I have seen Alien twice, in its initial theatrical release, and recently on home video. The 36 year gap is not incidental, because it took me that long to summon the courage to watch it again, despite having the DVD on hand for several years. Inevitably, it was not quite as frightening the second time around, if for no other reason than I knew what to expect and when to expect it. But it still makes my hair stand on end.
In the slightly more detached circumstances of home video viewing, it’s clear that aside from the sheer loathsomeness of the creature designed by H.R. Giger, Alien succeeds almost entirely because of the atmosphere created by Ridley Scott, his technicians and the actors. As with all of Scott’s earlier work, the images are uncomfortably tactile, enveloping and occasionally stomach churning. Whether it’s the long, dark hallways of the Nostromo or the cavernous skeletal remains of the space ship discovered by the crew, or the viscous, revolting hydraulic fluid-cum-blood of Ash the robot, it is attention to the physical world of the movie that makes the alien come to life in our imaginations. (For example, look at how acting and effects work together when Sigourney Weaver jumps as the fleshy remains of the creature fall on her out of the ceiling. You’d swear you feel it yourself.)
Because the physical feel has been so ably created, it is easy to overlook the dated technology that is the curse of science fiction, not least because the characters’ interaction with the green cursor and black screen computers seems entirely believable. You couldn’t care less that the phone in your pocket is more powerful than “Mother,” the Nostromo’s on-board computer. You are too wound up in the crew’s peril to quibble about superficial details.
Of course, that suspense results from Alien being as much a horror film as sci-fi, and it is very much of the era that produced Halloween or Friday the 13th. As a result, the violence, when it comes, is vicious, but thanks to the tactility that Scott and his technicians have provided, you don’t just see people being maimed. In fact, you see very little. You feel it in your gut, lending the violence a level of visceral excitement that at times is almost unbearable.
The story is nonetheless threadbare and the characters little better than stick figures waiting to be munched. That we care at all about the fate of the crew of the Nostromo results from a basic identification with anyone in peril and the considerable abilities of the actors to give flesh (there’s no other way to put it) to barely written clichés. For all Alien’s imaginative realization, the story is ultimately no more accomplished than the low budget competition so popular at the time. It represents superb execution in the service of hyper-vivid, phantasmagorical pulp. Which doesn’t make the results one jot less frightening.