It’s no secret amongst people that know me that I am not great at horror films. My husband describes me as having a rabbit heart. Sudden loud noises make me jump, even if I’m expecting them. It’s partially due to this that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of horror. Or at least, I didn’t used to be.
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is one of the movies that changed how I view the genre. I first saw this movie in 2012 and still consider it one of the most frightening things that I’ve seen. It’s also now one of my favorite films.
This may not make sense now but just hang in there with me and you’ll see what I mean.
If you haven’t seen Alien, turn back now, for here be spoilers.
The first thing I noticed when rewatching Alien for this review was how perfectly the opening title sets the rest of the movie up. There’s a slow rise in the music as the word ‘A L I E N’ is spelled out across a panning shot of space and a dark, unidentified planet. The music hits its crescendo as the final letter is fully filled out. The slow increase leading to a crash of intensity parallels the film’s beats.
Speaking of beats, a review about Alien would be amiss without mentioning the music. Composer Jerry Goldsmith chose simplicity and quality over quantity. Much of the sound in Alien is ambient noise from the ship. Without music to anchor to, the audience is left struggling to find comfort. This ties in extremely well with the set design, which we will get to later.
I noticed that the use of music was most commonly used to set the scene. When the sun rose on the planet they discovered there was quiet music mixed with the sounds of the crew breathing heavily in their suits. The music swells and crashes upon the discovery of the console on the ship, and is lighter and eerie upon discovering the egg room.
A little less than 35 minutes of music can be heard through the 117 minute run time. On several occasions throughout the film the whirring of the computers and the dinging of alarms have an almost musical quality to them. Using sounds that the crew would hear versus using music just for the audience makes the film more tense and adds to the gritty realism you don’t usually expect from a Science Fiction film.
For the time that Alien was produced, using music sparingly was a novel approach both in science fiction and horror. Think of Star Wars and what’s one of the first things to come to mind? Epic and memorable music. One of the first things that come to my mind when thinking of Alien is the Xenomorph.
That’s not a knock on other horror films by any means. The use of music in other films works for them, just as the silence in Alien works for it. Having the ambient noises and music drop to silence prior to any of the film’s jump scares (be they legitimate or a tease) makes the action that much more startling. The absence of music along with production design leave the audience trying to find something to anchor to. Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger were two of the main names behind the production design. Cobb worked heavily on the interiors of the Nostromo, while Giger is famous for his design of the Xenomorph.
The design of the Nostromo heavily influences the audience’s emotions. Its hallways are bare and the colors are monochromatic. There’s no color or decorations to relate to. It all feels very foreign and, if I may say, alien. Combine these two factors and you have one hell of a base for a psychological sci-fi thriller.
The tension begins to build in Alien before a human is ever seen. There are long dolly shots of the interior, beautifully showcasing the bare living conditions of the crew. The music continues until the computer system kicks, which incidentally has the first bright color you see in the film (and one of the only instances of this).
Cut to the hypersleep chamber. I was reminded of a beetle’s carapace as the covers of the chambers lifted. Many of the designs throughout the film are reminiscent of insects and arachnids.
Alien starts off fairly slow. Neither the action nor the pace really pick up until the crew lands on LV-246. The landing of the Nostromo is rough and the crew’s anxiety is palpable and contagious to the audience.
The false jump scares throughout the early parts of the movie make the legitimate scares much more effective. By the time the shit hits the fan, the audience is desensitized. Everyone is expecting another false scare but surprise! Sudden Xenomorph!
It’s important to note that the Xenomorph in its fully grown form isn’t seen until a little over an hour in. The audience has been shown the egg, the face hugger, and the chest burster, but not the “murder all of you” version.
The reveal of the xenomorph requires some serious attention. The build up is relatively subtle and extremely well done. You start with Kane (John Hurt) finding the egg room and having an arachnid like creature latch onto his face. Then you’re lulled into a false sense of security (a common theme in Alien) before having the chest burster show the audience exactly how it got its name. The chest burster isn’t seen until almost an hour into the film. That’s one hell of a build up.
The first view of the fully grown Xenomorph is chilling. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is looking for the ship’s cat, the adorably named Jones. He ends up following Jones into a storage room full of hanging chains. After several tense moments of him calling out for the cat, the camera briefly stops on the Xenomorph clinging to a hanging beam (is it a beam?) and watching him from above. I was reminded of a panther in this moment. A silent and deadly large predator who stalks its prey until the time is right.
Speaking of becoming desensitized, the hanging chains prevent the Xenomorph’s attack from turning into a jump scare. I feel that this is much more impressive than just having it pop up out of nowhere. You see its tail and for a moment think it’s a chain, but by the time you realize what it is (and by the time Brett turns around), it’s too late. The Xenomorph has appeared and is truly menacing.
The Xenomorph’s head is reminiscent of a beetle carapace, much like the covers to the crew’s hypersleep chambers. There are no visible eyes and its body parts are more animalistic than humanoid. Between the scorpion like tail and back spines that look like snake vertebrae, there isn’t much for the audience to find comfort in.
There’s so much more I could talk about. From having a relatively unknown actress (at the time) be the survivor, to the way that the corporation is made out to be as much of a bad guy as the Xenomorph, Alien is filled with amazing details.
But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about what makes this a great horror movie. For me the main thing that makes this so great is by having nothing for the audience to find comfort in. Hell, I was even terrified for the cat the first time I watched Alien. Other than the crew it was the only thing that was relatable for me.
Alien is an absolute masterpiece and a classic. It’s definitely worth several viewings.