Alien shouldn’t be as good as it is. On the page the film is a standard monster flick that fails to be anything more than a b-movie. It follows the conventions of the horror genre and doesn’t have anything compelling or fascinating. The reason why Alien works is because the look of the film is crafted and captured like a serious sci-fi picture. It’s an exercise in style and one that pays off.
The tale of the crew of the Nostromo is as predictable as they come. The crew wakes up to find that they are still far from returning home and the ship has waked them so that they may investigate the origins of a strange signal on a nearby planet. From there the plot is rather predictable: they find something strange on the planet, something ends up aboard and soon they are hunting down an alien creature deck by deck. The execution has a bit of creativity in how the alien gets on board but the plot follows the conventions of the genre devoutly.
What makes the film work are the creative minds of alien designer H. R Giger and first time director Ridley Scott. Giger sets the aesthetic look of the alien world, creating a liquidly, smooth and erotic alien creature. His designs also feed into the more interesting plot developments as the crew learns more of the nature of their adversary.
Director Ridley Scott made a number of interesting aesthetic choices when shooting Alien. He shoots the film almost like an art house piece. The opening sequence of the film is a series of lingering shots slowly weaving their way through the Nostromo. Throughout the film he takes on very nontraditional, artistic approaches to shooting scenes. Even simple conversations are shot in abnormal ways.
Scott also uses his signature visual device: smoke. Alien is filled with it. From the steam amidst the under-deck of the Nostromo to the ever present haze over the planet, there is an abundance of it. Some of it was out of necessity as Scott hid some of the flaws of the sets and miniatures with smoke. Yet the smoke adds that extra layer of mystery, that nagging sense that if the fog just cleared everything would become apparent.
There’s also the matter of the alien itself. For some reason one gets the impression that we don’t see the alien all that much, just bits and pieces. But after watching it several times one does find that even more is shown than one remembers. Yet Ridley Scott never shows the entire creature head on. The film shows enough for us to get a general idea but never a clear notion of what it is we are actually seeing
Yet as impressive as the visuals are, the film works best as a suspense piece. By shooting Alien in a slower, deliberate style Scott gradually builds up the suspense. The visual sense of claustrophobia added in with long, drawn out sequences slowly ratchet up the tension with every sequence. The violence is often brief, a footnote in the sequence, it’s the cycle of slow buildup and then quick release that constantly pulls the audience into the picture.
Alien is, arguably, the classic example of style over substance. The script was initially sold as a b-movie but when Fox bought it they wanted it to be a serious sci-fi (thanks to the popularity of a little film called Star Wars). The script stayed essentially the same and only the execution differed as more artistic sensibilities were brought to the project. Some would argue style over substance is a bad thing but in the case of Alien it is what makes the film great.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing