Like myself, those crazy enough to wrangle a film-related degree in the cavernous halls of Missouri State University will have no doubt had the pleasure of partaking in one of Timothy White’s film courses.
After an informative lecture on the day’s topics, the lights are dimmed and an isolated beam of colored, flickering light strikes a white screen on the far wall. Ranging from materials in the French New Wave, avant-garde cinema and documentary film, students must ready themselves for what is to come.
What glitters on the screen could be a silent film starring the great comedic actor Buster Keaton as he navigates across Civil War America via locomotive with an aim to rescue a damsel in distress. Or, it could be an experimental French film rendered into an impenetrable labyrinth of memory-analysis as guests at an alienated château attempt to gather the pieces of an amnesic past.
Yet, as much as these two previously alluded films — “The General” and “Last Year at Marienbad,” respectively — have made their mark on my canon of great films, I thought I would study another film White often screens as part of his opening exhibition in film studies. It so happens, as a welcoming revelation, that the film up for dissection today is one of my favorites — director Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction masterpiece, “Alien.”
Blackened corridors line and, with a maze-like constitution, zigzag through the belly of the homebound interstellar mining vessel the “Nostromo.” These corridors spit gas emissions from barefaced pipelines, and oozing condensation soaks the charcoal surfaces with a metallic sheen, the occasional source of light seeping through the cracks. The camera slowly tracks through these lifeless, mechanical corridors in the opening sequence until, at last, it stumbles upon life.
A mining crew of seven, at the alert of the ship’s artificial intelligence — known as “Mother” — are awakened from an investigation of a distress signal in deep space. Following a landing on an unidentified planet where the source of the signal originates, the crew have inadvertently invited on board a terrifying organism with one mode of operation: hunt and kill.
With “Alien,” Scott employs what would later become known as the slasher film and embeds it into a classic science fiction framework, effectively creating a perfected brew of horror and science fiction aesthetics. At its most elemental, the film is about the things that lurk in the dark. At any moment, with the characters in isolation, the creature could lunge out from the darkness and, with its dagger-like mouth, penetrate their bodies.
There is a purpose in my use of the word penetrate, for there is no mistaking the film’s themes in sexual molestation. The creature, created by artist H.R. Giger, is designed in the image of the phallus. Its primary weapon projects quickly from the mouth and invades the flesh. The origin of the beast is formed from another creature’s violation of its host’s throat, and the alien newborn is itself shaped in the phallic image. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon wanted to “attack the audience” in this way. It’s not enough to have a simple story of a killer and its victims. This added layer of psychosexual anxiety, nested in the methods of the alien’s predatory function, invites a new system of horror dynamics, one that will endure in the audience’s mind long after a screening.
However, if not for the wonderful cast of players in the film — including an early performance by Sigourney Weaver, alongside such talents as John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ian Holm — Scott’s orchestration of horror would not have endured.
Additionally, Scott’s inclination to keep the film’s pace slow strengthens the unfurling tension. It revels in elongated silences — that is until the final sequence furnishes the darkened halls with cacophonous sirens and strobing lights — making those sudden spikes in ferocity all the more gratifying. One such spike, of seismic distinction in the filmic landscape, occurs at the halfway mark where it essentially bisects the film by means of a single, explosive act of “childbearing” carnage. Dinner tables, like showers in “Psycho” or beaches in “Jaws,” have been refurbished into playgrounds of fear.
The film bleeds atmosphere, the metallurgic sounds and architecture of the ship augmenting the cosmic-bound desolation of its inhabitants. Like the slime secreted from the creature, “Alien” is a film that pastes itself in your mind like an unwanted parasite. “Alien” is a consummate masterpiece, a vital document of body horror and fiction, and one that will persist as one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments, regardless of the bastille of genre.
If you’ve yet to see this film, grab a copy, take refuge in a cold, dark room and prepare yourself for instruction in pure terror and cinematic mastery. 9.8/10