One of my earliest memories is of watching parts of the first three Alien movies on TV (I had awesome parents). I can remember very clearly why the movies appealed to me- I thought the Xenomorph designs were incredibly cool, even at the age of five or six. Judging by the amount of toys and action figures the (very obviously made for adults) franchise has spawned I’m apparently not the only kid who thought so.
The iconic design of the Xenomorph has obviously reached pop-cultural saturation level by now, such that people who have never seen a singly frame of any of the movies will recognize it instantly. In preparation for watching this I wanted to try and put myself into the mind-set of the audience when the film first came out, when no one walking into the movie would have known what to expect, so I took a look at what other kinds of aliens movies featured around the same time.
To say that Alien was a complete and total departure from anything that had come before in terms of creature design would be inaccurate Star Wars had tons of weird-looking creatures running around in 1977, and of course those movies were inspired by older films and TV serials but the HR Giger’s Xenomorph definitely stands out. At the time alien designs in fiction seemed to trend toward either blonde-haired Aryan supermodels or people with green skin and a few bits of putty stuck to their faces.
I remember once reading that humans comfort level when it comes to aquatic life-forms tends to hinge on how similar to terrestrial animals they look- Dolphins and whales with what appear to be recognizable facial expressions will be much more relatable than the dead eyes of some deep-sea abomination. To apply this line of thinking to extraterrestrials, if before 1979 most movie aliens were Seals and Whales, with a few cephalopods thrown in every now and then, the Xenomorph is a Hatchet Fish. Where most sci-fi movies might dip a toe in the deeper parts of the ocean, Alien plunged straight down into the abyss.
I’m starting to creep myself out now so let’s stop talking about deep-sea fish for a while.
I’ve spent the last 370 words talking about the design of the titular alien for a good reason. Alien is a great movie, make no mistake, but HR Giger’s visual designs elevated what would have been a fairly rote (if very well executed) monster movie into a classic. The movie clearly knows it has something special on its hands as well, being very careful with how it shows off its best asset. The Alien’s screen time can’t be more than about five minutes out of the two-hour movie, and for most of that time it’s obscured by shadows. Jaws obviously did something similar two years earlier, but Alien also had the advantage of Giger’s bio-mechanical design, which enabled the film-makers to hide the creature in plain sight among the convoluted vents and metal framework of the Nostromo several times. By the end of the movie I found myself constantly scanning the background for any sign of the thing.
Before I stop talking about the alien design I feel compelled to point out that this franchise spawned a miniature galaxy of tie-in material- books, comics, video games, the baffling idea that it would be a good idea to put Predators and Xenomorphs in the same movie. Some of the people who worked on this stuff decided to try making their own aliens despite suffering the handicap of not being HR Giger. The results were….. not always stellar.
So apart from the awesome looking creatures what made this movie popular enough to warrant an expanded universe? Why did it catch on with so many people?
It’s always difficult to answer a question like that so long after the fact, but if I had to guess I’d say that Alien became movie canon for the same reason a lot of other great horror movies have in the past: it created a symbol. Horror movies have always been good at taking a latent fear that bubbles below the surface in most of their audience and giving it form. Once again the most obvious example of this is Jaws, which pretty much single-handedly immortalized the Great White Shark as the avatar of Thalassophobia (although I would argue that the day someone makes a movie about killer Vampire Squid will be the day Jaw‘s reign of terror comes to an end). Movies like Nosferatu and the 20 million adaptations of Dracula firmly established vampire as symbolic of fear of the night. Pick any number of slasher movies for the fear of the stranger crashing through your window with a steak knife.
So what does the Xenomorph symbolize? And no, it’s not sex, rape, child-birth or penises. That stuff is obviously in there, but I think a lot of people sell the movie short by holding up the sexual imagery as the end-all and be-all ultimate point of the story. I think what Alien really captures is fear of the unknown- the fear that beyond the circle of what’s comfortable and familiar lurks unfathomable horrors that you’re not prepared to deal with. Obviously what qualifies as comfortable and familiar has varied throughout history, but in modern times when the entire world is familiar to us (or at least that’s what most people like to think) space is the obvious choice.
Space travel in sci-fi movies these days is usually held up as something adventurous and awe-inspiring, humanity taking to the stars and seizing our destiny and all that. By contrast, right from the opening title sequence of Alien space is portrayed as an eerie, desolate place. Even the initial shots of the empty corridors of the Nostromo drive home the point that the crew are alone and very far from home. By answering the distress signal and landing on the scary alien hell planet they cross the line into territory that humans were Not Meant To Visit and suffer the consequences. In this respect the movie feels very Lovecraftian in that the alien threat they encounter is a non-sentient being with no more concern or interest in humanity than a cat would feel toward a mouse. The Universe in Alien is a cold, hostile place where straying off the beaten path can get you horribly eviscerated by some faceless horror from beyond the stars.
So not exactly the cheeriest world-view, but it makes for great cinema. Obviously space travel isn’t something that most of us will experience in our lives, so in that respect Alien was probably jumping the gun a bit. But when human astronauts do eventually spend their first night on another planet I like to think HR Giger’s penis monster will haunt some corner of their minds.
Before I wrap this up I want to talk about the much hyped status of Ripley as a proto-feminist action star. This is something I was aware of going into the movie and having watched it I think a lot of people are confusing this movie with Aliens. Ripley doesn’t physically confront the alien in this movie- none of the characters do without getting immediately slaughtered- so I’m not sure where the idea that Alien turned Sigourney Weaver into an action star is coming from.
That said, the movie does do something positive in that it doesn’t treat Ripley like a woman. What I mean by that is that men trying to write “strong” women will usually feel the need to round them out by making them “vulnerable” or having them cry over a dead kitten half way through the movie, a requirement that never seems to be made of male characters. Alien doesn’t do this- Ripley is portrayed from the start as the most cool headed and sensible of the Nostromo crew, she stands up to Dallas over letting the facehugger on board and she immediately volunteers for the most-likely-suicidal mission of climbing into the air ducts to lure the alien into space.
On the other hand, the character was apparently written as a man initially so I have to wonder how much of this might have been different if that hadn’t been the case. The protagonist of the upcoming Prometheus (which I seriously cannot wait to see) seems to be taking on a similar role and was written as a woman from the start, so it will be interesting to compare the two.
In watching these movies I decided a good way to approach them would be to ask, “does this deserve the level of fame it’s received?” In the case of Alien I’m going to go with an answer of yes, it does. I don’t think the movie does anything that hadn’t been done before, it just does it very well. Sometimes that’s all you need to make a classic.