2019 Film Essays

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Is a 40-Year-Old Elevated Horror Masterpiece

Ridley Scott’s Alien turns 40 on May 25, and that’s absolutely insane. Alien can’t be 40. Forty is a number reserved for things that aren’t cool anymore, like your step-dad or acid-washed jeans. Yet somehow a film so advanced, so game-changing in the realms of both horror and science fiction, came out when The Doobie Brothers and The Bee Gees were topping the charts (no offense to either band). It’s just so hard to believe that Alien is 40 years old because it almost feels like it could have come out 40 days ago. Aside from computer systems that make the original Apple Macintosh look cutting-edge and Tom Skerritt’s 70s AF facial hair, it really hasn’t aged all that much. In fact, it’d make a pretty on-trend movie for 2019. The slow burn. The powerful female protagonist. I could see A24 pushing it out, drawing in horror and sci-fi fans who are looking for something a bit more artful and intellectual than the standard fare.

The Slow Burn

Consider this: the chestburster scene in Alien doesn’t come until the 56-minute mark. And the xenomorph (i.e. the Alien dude) doesn’t appear onscreen until minute 67. Alien is a study in building suspense — it’s methodical, creeeeping. Remember, this came out in ‘79, long before the days of Michael Bay and lightspeed, rat-a-tat cuts. It was made by professionals who grew up in and established themselves in an era of more measured, slower-paced moviemaking, and the film is reflective of those values, and all the better for it.

Look at other horror movies of the era. Like Don’t Look Now in 1973 and The Shining in 1980, Alien takes its time in building up to its more horrific moments. When the xenomorph finally appears, it’s a revelatory moment; it’s earned the terror it provokes. Jump scares have plagued horror movies for the last 10-15 years. Film lovers are now embracing more nuanced, psychological scares, offered up by films like The Babadook and Hereditary, and Alien certainly follows in that mold.

Consider how long the title alone takes to appear onscreen. One vertical line, then a back slash, and over 80 seconds later, the full title is revealed. ALIEN. It’s deliberate, evoking both the vastness of its setting and the bleakness of its story. Then there’s the jaunt to LV-426 to investigate a distress signal. It’s not Blade Runner-slow, but Scott takes his time — what waits down there? He could have just cut right to the landing, then to the egg chamber. The choice to show the ship landing in “real-time” followed by the crew’s prolonged journey to the alien spaceship lend the film an ominous, oppressive quality that honestly doesn’t let up until the credits roll. It’s no coincidence that this movie was pitched to studios as “Jaws in space.” Like that landmark film, Alien capitalizes on a slow-burn, wait-to-show-the-monster approach.

She Resists

Sigourney Weaver was paid a paltry $35,000 for Alien. Her pay for Aliens? A cool $1 million dollars. James Cameron understood how crucial Weaver was to the strength of the original. It’s a testament to Weaver’s acting chops and to the role of Ripley that Cameron and co. didnt feel the need to find a new actor or focus on another character. The Alien franchise is Ripley, like Die Hard is John McClane.

Though it’s still certainly not as common as it should be, a horror or science fiction movie starring a female with actual agency isn’t that out of the ordinary nowadays. Take Sandra Bullock in Gravity or Anya Taylor-Joy in The VVitch. These are powerful women, who, whether for good or bad, take the reins and GET. SHIT. DONE. Weaver didn’t invent the confident, take-charge female protagonist, but her portrayal in Alien was certainly high-profile, and influential.

What’s strange about Alien, however, is that it’s not completely obvious that Ripley’s the lead from the get-go. She’s just another crew member for most of the first act. The first “hey, we need to take this Ripley lady serious” moment comes when Dallas and Lambert return with an injured Kane and she refuses to let them onboard, due to quarantine regulations. It’s clear that Ripley is the brains of the operation. She’s smart and willing to make difficult choices, letting one die for the betterment of the crew. It’s the type of powerful woman that, to this day, unfortunately gets labeled “cold” or “‘manly.” Ripley is not a damsel in distress or someone’s love interest, and that was probably refreshing as hell in 1979.

Elevated horror

The term “elevated horror” gets thrown around a lot, but what does it mean? Some might say it’s a lazy catch-all for “slow-burn horror movie that’s artfully shot and is really more of a drama but with scary elements.” While the term might be reductive if taken that way, if looked at another way, it’s a horror movie with allegory, one that attempts to tackle big topics, one in which the horror is a veneer to tell a dramatic story. While I don’t want to reduce Alien or any movie to some newfound niche, it would make a great modern “elevated horror” film if it came out today.

I’ve already discussed the slow-burn thing. Next are the visuals. Alien is sort of a slasher movie in the way that characters are cut down one at a time, but it’s not shot like some Sleepaway Camp sequel. Consider the climactic scene where Ripley attempts to flee the ship, which is set to self-destruct. The corridor is claustrophobic, almost closing in on her, and ample fog and flashing lights further heighten the danger at hand. And it goes without saying that the nightmarish creature designs provided by the Swiss artist H.R. Giver further elevate the film, giving it a unique psychosexual identity. This isn’t your stock B-movie monster movie — Scott’s filmmaking elevated Alien to an artistic level previously unseen in both horror and science fiction, outside of say, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Rosemary’s Baby.

If Alien came out today, it’d likely be hailed as some sort of genius elevated horror/prestige sci-fi movie. It’s an engrossing, pulse-pounding thriller with brains and a unique and stunning visual style. Forty years later, Alien remains one of the best sci-fi AND horror films of all time. Its influence can be seen in films both brilliant and bad. Event Horizon and Jason X borrowed the “haunted house in space” concept to mixed results (I think they’re both awful). Then there’s more traditional science-fiction fare like Sunshine and Interstellar. The film’s influence can even be seen in the Metroid video game series, which stars a female and features a monster named, fittingly, Ridley. Then there are the sequels themselves. Alien spawned a really cool yet tonally different action flick in Aliens, then a couple more okay movies, and then the newer spin-offs — Prometheus and Alien: Covenant — oh, and about a billion comics and video games. It’s safe to say that Alien was a success.

With a brilliant female protagonist, tense slow-burn plot and artful direction, Alien might as well have come out this week direct to Shudder. It’s a film that’s produced shock and awe for 40 years and will likely work for many more to come.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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