My antipathy to science fiction – that genre in which technology well beyond the contemporary is the worshiped, unfathomable, omnipotent otherness that some of us still call spirituality – is well-known and the consequences dire. Should we all be simply multicellular specimens evolved from some cosmic catastrophe, then there is little moral fortitude to propel us through the universe; ideally, we should just eliminate anything and anyone that stands in our way. Superior beings should destroy lesser beings so that, over time, only the fittest survive (you may have heard this argument before). My antipathy is well-placed, and yet a few works persist that bypass this mediocre structure to develop along more profound lines. We may have suspended our belief in some abstract Greatness, but we have retained our fears and our trembling. Which brings us to the foreboding evil in this classic film.
Our vessel, and one of two stages of action, is a spaceship in the distant future named after this novel's title character, and the opening scene is a survey of the purely mechanical as if human life has ceased to exist. Instead of beholding a countryside or beach with all the natural trimmings, everything on the Nostromo has been crafted by human hands. It takes a few minutes before we are shown such hands, attached to seven capsuled sleeping bodies although we only see one completely, that of Kane (John Hurt). The scene resembles a resurrection or a birth, with Hurt's soft skin, almost diaper-like underwear, and dazed and blissful look as he wakes suggesting both naïveté and nativity. The crew assembles around the breakfast table, or whatever they call a meal in the middle of space, and the first thing they talk about is death (as in what Hurt supposedly looks like) and bonuses. The discussants include two women, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), an African-American, Parker (Yaphet Kotto), two natives of the British Isles, Kane and Ash (Ian Holm), and two accurate reflections of the moon missions, white male Americans, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and the laconic Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). Although the chief engineer, Parker stoops to his cultural stereotype and is only allowed to wisecrack and buck the system with throwaway lines such as, "coffee is the only good thing on this ship." The others make the small talk necessary to introduce them to us, as they fit more or less the necessary vitamin balance for an energetic thriller to function. Dallas is the gutsy, macho captain; Ash the overlearned scientist; Brett the straight man for Parker's humor; and Ripley and Lambert represent, respectively, the sexy no-nonsense tomboy and the mildly androgynous, non-descript female buddy. Kane, on the other hand, a bluff chain-smoking Englishman, fits no category yet will become the epicenter of the film's first half. And he owes his primacy in no small part to a radio signal from an otherwise vacuous nearby planet.
As always, the matter is subjected to a few questions. Is it an SOS or a warning? Do we really have to do anything about it? When did we say we'd be home again? Parker comments that the Nostromo "is a commercial not a rescue ship," and we understand that however original science fiction thinks it is, its plots inevitably depict nothing new under this or any other sun – in this case that of the shipwrecked sailor (interestingly, it is an alleged contract stipulation that could threaten their bonuses that is the convincing factor to investigate the "signal of unknown origin"; truer pirates could not have been devised). In a scene much copied in the last three decades, they descend in their shuttle bearing the name of another Conrad novel to the misty and lonely planet. Lambert, Dallas, and Kane are dispatched to prowl about, with the rest staying aboard and watching through the monitors. What is remarkable is how long it takes them just to walk up to the curious horseshoe structure in the distance. Eventually they penetrate the mist and the fortifications it cloaks and come across an alien corpse past their knowledge and dreams. Kane forges alone down a cavernous shaft, finds what appear to be eggs, incurs a rather violent attack, and is immediately returned to the shuttle after another debate regarding quarantines. Our next and terrifying view is of Kane lying on a medical table with a beast resembling a small octopus masking his face. The creature's blood is akin to molecular acid; it seems to be sustaining him with oxygen while inducing a coma; and it doesn't have any intention of letting go. The positioning is similar to our first glimpse of human life; but now at precisely the halfway point we witness one of the most famous movie deaths of all time, which I won't spoil even if it is so splendidly celebrated. Ash orders everyone to back off the creature, who scampers into the shadows, and the second half of the film begins – a violent, nasty, and agoraphobic foil to the first.
The premise may sound very familiar, but at the time there were few comparable blends of horror and science fiction, and almost none that devoted a whole hour to study the characters it would eventually disembowel. The adventure on the moon ten years before had separated science fiction somewhat from the unreal and imbued films and tales of the beyond with greater credibility, yet here reigns an aura of silence and deadness that is really what we should imagine space as being. The explosions, monsters, and galactic airfights are not what awaits us; what awaits us are the endless shadow, the suffocation of airlessness, and perhaps something from our most awesome nightmares. Apart from the obvious similarities to the slasher genre, as well as this classic horror film, Alien may also be likened to this seminal novel with the exception that we know the identity of the perpetrator. Appropriately, the reactions of the crew members are fear, loathing, and panic. These are not soldiers and they possess neither the drive nor wherewithal to be brave. Another tidbit lost in today's wedding of sex and violence is the age of the crew members, with the youngest being about thirty and the oldest almost two decades more experienced, relieving us of the burden of having to imagine two buxom twenty-three-year-olds as nuclear scientists. Were the film to be remade today it would certainly become a CGI affair of astounding cost, which would, alas, forego the basic premise of the movie. As advanced as the Nostromo may seem, it is but a primitive trap for something as evolved as the Alien; nothing of human invention can stop it from pursuing its will. Even if it is nothing more than a cursed son of Kane.