly creepy science officer and of course the by-the-book warrant officer. We also know how dark and labyrinthine the interior of the Nostromo is. Very few directors in the sci-fi genre understand the need for character building and the need for creating an immersive environment as well as Scott and in the opening third, the stage has been expertly set.

But a monster movie is nothing without its monster and in this respect Alien truly delivers. HR Giger’s design is a disturbing mass of primal fears and Freudian symbolism gathered into one shockingly malevolent whole. From the eyeless face, mechanical visage and double mouth to the queasily realistic life cycle based on a number of very real Earth bound insects, the creature is a potent symbol of nature, red in tooth and claw. Even 30 years on, the Alien continues to be counted as one of cinema’s most iconic of monsters.

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