Why does something matter? What context surrounds it that makes it something to look more closely at? Here at Nerds, I recently pitched an idea to the lovely Powers That Be that would allow me to explore different influential pieces from SFF and horror. I wanted to look at specific episodes of shows, short stories, novels, movies, that have had some lasting effect whether it be to the genre, to pop culture, to different critical theories/lenses, to fandoms, and so on, to try to get at Why THIS Matters. A note on these posts: because I’ll be analyzing them from a variety of angles and contexts, there will most likely be spoilers within for the pieces that I am talking about. If you haven’t seen/read them and wish to, avoid the post and come back later.
For this inaugural Why This Matters, I’ll be looking at the film Alien. Why Alien for the first post, you may ask? Well, for one, it was one of the main reasons I wanted to do this series of posts in the first place. For two, it’s a damn good film. And for three, why not celebrate something with a strong female lead?
Alien, which came out in 1979, was written by Dan O’Bannon and directed by Ridley Scott. Which, let’s pause for a second for a WTF moment (What the Filmmaker?!) to consider that Ridley Scott’s first three films were: The Duellists, Alien, and Bladerunner. He made three perfect films in a row. Let’s all applaud Scott for a second, and forget about certain later films. Okay, moving on, the plot of the film is probably familiar to almost anyone—even if they haven’t seen it (now would be a goodtime for me to shame a friend of mine—who claims to like sci-fi—publicly, but I’m not going to, because I’m above that). The Nostromo is a commercial spaceship that goes to a planet, investigating a mysterious signal, and ends up bringing back something very unwanted on to their ship. (There’s probably a direct correlation between the number of times I watched Alien/Aliens as a child and my phobia of parasites now, but I won’t linger on that.) The film then becomes basically a sci-fi version of And Then There Were None, as the crew members are picked off one-by-one. I once read, which has to be something apocryphal, that the film was pitched as: “Jaws in a haunted house in space.” And even if this is bogus, it actually serves as a pretty damn fine pitch because who wouldn’t want to watch that?
So why is it important? What makes this film such an enduring classic? There are many angles to take to answer this. From the critical perspective of Monster Theory, the xenomorph in Alien is the ultimate depiction of “fear of the unknown.” It has extremely limited screen time and is mostly seen as something barely glimpsed, a blip on the screen that moves too fast. (This is something many contemporary horror films would do well to consider: often the scariest monster is the one the audience has in their head leading up to the reveal, not the one they actually see on the screen. Knowing impedes dread.) From the perspective of its place in SFF and film as a whole, it’s important for what it inspired. So many sci-fi books and films can make a direct link back to Alien—whether in their filming, their pacing, or their depiction of otherworldly horror. From the perspective of design alone, there are so many things to point to in how Cobb, Foss, and particularly Giger influenced our collective vision of space, spaceships, and alien lifeforms.
However, I’d like to make a different, more personal, argument for the importance of Alien. For me, one of the aspects of the film with the most impact lies in its protagonist—Ellen Ripley (portrayed magnificently by Sigourney Weaver). The expectation of filmgoers, particularly at this time, was that the hero of the film would be the ship’s captain, Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt). However, it is Ripley—the only voice of reason, as she tries to insist on protocol—who becomes our hero. And what an interesting hero. Yes, she is tough, but she also shows fear—as anyone in this situation would—and survives not because she kicks alien ass, but rather because she thinks through the situation at hand (other than perhaps in her saving of Jones—but who wouldn’t save that adorable cat?). She follows protocol, uses rational thought to solve the problems at hand, and ultimately is the only survivor because she used her brain rather than force. I mentioned earlier that Alien (and its sequel Aliens) were two of the movies I watched most growing up. Looking back, I can’t think of a better protagonist, to have wanted to emulate. Ripley isn’t a “strong female character” (and doesn’t fall into the traps that that particular trope so often falls into) she’s just a strong character period.