One of the most groundbreaking films in the sci-fi/horror genre, Alien stormed the big screen with a strong, female protagonist, an engrossing environment, and a terrifying extraterrestrial.
There are plenty of articles that discuss Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as a feminist icon in science-fiction and popular culture, so I won’t really focus on that. What I will say is that Ripley’s roles as an engineer, an officer, a warrior (and even a mother in later films) were handled in a refreshingly brazen way. This kind of unapologetic gesture is forely needed in filmmaking, and I think Alien should be recognised and commended for this.
What I want to talk about more is the horror in Alien.
The setting of this story is one of the most unique aspects to it. Aside from the investigation of the planetoid, where the facehugger attaches itself to Kane, the majority of the film is set on the ship, the Nostromo. The sanitary and relatively pristine conditions of the living quarters offer a sharp contrast to the distressing event of the Alien bursting from Kane’s chest. It’s sickening to see his blood stain the sterile environment, and from then on, the crew are trying to survive. The pristine living quarters are replaced with the dark and dingy tunnels and corridors of the Nostromo, as the Alien hunts them one by one. Using the single setting of the Nostromo for the film created so much tension and claustrophobia. Fear is the only thing we can feel in such circumstances. The fight/flight reflex is cruelly mocked as it becomes clear that neither of these can possibly be an option.
Another altogether shocking element of horror in Alien was the existence and agenda of Ash, the android. In retrospect it’s obvious that he wasn’t human, but there are so many distractions that the reveal on the first viewing is mind-blowing. As if Aliens weren’t bad enough, now there are androids. And what’s worse is that they’re working together! So it seems, but then the story takes a darker turn and we find that the android is under human orders to bring the Alien back at any cost. Implicitly, this is taken as ‘the crew is expendable’. Just like Frankenstein, we are our own unmakers; we cannot blame the monster for being a monster, we are the ones responsible for bringing the monster upon ourselves. Of course, the crew is innocent and we fear for them because of it, but our rage at the injustice delivered unto the crew is never aimed at the Alien.
Which of course, brings us to the monster itself. There isn’t much I can add to this that the film doesn’t make clear. Ash states it the clearest:
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility…I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
– Ash, Alien
What makes the Alien more terrifying than many other monsters is that there are no answers, no origins, no explanations. We are given nothing about the Alien, only its instinctive ability to hunt and kill. Since we cannot attribute a reason to the killing, we are merely left with the fact that this is a creature trying to survive and reproduce. There is no Evil to pit ourselves against, there is only the perfect predator to try and outwit and escape. Far from being a comfort, this challenges the idea that we have (or that our future selves will) become nature’s hierarchical apex.
Often in horror stories, the villain’s behaviour can be attributed to some traumatic event in the past. Why this has become a trope is an interesting question, and one where your answer is as good as mine. Perhaps we have an intrinsic need to explain and comprehend violence so that it has less power over us in our minds. Perhaps it’s as simple as our desire to see patterns of cause and effect. Whatever the reason, Alien broke free of this mold and left us in the dark. And I think our fear of the unknown will always surpass our other fears.