What makes Alien one of the best science-fiction movies of all time? Let’s start with Yaphet Kotto. His character, Parker, might not be the most obvious entry point to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic — it’s easy to think of H.R Giger’s legendary design work, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley — but in Scott’s patient and steady opening, Parker not only steals the show, but sets the tone.
Parker, Ripley, and the rest of the crew of the Nostromo are on the clock. They are working their jobs. Scott spells it out for the viewer in Helvetica: a crew of seven, carrying a refinery that is processing 20 million tons of mineral ore. They’re heading to Earth. This is a very boring mission. Parker, wearing a blue headband and hanging out with his buddy Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), wants to talk about what he’s owed as a worker. He does not want to talk responding to that mysterious signal. The Nostromo is not a rescue ship.
The opening scenes of Alien, in which the crew is awakened from a deep sleep because of this signal drawing them to an imposing planet, started off as a self-contained story by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. Working on a cheap college movie called Dark Star years earlier had given O’Brien the inspiration to work on a movie with the coolest creatures possible. Then, O’Bannon started working on Alejandro Jodorowsky's unsuccessful Dune, when he discovered the works of Giger. He had the cool and horrifying alien of his dreams.
After Dune fell apart, O’Bannon expanded on his short story. In David McIntee’s Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Alien and Predator Films, O’Bannon isn’t shy about his inspiration for the movie, quoted as saying. "I didn't steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!”
Alien takes bits and pieces from all sorts of old sci-fi and horror movies. If you looked at it from the perspective of plot alone, it might seem stale. This was the opinion of some critics at the time. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote somewhat dismissively that there “was once a time when this sort of thing was set in an old dark house, on a moor, in a thunderstorm. Being trendy, Mr. Scott and his associates have sent it up in space.” Coming only two years after the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, space seemed to be part of a passing trend at the time.
So what makes Alien rise above the trends? There’s Kotto’s skepticism, an early harbinger of warning. There’s Ripley, slowly emerging from a crew of seven to become a determined survivor. Every element of the Nostromo, from its crew eating together to their hats and jackets, feels real and lived in. Canby was essentially right that as soon the first chest-bursting occurs, the movie is a haunted house in space. But what a haunted house!
Scott, directing only his second feature movie, has the steady guiding hand needed to bring the viewer from room to room, as it were, in his haunted house. Viewers gasp as John Hurt’s Kane is the first to go — in a later interview, Kotto said that on the day of filming Kane’s death the cast was “suspicious when we got on set, because we saw crew members in raincoats and gloves.”
Around all of the incredible design and patient filmmaking is Ellen Ripley, a character originally meant to be a man. Sigourney Weaver was the last person cast in the movie and had only appeared in a few small roles before being asked to stand against the Xenomorph. She is undermined by her colleagues when she doesn’t want to be brought on board, particularly by Ian Holm’s Ash. The viewer finds themselves not just rooting for the crew’s survival, but for her leadership.
Ash gives perhaps the most sinister line-reading in the movie when his true motivations are revealed. He taunts his fellow crewmates, saying that, in regards to the Xenomorph, “I can't lie to you about your chances but... you have my sympathies.” When saying this, Ash is physically mutilated, his body cut open. White goo is pouring out of his mouth. Scott lingers on his disgusting head, closely zooming the way anyone would during a big monologue.
Alien didn’t see itself as replacing old horror movies. It loves them. But it wanted to push fear into an era of changing economics. A big-budget horror movie with an eye on the working class, Alien is a fascinating movie that is worth revisiting again and again.
Alien is streaming now on Amazon’s IMDb TV.