“In space no one can hear you scream.”
Transcending genre and cinematic form, this iconic tagline for Ridley Scott’s Alien echoes around the cultural zeitgeist as an ominous reminder of the enigmatic nature of outer space, even 42 years after the release of the original film. Spawning sequels, spin-offs and video games that continue to terrify sci-fi lovers to this day, Scott’s original film would come to define a whole new form of the genre, one that focused on the slimy otherworldly horrors of the cosmos rather than its bombastic fantasy joys.
Emphasising horror over fantasy, Ridley Scott described his film as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction”, mimicking the latter’s cat-and-mouse nature, as well as its relentless focus on filthy, gritty realism. The difference, of course, is that in traditional horror a certain set of rules are abided by. The villain is bound to human limitations, with intervention from a heroic saviour always possible. Remove those limitations and reduce the chances of a prosperous helping hand and you’re left with a hopeless situation, overshadowed by a looming inevitability of death.
Lurking in the dark, murky corners of the ship, in the pipelines and beneath the floors, the alien ‘Xenomorph’ has the potential to be anywhere, suffocating the crew on-board the ‘Nostromo’. After discovering a distress transmission from an alien craft, the crew led by the dynamic force of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) board the barren spaceship and bring back onboard a deadly parasite, initially taking the form of a small critter before evolving into something far more monstrous. Though, as it prowls the industrious deck of the ship it’s never quite clear what we’re looking for, or even looking at. Keeping most of the Xenomorph’s body in mysterious shadow Scott creates a heightened sense of terror, asking the audience to sculpt their own image of the titular alien. As the director later stated: “The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”
The slow, graceful pirouettes of the alien allow it to take on an ethereal presence exaggerated by its strange, oily design conjured by the mind of the great H.R. Giger. Initially believed by 20th Century Fox to be ‘too ghastly’ for audiences, Giger’s designs for the alien spaceship and the monster itself are the sole reason for the film’s long-lasting legacy. Where previously alien beings had been overly exaggerated, or simply humanoid, Giger’s fleshy phallic imagery well contextualised the Xenomorph in recognisable human biology. From the alien’s first phallic form when it bursts out of John Hurt’s android chest, to the walls of the extraterrestrial spacecraft which were sculpted using dried bones and plaster, Giger’s vision of otherworldly life is a nightmarish malfunction of our own.
Penetrating the fears of the subconscious, the Xenomorph’s appearance and the initial form of the creature (called ‘facehuggers’) speak to an innate primal fear of inner bodily function and also to a misunderstanding of childbirth. It contributes to the, then growing, genre conversation of ‘body horror’ that flourished in the 1980s, joining the work of David Cronenberg in his gruesome discourse of inner turmoil and existential crisis. As American film critic David Edelstein wrote: “Giger’s designs covered all possible avenues of anxiety. Men travelled through vulva-like openings, got forcibly impregnated, and died giving birth to rampaging gooey vaginas dentate…This was truly what David Cronenberg would call ‘the new flesh”.
Just like Cronenberg’s Videodrome suggests a synergy of man and machine, and The Thing brings together man and monster, Ridley Scott’s Alien synthesises the boundaries between man, machine and extraterrestrial life. The sheer bones and near-metallic structure of the Xenomorph suggest a horrific industrial birth, whilst its graceful existence and “psychosexual invasiveness” as put by Edelstein, alludes to something far more natural.
The greatest strength of Ridley Scott’s influential sci-fi classic is that it remains abundantly mysterious what the Xenomorph is, or where it came from. There’s no time for an elaborate redundant back story, just run.