For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MY DISCUSSION OF THESE FILMS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
TL;DR: No animals were harmed in the making of this movie.
I usually see Alien described as a sci-fi movie, or a sci-fi/horror movie (horror second), but the science fiction here is mostly incidental. Yeah, it takes place in space, and the antagonist is a parasitic extraterrestrial creature, but this is a horror movie through and through – from the sexual undertones to the creeping music to the dark, humid atmosphere.
Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and his crew of cargo haulers are ordered by their ship’s onboard computer (the ominously named MOTHER) to investigate a possible distress signal on a fog-shrouded planet. They pick up a parasitic alien, the famous facehugger, that impregnates one of the male crew members and sets in motion the slow, mostly offscreen slaughter of the crew. Through it all, the voice of reason and skepticism is Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), whose protest when the crew violate quarantine marks her, per horror tropes, as either the first to die or the last to survive.
One of Alien‘s strengths is that the script treats the characters as normal people, not action heroes or expository scientists – but the camera work is what really draws us in. For the first minute or so, we explore the ship, its empty chairs and helmets, its silent but watchful computers. The crew is in stasis, and it’s just us, peering through the lens, developing a strange intimacy. Whose eyes are we seeing through? Is the alien already aboard the ship? Later, as the crew searches the sick bay for any sign of the missing facehugger, the camera sits close to the floor, below the level of the treatment table, peering at Ripley across the room. We’re not part of this crew, after all; we are, like the alien, watching from a close but unnoticeable place.
But when Ripley (and the ship’s cat) is the only one left, that camera has a different effect. We run ahead of Ripley along the corridor and look back to see if she makes it. We hide with her when she realizes the alien has boarded her shuttle. I’ve never been fond of horror movies, in part because their characters are interchangeable and dispensable, but I was fond of Ripley. I even told her to leave the cat behind so she could survive (I know, for shame). Because by the end of the film, we’ve abandoned our lust for suspense, our outsider’s perspective, and we want to see this person we’ve spent so long with survive. We identify with Ripley because we’ve been frightened by the alien too, and we don’t want to be left alone with it in a dark room. And when the camera crouches in the corner and looks up at her, it’s not with menace but with awe.