The “jump scare” is a well established trope of horror films, in which the “shriek chord” on the soundtrack suddenly rises, in order to give audiences a jolt. Lazy horror films aggressively use the “shriek chord” but aren’t fooling anyone. If a filmmaker needs the equivalent of someone screaming in my ear to induce fear, then the director and their movie are clearly unworthy. A key to not being audibly assaulted in a movie theater: Plug your ears and just watch the action. Suddenly, most horror movies aren’t so scary without the explosion of sound to make you bounce in your seat… unless that movie is Ridley Scott’s Alien. There’s no protecting yourself from this film, especially on the big screen, where Scott and his lurking visuals have you surrounded.
Released two years after Star Wars and during a season where major studios worked overtime at ripping off The Force with their own wannabee contenders (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, and Moonraker are notable entries), Alien arrived quietly and went in a different direction. By fusing sci-fi with horror that is Freudian, gothic, and existential, it jettisoned optimism, re-wired genre expectations, and succeeded at terrorizing its audience. Forty years later, it’s still a grand, sinister masterpiece.
In the year 2122, the spaceship Nostromo finds its crew awakened after a lengthy period of hibernation, to discover they are not in their own star system. A signal from a nearby planet requires some investigation, though the mission is met with skepticism. Nevertheless, they land on a dark, stormy planet, scale the ruins of a bizarre alien spaceship, and discover a giant room full of eggs, gestating with brewing, angry lifeforms just waiting to hatch.
A masterstroke is in the casting: The crew is played by Sigourney Weaver (in her first starring role), Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, and Yaphet Kotto. You read that right: There are only seven actors in this movie – eight if you count the under-appreciated contribution of seven-foot-tall Nigerian actor Bolaji Badejo in the title role. The dynamic between the crew feels authentic, as the cast never seems to be acting. A gifted ensemble makes the rapport in screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay sound natural and overlapping. It’s a surprise to learn all of the dialog wasn’t improvised, as it always sounds that way. Everyone here is wonderful, though Holm’s ice-cold intensity, Cartwright’s heartbreaking hysteria, Weaver’s fierce turn, and Kotto’s scene-stealing slow burn are the standouts.
Following the quiet, elegant establishing scenes, a thick feeling of dread and unease takes over; the wonderfully detailed sets become increasingly dimmer as the film grows visually and thematically darker. The mystery and wonder of the early scenes fade into a Darwinian struggle for survival, as the greatest obstacle facing the crew may not have been the parasite they pick up.
Scott’s film (his second after his striking debut, The Duellists) establishes that something is off from the beginning, and Alien is spooky long before the monsters appear. As iconic (and still horrible) as that dinner scene is, an earlier detail always succeeds at making my skin crawl: Notice how the Facehugger, while latched onto its first host, wraps its tail tighter around its victim’s neck.
Audience members take note: There are a few strobe lights in the third act. Otherwise, the film’s means of rattling an audience is authentic and always effective. Alien turns on its audience early on, as there’s no indication of the big scares up ahead. The horror comes unannounced and Jerry Goldsmith’s score, as great as it is, stays out of the movie’s way. The most horrifying scenes here unfold with no musical accompaniment.
The filmmaker, then and now, is known as a creator of tangible, vividly constructed worlds, and everyone in front of and behind the camera does exemplary work. Nothing in Alien (not the sets or the creatures) looks constructed and the performances are, likewise, on that level of plausibility. On the small screen, it reigns as one of the scariest movies ever made – but in a movie theater, it’s a captivating experience. Expect to walk away in awe… and shaking.
Rated R/117 Min.
Alien plays at the Maui Mall Megaplex on Sunday Oct. 13 at 1pm, Tuesday Oct. 15 at 7pm, and Wednesday Oct. 16 at 7pm.
Image courtesy IMDB