Some movies deserve to be seen on pure artistic merit. Some deserve to be seen because they’re just too much fun to ignore. And some deserve to be seen because they are so influential that they have become a touchpoint of cultural literacy. Ripley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien is all three. Some 40 years later, it remains one of the best science-fiction horror movies ever made. It remains one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences available to modern audiences, especially when seen on the big screen. And it is the Rosetta Stone for virtually every single survival horror movie ever made afterwards. 300 years from now, when actual space truckers are dealing with actual xenomorphs in their ships, they’ll still have a copy of this flick in the ship’s library, and at least half the crew will consider it one of their all-time faves, even if it’s a little close to the bone in parts.
The story is set a few hundred years into the future, and a commercial cargo tug, the Nostromo, is returning to Earth with a huge mining payload in tow. Its crew—captain Dallas, XO Kane, warrant officer Ripley, science officer Ash, navigator Lambert and engineers Parker and Brett—are all awakened from suspended animation when the ship’s computer, Mother, detects what might be an alien transmission from a nearby planetoid. Company rules state that all unidentified transmissions must be investigated, and so the crew sets down on this mysterious world, whereupon they discover the remains of an alien derelict ship and a cargo hold full of mysterious xenomorph eggs. One hatches and projects its contents onto Kane’s face, prompting an emergency return to the Nostromo in an effort to save Kane and figure out what the hell is going on here. Very soon, the entire crew realizes just how much trouble they are in as they learn that the only thing scarier than being trapped in a cage with a monster that wants to kill you is knowing that somebody out there is kind of rooting for the monster to win.
That’s a fairly threadbare overview of Alien, but to tell any more spoils the fun of the movie’s many reveals. Even though this is a cornerstone of modern horror and science fiction, it’s also deep enough in our cultural background for an entire generation of cinephiles to appreciate the movies inspired by Alien without having seen Alien itself. For those who have yet to discover this perfectly formed jewel of a nightmare, you’re in for a show.
The central quality of this story is its bleak outlook. Humanity’s greatest adventure has been turned into yet another bleak commercial gig where the folks traveling between the stars appear to be those who couldn’t find a job back home. Space is nothing exotic or romantic. It’s sleeping on the Man’s ship, eating terrible food and working for years on a meager profit share that probably pays off just well enough to force you to ship right back out again. Tomorrow’s astronauts are the blue collars of the future, too disempowered, indebted or stupid to know that the only reason why the Company sends them out there is because it doesn’t really care if any of them come back. Galactic utopianism and space opera are cast aside for a setting uncomfortably close to our own, which makes the struggles of the Nostromo’s crew that much more heartbreaking and nail-biting to watch. In a few hundred years, any one of us could be on that ship. And every one of us wouldn’t make it off.
The Nostromo’s crew doesn’t find itself in jeopardy because it makes stupid decisions or walks into classic horror tropes. They were sent into an impossible situation by a heartless bureaucracy with equal investment in their survival or death. As Dallas has a heartbreaking conversation with Mother, and as Ripley and Parker interrogate a traitor within the crew, they realize with ever-widening horror that venturing into space subjects you to the unknown horrors of the cosmos as well as the predictable horrors of human depravity. Which is worse? It’s a tough call. At least the xenomorph is utterly honest in its intentions, and no matter what the circumstances are, a little honesty always goes a long way.
Alien’s most iconic scene comes early on, shortly after Kane finally gets his alien hitchhiker off his face, wakes up, and joins his colleagues for some chow. What happens next is one of the most infamous moments in horror cinema, thanks in part to Ridley Scott’s decision to keep his actors in the dark when they shot it. Thus, when we see the horror on their faces, that’s real. In cinematic terms, the results are pure gold; a faithfully captured moment of primal terror by people who suddenly have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into. Life and art cross paths just then, playing nicely into Alien’s larger narrative…as does Ridley Scott’s decision to treat his crew’s well-being as an expendable asset. The horror that the Company exists works because Scott proves it himself in the making of his masterpiece.
But backstage reality aside, the dinner scene works so well because of his it brutally introduces the stakes of an unwindable game to players who realize too late that they have wagered their lives. This gives rise to a terrifically understated moment of truth shortly afterward, when a shaken Dallas decides to ask Mother what his chances of survival are. He knows he won’t like the answer, but he must ask anyway. Anybody would. That’s what human beings do, and that’s what horror is: to confront something so awful that we can no longer delude ourselves with fantasies of immortality. Nobody ever really makes it off the ship alive. But like the Nostromo’s crew, we’ll give it a hell of a run because we don’t know any other way.