“A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.”
The 1970’s featured a number of all-time classic horror films; many of which spawned franchises and numerous imitators. Films like Jaws (1975), The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), and Dawn of the Dead (1978) each had a huge impact on the horror genre that still reverberates today.
One of the best horror movies of that decade is the genre-blending classic Alien (1979), the second film directed by Hall of Fame director Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon. Alien is set in the future in outer space and thus, is in the science fiction genre. Yet, at its core, Alien is a classic boogeyman story featuring a group of people trapped with an evil entity that is trying to destroy them.
Unlike other stories, in Alien, the protagonists can’t simply walk out the front door to escape the killer. You know, ’cause of the lifeless, cold emptiness of space outside.
There are a number of elements that make Alien a classic, if not a perfect, horror movie. These elements are front and center in three of the great scenes in the film (and yes, Alien has more than three great scenes).
As Alien begins, we are informed about the Nostromo, a commercial spaceship that is towing a refinery processesing 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore. The ship is returning to Earth with its crew of seven people and one cat. The crew is awakened from an induced sleep after “Mother,” the ship’s computer, detects a possible distress signal from a nearby planet. Per the regulations of the “Company” that employs the crew, they must investigate the signal. The ship disengages from the refinery and lands on the planet, sustaining damage as it does so. The captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), executive officer Kane (John Hurt), and the navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) leave the vessel to investigate. Warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in a star-making role), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and the two engineers, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), remain on board.
1. First Contact
The first of the great scenes of the movie is the crew’s first contact with alien technology and lifeforms. When Dallas, Kane and Lambert approach the signal, they see a huge alien ship that looks like a horseshoe laying down. The three enter the ship and walk down organic-looking metal corridors that resemble the ribs of an animal. There are no signs of technology like switches, buttons or lights.
Kane discovers an entryway above that takes them to an enormous room. An alien figure is seated in the center of the room in a device that looks like a cross between a Lazy-Boy and a giant telescope. The alien, dead and fossilized, appears to be part of the chair. It also has a hole in its chest, as if something burst its way out from inside. Hello foreshadowing, my old friend.
Meanwhile, back on the Nostromo, Ripley informs Ash that Mother has determined that the signal is not a distress signal, but rather a warning beacon. Ash convinces her that there is no need to warn the away crew.
In the alien ship, Kane is lowered down into a giant hold filled with pods, which are arranged beneath a layer of mist. When Kane falls next to a pod, something moves inside it. Kane inspects the pod as it opens like a blooming flower. Suddenly, alien tendrils shoot out from it and around Kane’s helmet. He falls backward and the scene switches to a 15 second long, silent exterior shot of the alien ship.
The scene features what is perhaps the most famous element of Alien and its sequels: the work of the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the alien elements for the movie. As seen here, the alien ship and the “Space Jockey” combine both biological and mechanical elements to the point where Dallas can’t tell where the pilot’s body ends and the ship begins. Later scenes will show the titular alien, the “Xenomorph, “as it has been dubbed by fandom, which combines those elements with both male and female sexual features.
Another important element of this scene is Scott’s judicious use of the film score, sound, and silence. A number of other horror classics, such as Jaws and The Omen rely heavily and effectively on music to set the tone, increase suspense and underscore the dramatic payoff. Scott does use music in Alien for these purposes, but in a minimalistic way. He often uses silence in its place, as in the end of this scene, to emphasize the tagline of the movie: “In space, no one one can hear you scream.”
Which may just be the best movie tag-line ever.
Before the next great scene, Dallas and Lambert bring a comatose Kane back to the ship. Ripley bars their entrance, citing quarantine rules, but Ash lets them in. They discover that the alien has burnt it ways through Kane’s faceplate and has wrapped finger-like appendages around his head and a tail around his neck. It also thrust another appendage down Kane’s throat. Ash attempts to remove the “face-hugger,” but it strangles Kane and, when cut, bleeds acid that burns through the ship’s floor.
Later, Dallas, Ripley and Ash find that the face-hugger has fallen off of Kane’s face and is dead. By that time, Brett and Parker have finished their repair of the ship. The crew launches off the planet and reunites with the refinery back into orbit. The crew prepares to re-enter sleep stasis and resume their ten month long journey back to Earth.
The next great scene starts with Kane waking up. He seems no worse for wear and is hungry. Very hungry. The crew gathers to have one more meal before their “bedtime.” They smile and they chat. Kane scoops more and more food until he starts coughing and seizing up. The crew lay him on his back on the table and try to get a utensil between his clenched teeth. Suddenly, blood bursts from his chest and through his t-shirt. Seconds later, a small alien bursts from Kane’s chest along with a larger spray of blood that covers a screaming Lambert. The alien looks around at the crew and, before anyone can do anything, it scurries out of the room.
Out of all of the scenes from Alien, this one is probably the most famous. In fact, it has been ranked in several polls as one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. One of the things that makes this scene work is the normalness of the characters and their interaction before the alien “birth.” They are “regular” people, not wizard knights, military personnel or federation explorers, which have been the protagonists in other space/sci-fi movies. They’re doing a job and they’re relieved that their trip is resuming so that they can get home and get paid. One smokes and another makes a crude sexual comment. Mostly, they chat over each other, smiling, relieved and happy.
Suddenly, that happiness is gone. They watch in shock and horror at the spray of blood and the very phallic alien with metal teeth that bursts from Kane’s chest. The surprise was not completely faked. While the actors knew that the alien would burst from a prosthetic chest, Scott had not informed them about the blood spray. As a result, Veronica Cartwright’s shock and hysterics were genuine as she found herself covered in (fake) blood.
Another factor that makes this scene work is, again, the use of sound. Scott doesn’t use any music in this scene to suggest what is to come or to heighten the horror when it arrives. Instead, we hear the chatter of the crew that becomes shreaks and screams. Underneath those sounds is the repetitive noise of the ship that sounds like a heartbeat. In fact, it sounds like a heartbeat from inside the body.
Or perhaps, the ultrasound heartbeat of an in utero infant, which, it could be said, is exactly what the facehugger was before its “birth.”
The next great scene (in this article, not the movie itself) is the climax of the movie. By this time, only Ripley and Jones the cat are alive. The alien has rapidly grown larger than a human and killed all of the other crewmembers (except for Ash). Twice the alien has done so by opening its jaws and puncturing its victim’s head using a second set of jaws.
The one crewmember that the alien did not kill is Ash, whom the crew finds out is an android. Ash has been working against the crew all along. The Company knew about the alien organism before the trip departed. It included Ash in the crew to retrieve the alien organism and bring it back to Earth at all costs. When Ash attempts to kill Ripley to protect his secret, Parker decapitates and incinerates Ash.
Parker and Lambert are killed by the alien as they prepare, with Ripley, to start the Nostromo’s self-destruct sequence and escape on the small shuttle (which could not be used earlier due to its small capacity). After the self-destruct is inititated, Ripley enters the shuttle with Jones after a quick look around the shuttle shows that it’s empty. Ripley disengages the shuttle from the ship and flies away as the Nostromo explodes in 1970’s brand special effects.
Ripley prepares to enter into the stasis pod for the trip back to Earth. She undresses and starts doing the necessary technical steps. She is near a set of horizontal pipes when the alien’s hand shoots out. One of the “pipes” she approached was actually the top of the alien’s head. A terrified Ripley locks herself in a locker and puts on a spacesuit. She equips a harpoon gun and emerges from the locker. The alien is moving slowly (perhaps it too was ready for a hibernation). Ripley straps into a seat, singing “you are my lucky star” and then:
Apparently, this ending was included late in the screenwriting process. Before its inclusion, Scott had planned to kill the alien in the self-destructing ship. However, this end is all the more satisfying as it has Ripley going mano-a-mano with the alien instead of killing it from a distance.
It’s the ending that highlights the other popular and enduring aspect of the film: Ellen Ripley. Any discussion of tough female movie characters usually starts with Ripley (followed by Sarah Connors from Terminator). She’s not the action star that she is in Aliens, which is fine because Aliens is an action movie. Alien is a horror movie.
Yet, Ripley doesn’t fit into the standard “surviving girl” horror cliche either. Throughout the movie, she is smart, professional and tough. She doesn’t take shit from Parker and Brett. She’s the one who tried to quarantine Kane, which would have stopped the alien from ever getting on the ship. She clearly is terrified, yet, it doesn’t stop her from acting as bait to attract the alien into the best place for it to be sucked out into space.
As these three scenes show, Alien is one of the best horror movies of all time largely through its innovation. Its melding of genres, its use of music, sound and silence, the Giger designs and its themes made it a unique, yet still familiar tale. It also gave us a horror villain that, to this day, after numerous sequels, is absolutely terrifying.