The title forms ever so slowly on the screen, each letter taking its time to be revealed. Right from the start, director Ridley Scott cues us in to what Alien will be: a distinctly deliberate exercise in terror.
This is a creature flick, yes, but Alien is also on par with a genre masterpiece such as Jaws. The craftsmanship is that sound, the inventiveness that clever, the characterization that strong. And then there is the not-small matter of Alien being a seminal feminist action flick.
The movie opens with the seven crew members of the towing spaceship Nostromo being awakened from deep sleep to respond to an SOS call on a distant planet. They investigate and barely escape with their lives, although one of them (John Hurt) does have the unfortunate experience of a stingray-like creature attaching itself to his face.
How this plays out I’ll leave you to discover, for the aliens envisioned by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and designed by artist H.R. Giger are diabolically cunning (and seemingly inspired by the more tortured paintings of Hieronymus Bosch). Suffice it to say their methods allow for slowly building dread as the movie works its way to a more routine haunted-house climax. Even then, though, Alien has already built up enough emotional and intellectual investment to carry you through to its final boo!
Bearing much of the emotional load is the cast of carefully drawn characters, from Tom Skerritt’s ship captain to Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton’s grumbling grunts to Ian Holm’s inscrutable science officer. Then, of course, there is Sigourney Weaver, not throwing her womanhood around but rather carrying herself as if a strong female figure in this time and place was simply a matter of fact.
That’s not to say Alien isn’t aware of her significance. After all, the concept of motherhood is one of the movie’s recurring themes, from the gestating nature of the creatures to the fact that the ship’s artificial-intelligence program is referred to as Mother. And so it’s inevitably left to Weaver’s Ripley – the one left on the ship capable of sustaining life – to deliver the death blow in what has become a terrifying trial of Darwinian survival.