In the crowded gallery of horror films, Alien hangs in a prominent position, high above its rivals. By virtue of its deft blend of psychology and physical horror, it lifts the genre out of the graveyard and into deepest space . While its scale models, grimy characters, and shimmering soundtrack may no longer appeal to a generation of audiences who revel in the hotchpotch storyboards of 'Drag Me To Hell', Alien still commands great respect, and rightly so. It has not lost any of its cutting edge, even after thirty-two years.
Alien's simplistic premise keeps the film tight and lean; a taut, slow-burning game of cat and mouse involving a vicious, shadowy creature whose acidic blood can melt the very girders of the ship it has invaded, and a compelling blend of the brave (Ripley), cautious (Dallas), and mechanical (Ash). There are no meaningless references to childhood memories or superfluous romance. The characters and their personalities are weathered, believable, and their mission plausible. The profit-driven search for mineral ore provides a realistic corporate counterpoint to the main story, which sees the seven crew members dragged, somewhat unwillingly, into the extraterrestrial's world. With the possible exception of Ash, they did not seek this encounter; the computers lead them to it. How each crew member responds to the situation is key; in effect, seven sub plots form, each focusing upon something different, be it a crew member's mannerisms, their way of thinking, or indeed, a violent death (Chestburster). This is Alien's greatest appeal; it provides an insight into the human mind, as psychological horror movies should. Which crew member do we, the audience, root for, admire, or resent? Who can trust who?
Sigourney Weaver, so often credited with inspiring a roll-call of female cinematic heroines, rightly earns every syllable of praise that has been heaped upon her since the film's release; Ripley's resourcefulness and courage are marvellous to behold. However, as the genuinely disturbing android Ash, Ian Holm is supreme; his reserved demeanour and considered approach masking the motives that lay hidden out of sight.
As an exercise in sound and vision, Alien is a memorable spectacle. There are many moments that are striking. The colossal hauler Nostromo, futuristic and industrial in design, dominates the screen as it crawls slowly, almost gracefully, towards Earth. The sheen of the soundtrack and the echoing calls from the freighter to 'Antarctica Traffic Control' are atmospheric to the core, while the fogbound alien planet, littered with blackened mountains and the silhouette of the hulking, derelict vessel, is hauntingly desolate. Spaces where, in modern horror films, the gaps would be filled with meaningless dialogue, are left vacant. The viewer can interpret what they see with no need for speech. Ridley Scott's vision of 'horror first, science-fiction second' was, without a doubt, fulfilled; audiences should ignore the flashing lights and controls of the spaceship and focus upon the Alien. Around which corner does it lurk? Who becomes its next victim?
Alien is a film of immense quality. It has the capacity to frighten and to deceive. It flows precisely from scene to scene with no wasted shots and most tellingly, does not stray off course by incorporating fanciful special effects or worthless roles filled by fringe characters. One spacecraft, one extraterrestrial, seven humans, and one cat is all we are given. And quite simply, anything more would have been a waste. While the genre of horror may have moved on, the art of horror is captured perfectly, here, in the blackness of space.
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