Ridley Scott made one the best films anyone has ever made in the genres of horror, science fiction, and the thriller all at once with Alien. In a visually striking and dark setting, he delivers a disturbing story about space travel and alien life. The film confronts several basic questions that many people have. They are questions about being alone in the world, about life very different from our own, biological reproduction, technology and corporate power, predation, and isolation.
Those are some fairly heady themes, and perhaps the most missed point about Alien is that it is able to cover all of that intellectual and dramatic ground in a film that is entertaining and engrossing without making us realize how serious its topics are. It still rewards serious exploration of those themes, and it might very well be the most uncomfortable movie anyone has ever made. This is easy to miss when so many movies are much more violent, but I don’t think any of them are as scary or as well crafted. The vision Scott has with this movie is completely dark, bleak, desperate, and disquieting. There are lots of horror movies and lots of monster movies, but either they can’t really be taken seriously or else they are about a threat that can be overcome. Alien essentially offers no hope and entertains us with extreme nihilism.
Scott has a considerable intelligence for his way of realizing this. Space is vast, and the universe is a big place. The odds of only our planet having life makes effectively no sense, because science rests logically on the idea of nature being uniform. The simple need for the laws of physics to be the same throughout our universe makes it awfully likely that there is other life, some less advanced and some more advanced. If we drop all assumptions and take that basic point of logic into cinema and apply it to one of its worst possibilities, we get the movie that made Ridley Scott famous.
Some travelers heading through space on a mining mission land on a planet that gives a sudden indication of having life as they pass by. This is a wonderful narrative setting, because Scott has taken what we already know about corporations and technology and made it more advanced, as he would later do in Blade Runner. Corporate life and technological advances happen hand in hand. So once it is possible to make ships that can carry more things much farther in space, it is likely that resources will be harvested from other places. Resource deposits have already been found on asteroids that dwarf the presence of economically valuable metals on earth. So the idea of mining space in the future is very plausible and would be economically desirable.
Scott uses this setting to make science fiction realistic. The crew of the Nostromo deal with the same labor and corporate issues most employees deal with. Their company makes a lot of money off of their mining adventure. They are there simply to get paid and have this as their first concern. If something bad happens to them, they would suffer misfortune, but the company would take a loss and still be profitable, because that is how businesses tend to run. As technology advances and opens new profit avenues, Soctt has us troublingly ask: what will a company do to make a profit in the future?
Those concerns are reasonable, and it puts Alien into a strange mode of being a realistic film on many points despite its science fiction setting. The juxtaposition between realistic existential, economic, and technological questions with the unreality of the alien is what makes the film so scary and effective. We can connect with everyone in the movie and even like them, because they are like the normal workers of a corporate world simply trying to survive. The company they work for, the ship they are on, and an alien lifeform all converge to make that problem of survival become very difficult.
As biology advances to presumably one day become exobiology, more questions are raised about the expansion of science. We already have a lot to fear about the misuse of technology on our own planet to invade privacy with computers, to destroy things with atomic weapons, and to endanger life through the misuse of biology. What happens when biology deals with organisms from other planets, and some are more advanced than us? Scott’s answer is that we are simply finished and should give up all hope. His existential bleakness has few equals and is one of the best inspirations for drinking that I know of in cinema.
Perhaps most effectively, Alien is about indescribable otherness. We have no idea what will happen when humanity encounters life from other worlds. Stephen Hawking already warns that it could bring our destruction. More likely, we will encounter simple nonthreatening life of very basic sorts on places like a nearby moon before having to deal with intelligent life, but the question of what sort of otherness this could be is a powerful one. It is hard for us to make sense of animal life on our own planet, with cat owners wondering what their pets are thinking just as things are. Scott has us deal with how different life could potentially be, and he raises the question of hostility within it. Such a foreign encounter can’t really be categorized, and Scott’s film makes the alien odd enough to capture this very well.
Scott is a master at composing shots in his films, and Alien is a beautiful work even while it is bleak. The lighting on the ship is so eerie, and its corridors so carefully framed in so much shadowy darkness with bits of glowy high tech light breaking through that it is intoxicating. Alien manages to have the look of a classic film noir brought into an industrial setting as if to say that our technology is inevitably leading to a nightmare. The film at varying points does have a hypnotic dreamy quality that amplifies this sense of being a nightmare, though this often gets overlooked due to the high level of suspense.
When the film was made, Sigourney Weaver was not yet a famous actress, and it was unusual to cast a female lead in an adventure film of any type. Scott showed himself to be a subtle director of characters and built the entire cast into memorable personas who we could care about while giving the character of Ripley the heroic part. He is able to effectively keep her character as feminine while also conveying strength, as he would later again do very well in Thelma and Louise.
The gender exploration is a serious gesture in a film that is about the limits of life and humanity. This very obviously plays out in the horror of the famous chest burster sequence where the alien first emerges from John Hurt with a twisted form of birth. Similarly, the one black actor in the film is clearly portrayed as equal to all other characters in Scott’s film as though humanity should get over superficial reasons for treating each other as parts of separate groups when nature is big enough to include things that aren’t even human at all.
Finally, the treatment of artificial technology is a fascinating bridge to where Scott would go with Blade Runner. For a film made in 1979, Alien has a remarkably clear picture of a future in which computers are both necessary and dangerous, so needed they are even capable of taking over. The crew of the Nostromo can’t find out what is happening without help from a computer, but it turns out to be under the control of the company and does not have their best interests at heart.
The computer is mostly interested in profit and in war fighting, and it has been programmed to treat the crew as expendable in order to have the alien as a resource. This is done through an artificial intelligence that seemed just like another person. Certainly AI is gaining steam and will be making decisions that are very dangerous in the near future, but Scott is raising the philosophical question of how different humans and machines are in the first place once we live in a world surrounded with technology designed to profit from us.