The most audacious movie in all of science fiction is easily this Ridley Scott classic.
If you were to draw up a list of the most common elements of science fiction, space aliens are certainly in the top five, right there with spaceships, time travel, and robots. Could you get away with having a movie that combines all these elements? Sure. But would it achieve the status of being called a classic? Doubtful. There’s no time travel in Alien, but it's got everything else and somehow gets away with a title that makes all other sci-fi aliens seem second-best.
The brilliance of this 1979 movie is how it uses some of the schlockiest B-movie sci-fi cliches and shoves those ideas into an unbeatable aesthetic. We love this movie because of the way it looks, but if you’ve never seen it, you might be unaware of its biggest coup: The promotion of the film was almost totally devoid of spoilers, specifically, that titular alien.
Even over 40 years later, there is still something surprising about Alien, now streaming on Amazon Prime. Here’s why this sci-fi horror classic is still brilliant.
If you know anything about the eponymous Xenomorph in Alien, then you might be surprised that in the trailer, you don’t see hide nor tail, nor the double-jawed creepy mouth of that critter.
The appearance of the creature was the one spoiler director Ridley Scott did not want to reveal to the public. Scott and his collaborators went to great lengths to keep the beast a secret. Even people working on promoting the movie weren’t told details about what the alien looked like or exactly how it reproduced and screwed everyone over.
Two years after ghostwriting the novelization for Star Wars, author Alan Dean Foster was asked to write the novelization to Alien but with a catch. He couldn’t describe the Xenomorph at all and wasn’t told exactly what it did. On top of that, when the science fiction magazine of record — Starlog — did a set visit, journalist Bob Martin was also kept in the dark on the details of what the movie was actually about.
With a few rare exceptions, it's hard to imagine this kind of thing happening now. Alien kept its cards so close to its space vest that it’s not apparent who the main character is until about halfway through the movie. When Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley emerges as the de facto protagonist of the film, that simple narrative switch is, in itself, an amazing twist.
If you’ve never seen the movie, her journey is great because she’s simply the person who is telling all the men she’s working with to maybe not bring dangerous things onto the spaceship. If everybody had listened to Ripley, things would have been fine, but then, of course, there would have been no movie.
Like many great horror movies, Alien’s plot happens because certain people make bad decisions. Some of this structure was borrowed from the 1958 sci-fi movie IT! The Terror From Beyond Space, in which a spacecraft on Mars gets an unwanted stowaway that starts to pick the crew off one by one. But, the success of Alien doesn’t have anything to do with it being a slasher-horror movie in space.
The reason the movie was such a revelation is because it made its world seem so real. While much has been said about the lived-in feeling of 1977’s Star Wars production design, what Alien did was on a totally different level. The crew members of the Nostromo are not space explorers or freedom fighters. They’re people hauling precious ore across space. These people are simply doing a job to get paid, and their ship and equipment reflect that.
There’s nothing glamorous about the future world of Alien, which is part of why it pulls you in so well. The ship and crew feel authentic. Unlike the actions of some characters in the Alien prequel Prometheus, the amateur status of Ripley, Dallas, and the crew comes across as plausible. In 2017, the creators of The Expanse, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, cited Alien as the gold standard for realistic near-future sci-fi in space.
It took guts for Alien to subsume an entire subgenre of science fiction but because the film is both so bold and deft simultaneously, it earns its audacity several times over. In 1979, the tagline of the film was “In space, no one can hear your scream.” But the truth is, in 2021, we’re still screaming for a sci-fi horror movie this perfect.