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Alien (1979) - Film Analysis


“Alien” was released in May of 1979 by 20th Century Fox with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The film was directed by Ridley Scott, produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill and written by Dan O’Bannon, who also developed the film’s screenplay. This science fiction horror film regards an alien creature that stalks and kills crew members on the spaceship Nostromo after being brought aboard. Sigourney Weaver plays as Ripley, a warrant officer and is also the protagonist of the film. The film also features an all star cast that includes, Bolaji Badejo as the alien, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert, Ian Holm as Ash, John Hurt as Kane, Yaphet Kotto as Parker, Tom Skerritt as Dallas, and Harry Dean Stanton as Brett. In charge of the Academy Award winning visual effects was cinematographer Derek Vanlint, while the eerie film soundtrack was created Jerry Goldsmith. The film was a breakthrough for the science fiction genre as well as the horror genre and received both critical acclaim and commercial box office success bringing in a gross $104,931,801 with a budget of $11 million.

“Alien” opens with a slow scene of an unknown planet with eerie monotonous music in the background. The mining ship Nostromo, carrying twenty million tons of mineral ore along with seven crew members in stasis, is routed on course to earth when it receives a distress signal of unknown origin. The ship initiates proper protocol and awakens the crew from cryogenic stasis. Under threat of a voided contract, the crew flies the Nostromo on course to the planet where the transmission originated from. Upon landing, the ship takes minor damage because of turbulence and the instability of the alien environment.

The ship’s first in command, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), its Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) set out to investigate the signal's source while engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Science Officer Ash (IanHolm), and Warrant Officer (Sigourney Weaver) stay behind to monitor their progress and make repairs. Together, the crew discovers that the transmission came from an alien spaceship. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert venture inside and discover the remains of an alien creature whose ribs appear to have burst outward. Dallas and Lambert continue in one direction, while Kane investigates the lower levels. Kane soon discovers what seems to be a large incubator containing numerous large alien eggs. He notices one opening, and upon closer inspection, falls into the alien’s trap. An infant alien attaches itself to Kane’s face leaving him unconscious. Dallas and Lambert respond to his distress call and carry Kane back to the Nostromo; Ash allows them inside against Ripley's orders.

Once inside the ship’s infirmary, Dallas unsuccessfully attempts to remove the creature from Kane's face, discovering that its blood is acid. Eventually though, the alien detaches on its own and is found dead. When the ship routes back to Earth, Kane awakens normally and seems fine. The crew celebrates with a meal before going back into stasis, and as Kane begins to eat, chokes and shakes convulsively until his chest bursts open revealing a small alien creature that quickly escapes.

The crew gathers any means of defending themselves, from flamethrowers to motion sensors. Despite the precautions, the Alien quickly kills Dallas and Brett.

Ripley soon discovers that Ash has been ordered by corporate to return the Alien back to earth even at the expense of the crew. Ash realizes this and attacks her, but Parker decapitates him using a fire extinguisher, revealing Ash to be an artificial human. The remaining crew plans to self-destruct the Nostromo and escape in the emergency pod. Lambert and Parker are killed by the alien while gathering supplies, causing Ripley to initiate the self-destruct sequence. As she attempts to reach the pod with the crew’s cat Jones she is temporarily blocked by the alien. As she escapes, Ripley discovers that the Alien is aboard the shuttle. She puts on a space suit and opens the hatch, which forces the Alien to the open doorway. Ripley shoots it with a grappling gun which propels it out, but the gun is caught in the closing door, attaching the Alien to the shuttle. As it attempts to crawl into one of the engines, but Ripley activates them and destroys it. The film ends as Ripley puts herself and Jones into stasis.

“Alien” came to the American screen in a time of immense cultural upheaval. The economy in the 1970s experienced periods of inflation, recession, and high unemployment. The economic conditions led to price controls and new and enhanced programs to combat poverty and unemployment. The decade was also marked by a growing importance of women in the workforce, as well as a second wave of feminist views. Sexual freedom and experimentation in the 1960s contributed to an uprising of sexually transmitted diseases in the 1970s, and a realization that these could affect the majority of the population. Exponential change in technology was also a major issue in the 70s. Many of these cultural changes attributed to both the horror and financial success of “Alien” because of the film’s prevalent consistency within the mind of 1970s America.

In October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo “In response to the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military" until March 1974. In 1979 America experienced its second oil crisis because of disrupted productions and Iranian revolution. Throughout this time Americans felt a dread of continuous oil price increases and a worry that eventually there would be no more oil or gasoline. “Alien” plays on this fear immediately when it mentions that the crew’s main missions was mining mineral ore from distant places in the galaxy and return them to earth. They were on a mission to seek new forms of energy from other places than the Middle East, and it confirms fears that eventually the US would have to look elsewhere for its energy resources.

“Alien” was released in May of 1979, a short time after the partial nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Though the movie was already finished by the time of the accident, it had an effect on the way the movie was viewed. Technology getting out of control is a theme presented in Alien. Ash, the Science Officer of the Nostromo is an android. The rest of the crew, however, is not aware of this. Ash, and Mother, the ship’s onboard computer have been collaborating from the beginning to capture the alien creature. The lives of the crew are of minor significance to them. Ash goes so far as to attack Ripley, losing all normal functions in a “meltdown” that he experiences. People could identify with their lives being put in danger by machines that they could not control.

Another cultural context relevant to “Alien” is that of sexually transmitted diseases. Herpes, gonorrhea, and Chlamydia had become widespread in America, affecting nearly forty percent of sexually active individuals. For the first time, Americans had become frightened of the risk of disease in fornication. The Alien creature, being the villain archetype, is born through penetration of a host, Executive Officer Kane. Ripley makes an extensive point to follow quarantine procedure for fear of infection. This “infection” spread as the Alien grew rapidly and killed the rest of the crew. Audiences would relate to the need for quarantine and sterilization, noting how this sexually transmitted parasite goes on to destroy the crew it resides with.

But the strongest cultural context present within “Alien” is its embodiment of Feminism. The role of women in society was going through a turning point in the 1970s. Women’s organizations fought for an amendment to the United States Constitution known as the Equal Rights Amendment that would explicitly state that men and women were equal under the law. In 1974, The Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibited discrimination in consumer credit practices on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, or age. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act banned employment discrimination against pregnant women, stating a woman cannot be fired or denied a job or a promotion because she is or may become pregnant, nor can she be forced to take a pregnancy leave if she is willing and able to work. 1978 saw the largest march for equality in the history of the Feminist movement, the Equal Rights Amendment Extension March, which had over one-hundred thousand people in it. The 70s therefore saw a strong empowerment of woman within a predominantly patriarchal.

“Alien” shows us a clear instance of gender-role reversal in the heroine archetype. The story begins with a clear hierarchy of male dominants. As the film progresses however, the men are killed or fall under chain of command to women. Both the ship’s Captain and Executive Officer are used for the Alien’s reproduction, giving them a “mother” aspect. Ash even refers to the creature as “Kane’s son” referencing him as a mother. Ripley is then given the role of slaying the “monster” of the film, which was a presumed male role, dating back to medieval times. Making the main character of “Alien” a woman was a risky move by the film makers, and it ultimately proved successful. Had the film been released a few years earlier, audiences might not have accepted such a tough female protagonist, or it would have overwhelmed the rest of the film.

“Alien” is a science fiction horror film. Horror films are unsettling movies that strive to elicit the emotions of fear, disgust, panic, alarm, and shock from viewers through the means of the macabre and supernatural. Science Fiction Film is a film genre that uses speculative, science-based depictions of phenomena that are not necessarily accepted by mainstream science, such as extra-terrestrial life forms, alien worlds, and time travel, often along with futuristic elements such as spacecraft, robots, or other technologies. Since “Alien” primarily frightened the audience and evoked “eerie dread” it is categorized first as a horror film, but falls into the science fiction sub genre because it is set in the future and takes place aboard a space ship.

In a science fiction horror film, the threats usually come from the unknown, but can also include films in which the threat comes from technology. In “Alien”, the danger comes from an extraterrestrial creature that is feared both for its dangerous abilities, and its unpredictable hostility. Fear of uncontrollable technology is also present, in how Ash and Mother plot to preserve the Alien without the knowledge of the crew. The expectations and characteristics of science fiction horror were changed drastically after the release of “Alien” in 1979. Prior to this, most science fiction horror films were low budget B movies, mostly in the 1950s. They played on fear of the “other”, a threat from outside. While the threats in these films often came from outer space, they often played on America’s fear of communism and the Cold War. Some examples of this type of film include “The Thing from Another World”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, and “It Came from Outer Space”

“Alien” introduced a new kind of science fiction horror. The threat still comes from the unknown, but the environment and method of attack were different. “Alien” borrowed elements from other types of horror film, like the slasher subgenre introduced by “Psycho” in 1960. Instead of a creepy old mansion where the characters were stalked by a serial killer, there could be a claustrophobic space ship where the characters were hunted by an alien creature. “Alien” uses the reveal of the tail, its shadow, or the head of the alien the same way a slasher film might reveal the killer’s knife while the victim is looking the other way. In the famous “shower scene” from “Psycho” the female victim’s face is turned away from the killer while he creeps up behind her. Likewise, when Ripley and Dallas are in the ICU looking for the infant alien creature, the tail of the alien lowered down behind Ripley, eventually startling her. “Alien” uses a formula common to many slasher films in that a group of people are killed one by one until the lead character, usually female, kills the antagonist. The difference is that science fiction is a genre of film that was usually dominated by male characters and male fans. By making the lead character Ripley female, the film makers expanded their potential audience and successfully combined horror and science fiction, paving the way for more female action stars in science fiction.

“Alien” quickly became a hit with both horror and science fiction audiences. It was the third highest grossing film in 1979 worldwide. “Alien” lead to five sequels, and continues to be a popular and successful franchise today. “Alien” followed on the success of “Star Wars” in 1977. Twentieth Century Fox saw the audience that science fiction could draw, and capitalized on that audience. “Alien” was intended to be for an older crowd, but would still aim to draw science fiction fans. “Jaws” was another movie that showed mainstream audiences were interested in horror outside of the standard slasher films. One reason that “Alien” was successful is because it is a movie set in a fictional universe, yet it remains identifiable with audiences today. The characters are easily identifiable because they are presented as regular blue collar workers, just in a different setting and time. They react how we would react in most cases. No year is given to explain how far in the future this is, which makes it seem less removed from our time. The technology presented in the movie appears very primitive. This allows the audience to understand what is happening without having to explain how the technology works or what it does.

The scene that “Alien” is more remembered for then any other is the scene when the alien bursts out of Kane’s chest, killing him in the process. This scene is very memorable for a number of reasons, primarily because of its level of gore, and disgusting nature. Kane does an excellent job portraying the pain of what it would feel like to be eaten alive from the inside. The sound effects also do a good job in making the audience imagine what is going on inside Kane’s body. Audiences had never seen anything quite like that before this movie. Part of the reason that the chest bursting scene is so memorable is that it’s symbolic to our fear of abjection. Abjection deals with the boundary between us and everything else. According to the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. This act is done in the light of the parts of ourselves that we exclude: that is, the mother. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. There is no greater way of showing abjection on film then having a creature eat a person from inside out and emerge. Because of this, this scene has survived to be one of the most shocking and horrific in the history of horror.

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“Alien” had both an immediate and long-term impact on the science fiction and horror genres. In the wake of the success of “Alien” a number of other filmmakers imitated or adapted some of its elements, sometimes by copying its title. One of the first was “The Alien Dead” (1979), which was titled at the last minute to cash in on the popularity of “Alien”. “Contamination” (1980) was initially going to be titled “Alien 2” until lawyers representing 20th Century Fox contacted Director Luigi Cozzi and made him change it. The film built on press coverage of the “chestburster” scene by having many similar creatures, which originated from large, slimy eggs, bursting from characters' chests. An unauthorized Italian sequel to “Alien”, titled “Alien 2”, was released in 1980 and included alien creatures which incubate inside human hosts.

Many critics have suggested that the film derives in part from A. E. van Vogt's book “The Voyage of the Space Beagle” (1950), particularly the stories “The Black Destroyer”, in which an alien infiltrates the ship and hunts the crew, and “Discord in Scarlet”, in which an alien implants parasitic eggs inside crew members which then hatch and eat their way out. Writer David McIntee has also noted similarities to the “Doctor Who” episode "The Ark in Space" (1975), in which an insect queen alien lays larvae inside humans which later eat their way out, a life cycle inspired by that of the ichneumons wasp.

The creature itself, in its various forms, has become iconic in popular culture. The Alien has been referred to as "one of the most iconic movie monsters in film history" in the decades since the film release, being noted for its biomechanics and sexual overtones. American Film Critic and Screenwriter, Roger Ebert has remarked that "‘Alien’ uses a tricky device to keep the alien fresh throughout the movie: It evolves the nature and appearance of the creature, so we never know quite what it looks like or what it can do...The first time we get a good look at the alien, as it bursts from the chest of poor Kane. It is unmistakably phallic in shape, and the Critic Tim Dirks mentions its 'open, dripping vaginal mouth.'” The Alien’s shown parts resemble arachnids, human bones, and lizards, all primitive creatures and objects feared by the human psyche. Director Ridley Scott chose not to show the Alien creature in full through most of the film, showing only pieces of it while keeping most of its body in shadow in order to heighten the sense of terror and suspense. The audience could thus project their own fears into imagining what the rest of the creature might look like. This technique was highly successful and continues to be seen repeatedly in Modern American Horror films to this day.

“Alien” uses various elements of film noir along with other elements of German Expressionism and traditional Silent Horror. The planet where the Alien resides, most of the ship, and even the escape pod is shot using low key lighting. This is to symbolize the Alien’s presence in that area, or symbolically, the presence of evil. Well lit areas such as the stasis room, mother’s central control room, and the kitchen corresponded with the sanctity or safety of the area. When Dallas and Ash first attempted to remove the Alien from Kane’s face in the ICU, the room was well lit and signified no danger, yet when they returned to find the Alien missing in the room, it was dark and ominous. Scott used an abundance of close-up angle shots of the various characters and the Alien to show their fear and hide the Alien’s true form from the audience.

The Mise-en-scene of “Alien” is beautifully portrayed when Ripley is attempting to escape the ship. Pressured air is escaping from every leaky gasket, water dripping from the pipes, emergency lights flashing red throughout each corridor, and sewer-like flooring gives the entire environment a hellish feeling. The colors used reflect a variety of black and white shades as in Film Noir, but include neon greens, bright lucid reds to give it a surreal space look. Another interesting motif in the film is the reoccurring feel of wetness. Water drips from each corridor near the engineering rooms, viscous liquid drips from the Alien’s body and mouth, and sweat runs down from the crew’s faces (mostly Ripley). The heat, gas, and wetness give the ship a living breathing aspect, with more of an environmental feel than a cold mechanical look. The environment is like a jungle, when chains hanging like vines, hidden caves, and running water, with the Alien acting as a carnivore hunting its prey.

The final quality of the film that gives it its edge and horror is its soundtrack. The sound is quiet and surreal, with an underlying eeriness about it. There are various sounds of wind howling, screeching sounds, and monotonous circling of violin and electronics. It’s amazing and ironic to see a soundtrack make such an impact, when the sounds are low key and faint, barely audible except in certain turning points of the film. The opening scene presents this rather well. While small lines appear before a black screen revealing the title, we see it fade into space, while a subtle, low key flute plays in the background with howling sounds. It completely counters the main title sequence feel of “Star Wars” with its trumpets of extravagance. This subtle low-key soundtrack gives it a true space feel, and resorts back to its “In space no one can hear you scream” motto.

“Alien” continues to fright audiences throughout for its subjectivity into the unknown and darkness of space. We are forced to look inward into our own dark voids and become utterly helpless and vulnerable to the Alien’s uncanny power. “Alien” reflected the fears and uncertainty of 1970s America, while perfectly referencing previous work in the genre. A monster film, a slasher film, a science fiction film, a horror film, “Alien” remains timeless in our eyes for its innovation and style, both ideal in presenting us with a story of horror in the dangers of discovery, and will continue to haunt the dreams of audiences for decades to come.


Robert Sacchi on March 11, 2015:

Interesting article and perspective. The film's plot line, of people on a space ship being killed by an alien, is simlar to It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958). I like to believe Alien is a film made well enough that it would have been a success in any era. It did come along at the right time though. Slasher type horror movies were popular at the time and Star Wars brought on a resurgance in interest in Science Fiction films.

FilmNoirFugitive on August 04, 2014:

Veronica Cartwright, who played Lambert in Alien (1979), is scheduled to appear at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, Hunt Valley, Md., at the Hunt Valley Wyndham Hotel, Sept. 18-20. There is supposed to be a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, one of the other great films in which Cartwright was featured. More info

simon on April 18, 2012:

Nice piece - especially for giving the historical context - thanks

I've been bloggin a lot of Alien/Prometheus stuff.

Justsilvie on October 26, 2010:

I saw this movie when it first cam out and when the thing jumped out of the guys chest my sister-in-law was so frightened she grabbed the guy in front of her, their joint screaming will always make this movie most memorable to me and the people sitting around us that day I am sure.

ankigarg87 on October 25, 2010:

~ good

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