Films for the Gent: Alien

This is a guest post from Ian Birke. 

Alien (1979) is an unparalleled film that stands as one of the pinnacles of the science fiction horror genre. 

In deep space, the crew of the commercial starship Nostromo is awakened from their cryo-sleep capsules halfway through their journey home to investigate a distress call from an alien vessel. 

The terror begins when the crew encounters a nest of eggs inside the alien ship. A deadly alien manages to find its way aboard their ship which puts them all in mortal danger. 

Although the plot sounds standard for your average science fiction b-movie monster flick, it’s in the execution of its ideas where Alien soars. 

Space Truckers

The crew aboard the ship aren’t like Captain Kirk and Spock in a shiny idealized future. The Nostromo crew are the overworked, underpaid cogs in an uncaring corporate machine. 

Early in the film, ship engineers Parker and Brett complain to their superiors about “the bonus situation”; they want money more comparable to their higher-paid colleagues. 

Whilst the bonus situation seems like a trivial snippet of conflict, this tension of “the little guy vs the man” is woven deeply into the film’s meaning. 

By the time of the film’s release women were settling into the workforce off the back of the “female empowerment” movement. Similarly, the black community in America and the West, in general, were living in the wake of America’s striving for racial equality. 

In Alien these two political movements are enmeshed into the central conflict of the film. Male or female, black or white, the lowly ship engineer or the ship captain, they’re all equally stuck in the same nightmarish fight for their lives. 

In Star Trek, if you’re not an “important” member of the crew, then you’re just a red-shirt-wearing extra waiting to be killed off. This is far from the case with Alien. Every member of the crew regardless of position is well written enough to be the film’s protagonist. It’s because the film takes each character as seriously as it does that its overall theme isn’t undermined. 

Man Versus the Inhumane

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. [..] A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

This quote from the film refers to the titular alien. It is telling how well this quote also describes corporate enterprise in general. 

Corporations exist today off the back of the Industrial Revolution. Through machines, society achieved abundance in food supply and manufacturing capabilities. Despite this abundance, many in society still do not feel “free” from their 9-to-5 jobs.

Alien depicts a bleak future where this is still the case. But it also goes one step further by depicting the ruthlessness of the ultimate human terror: the “perfect organism,” the living machine monster. 

What makes the alien the perfect organism is how it is the evil combination of a living organism and machine (conveyed well by the fantastic costuming and the nightmarish biomechanical designs of artist HR Giger).

Fighting Despair

Whether it be the underlying, but ever-present, corporate menace the Nostromo crew are contractually obligated to work for, the crew’s internal conflict, or the looming threat of the malicious alien entity roaming the ship, the crew have every reason to despair at their situation. 

It’s precisely because each crew member is written and acted superbly and their struggle against the corporate menace and the alien becomes profound. On the other hand, if the titular alien threat in the film was something akin to “The Blob,” and not the menacing biomechanical horror it is, then the evil it represents as a counterbalance to the relatable human crew would also fall flat. 

The Nostromo crew embodies, to varying degrees of success, the attempted triumph of the human spirit against evil: corporate, alien, and machine. 

It’s the crew fighting their own growing despair in the face of seemingly impossible odds that speaks to modern sensibilities. Modern horrors. In a way that gets into our subconscious and under our skin. Off the back of this little b-horror movie, an entire mythos of terror in the dark unknown regions of outer space has grown. Because in space no one can hear you scream. 

Does the ’70s blockbuster still make you jump in your seat? Or has it lost its scare in recent years?

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